Philadelphia’s Asian community has been on edge over the last few weeks after two recent attacks — one that left a Chinese American takeout restaurant owner dead, and the other in which a high school student was randomly punched while walking with his grandmother.
In May, Wei Lin, 28, the takeout owner, went to help a delivery driver who didn’t speak English after the driver got into a minor car accident. As they were waiting for police to arrive, a woman in the other vehicle called others to the scene, and authorities say a man punched Lin in the head, knocking him unconscious. Lin, a father of two young daughters, died three days later.
A suspect, Jose Figueroa, 30, of Hunting Park, was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter.
And last week, a 17-year-old Chinese American student was randomly punched by two teens in Mayfair. A female friend of the attackers then started laughing, the victim and his grandmother said.
Mingchu Pearl Huynh, president of the Northeast Philadelphia Chinese Association and a friend of the boy’s grandmother, said she’s afraid to walk in the city. “It can happen to any one of us,” she said. “... We are all scared.”
In both cases, community advocates say they believe the victims were targeted because they are of Asian descent. No racist words were said by the attackers, and authorities haven’t raised the prospect of ethnic intimidation charges in either case. But the attacks come at a time of rising violence against people of Asian descent.
During a news briefing Wednesday on violence in the city, Mayor Jim Kenney said: ”We recognize the trauma and fear inflicted on our Asian American and Pacific Islander community during these uncertain times. So let me be perfectly clear: There is no place for hate or violence in our city against our AAPI brothers and sisters or anyone else. Our administration takes these unspeakable acts very seriously. We are working with the police and leaders from the AAPI community to address concerns and create safer streets for all.”
According to Stop AAPI Hate, which has been tracking incidents of hate, violence, and harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, there have been more than 6,600 cases reported to the group from March of last year through March of this year. Stop AAPI Hate began tracking such incidents last year in response to what it called “the alarming escalation in xenophobia and bigotry resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Huynh, asked why she thinks people of Asian descent may be targeted, said: “I think in people’s mind, Asians are weak.”
John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, agreed. He said the assault on the 17-year-old boy is more clearly a racial incident. “The attackers could have attacked anyone on the street, but for some reason they sought out this particular family on the street and attacked them,” he said.
As for the punching of the takeout owner, Chin said the assailant might have “felt the bravado to physically intimidate him” because of stereotypes of Asian Americans, including that they are weak or might not report incidents to police.
Elijah Anderson, a Yale University sociology professor, who studies urban communities like Philadelphia, said he disagreed that Asians are targeted because they are perceived as weak.
“It’s complicated,” he said. Attacks on any group of people can come from another group who feel their “race is better than other people” or who “feel their own group is under threat,” he said.
Lin’s wife, who asked not to be identified by name because she feared for her safety, said Monday that she thinks her husband was punched because of his Asian face. “They think Asian people is weak,” she said at her husband’s Kensington takeout, which closed after the attack.
She showed pictures and videos of her husband playing with their daughters, now 19 months and 3 months old. Her husband, who immigrated to this country from China’s Fujian province then became an American citizen, often helped people, she said.
Police last week arrested Figueroa, of the 4000 block of North Sixth Street, in the fatal attack on Lin. He posted bail and has been released as he awaits a preliminary hearing.
His attorney, Geoffrey Seay, said Figueroa was called to the accident scene at L and Luzerne Streets by his mother or another woman who was in the other vehicle. He declined to comment on the case except to say, “This isn’t a hate crime.”
The takeout’s delivery driver, speaking in Mandarin Chinese on Wednesday, said through an interpreter that he, too, was injured. He said that after Lin was punched, the assailant and two other men in the other group pushed him to the ground. He said he was hit in the back, arm, chest, and eye.
On Monday, Huynh walked with Yue Xian Wu, the grandmother of the 17-year-old boy who was punched, to the scene of the teen’s attack. Wu, speaking in Mandarin Chinese, described how she and her grandson were walking about 7 p.m. Friday on Hawthorne Street near Friendship, next to Mayfair Elementary School, when two teens, about 17 or 18 years old, ran toward her grandson and punched him in the face, ear, and back.
A girl around the same age came over and started laughing, then left with the two assailants, Wu said.
“She feel like they treat us like a toy, like an entertainment ... and hit us for fun, for a game,” Huynh said of Wu, interpreting for her. “She feel like Asians don’t report to the police and don’t speak English,” making them an “easy target.”
Wu’s grandson, Yuheng Chen, suffered a bloody nose, bruises on his right ear, temporary dizziness, and various cuts. But he didn’t seek medical treatment. Speaking at the home he shares with his grandmother, he brushed off the incident, saying he didn’t want to bother people. Although he initially reported the attack, he expressed reluctance about following up with police about it. “I don’t want other people to feel I’m sad,” he said.
“This is not normal,” Huynh told Chen. “This is not right. That’s why I’m fighting. ... If we don’t stand up for ourselves, the police cannot help. They can only do so much. ... You’ll only be a victim if you continue to be like, ‘Oh, they hit me, that’s OK.’ If anyone hit me like that, I will yell. I will make the whole town know about it and I’d say, ‘Stop it.’”
Staff writer Chris Palmer contributed to this article.