openDemocracyUK: Analysis

Anti-East Asian racism rose under COVID – but it has a long, grim history

Growing up in south-east London, one of my earliest memories was being assaulted – hit in the jaw and with racist slurs – as I delivered newspapers

Isaac Muk
8 April 2021, 7.00am
An anti-racism rally held in New York in the wake of mass shootings in Atlanta, Georgia
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ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

The news last month of mass shootings in three massage parlours in Atlanta, Georgia, at least one of which was Korean owned, chilled me – and chilled East Asian people worldwide. Of the eight people who were killed in the shootings, six were women of East Asian descent.

Investigators have not yet confirmed whether they consider this shooting to be racially motivated. But the attack came amidst a rising tide of violence against people of an East Asian appearance in the West over the past year.

Between June and September last year, London’s Metropolitan Police reported twice as many hate crimes against East and South East Asian (ESEA) people than in the previous year.

Last year, the bloodied face of Singaporean student Jonathan Mok was splashed across the media after he was assaulted in central London by a 16-year-old shouting “we don’t want your coronavirus in our country” and accusing him of being “diseased”.

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More recently, at the end of February, Southampton university lecturer Peng Wang was violently assaulted by a group of men shouting racist slurs whilst he was out jogging. Wang said that he had seen violence increase since Donald Trump branded COVID-19 “the China Virus” and “Kung Flu”.

But Trump was not the only highly platformed politician to stoke the flames. Michael Gove, the incumbent Cabinet Office minister, claimed last March that China’s lack of clarity over “the scale, the nature, the infectiousness” of the disease was responsible for the UK’s failure to provide community testing.

Gove’s language may be considerably more nuanced than Trump’s. But such comments – alongside similar from former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and unnamed Downing Street sources who warned of a “reckoning” with China – do more than just heighten diplomatic tension with China, already rising over Britain’s banning of Chinese telecom company Huawei from its 5G networks and concerns over the Uyghur.

Their impact also trickles down onto the shoulders of people from China, and those of us who look like we might be.

The Wuhan origins of the coronavirus pandemic have been blended with growing fears over China’s economic might and its potential threat to Western democracy.

Yet for British East Asian people, racism is nothing new. Nor is the muddle of perceived health, cultural and economic threats.

London’s first Chinatown appeared in the dark and claustrophobic streets of Limehouse, catering for Chinese sea merchants at the turn of the 20th century. Writers such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Burke helped bestow upon it a reputation as a hotbed of vice, opium ‘dens’, gambling houses and prostitution. Dickens’ final book, ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, opens with the hero waking up in a docklands opium den, accompanied by a “Chinaman” and a woman who had “opium-smoked herself into a strange likeness of the Chinaman”. Burke, in his story ‘The Chink and the Child’, adds a layer of sexual depravity to the opium-smoking ‘Chinaman’ stereotype, with the ‘chink’ falling in love with a 12-year-old girl. Limehouse’s reputation even led to pleasure-seeking tourists visiting the area, although they soon discovered that there was little to be found. The novelist Arnold Bennett noted with disappointment after visiting, “On the whole a rather flat night... We saw no vice whatsoever”.

Countless times I’ve been told to 'go back where you come from', or told that we 'all look the same'

These ‘orientalised’ tropes of perversion and depravation linger to this day. In the hugely popular BBC drama ‘Killing Eve’, for example, a Chinese politician named Zhang is assassinated whilst participating in a kink role-play involving nurses, medical equipment and gas.

More often, nowadays, though, the Chinese man is presented in Western culture as a desexualised, hard-working nerd. And this illustrates the second, sometimes contradictory, sometimes overlapping, set of tropes used to stoke fear against people of Chinese origin.

In the aftermath of the First World War, with unemployment high and the British economy struggling, fears that migrants were occupying the jobs of white people led to violent race riots across the country. A Malay boarding house in Limehouse was razed, and Chinese houses were damaged in Liverpool, Cardiff, Glasgow and London.

London’s Limehouse Chinese population was deliberately cleared in the 1930s, and by the 1950s the majority had settled in Soho, often working to provide Chinese restaurants to a British population that had begun to develop a taste for Chinese cuisines as former soldiers returned from the Far East.

As a burgeoning tourist hotspot, Chinatown nonetheless evolved to highlight the exotic and ‘oriental’, full of images of dragons and gates in the style of the Qing Dynasty.

Looking Ahead: Assimilation, Acceptance, or Celebration?

East Asian people are now often presented as hard-working, submissive, ‘model migrants’ who assimilate into British society. But there remains a foreignness, a cultural dissonance between the country of dragons and England’s green and pleasant lands.

Violence has remained ever-present – the 2005 murder of Mi Gao Huang Chen in Wigan, Greater Manchester, by a group of teenagers being perhaps the most tragic example.

For ESEA people in the UK, racism has been a fact of life. Growing up in south-east London, one of my earliest memories was being assaulted by a group of six children while delivering newspapers – being hit in the jaw as well as by slurs such as “small eyes” and “chink”. Countless times I’ve been told to “go back where you come from”, or told that we “all look the same”.

The pandemic has brought these issues that were bubbling under, back to the surface. The fragility of the ‘model migrant’ idea has been made apparent, as the mistrust of ESEA people has manifested itself in violence and hatred.

For years I have struggled with my own cultural identity. With my father hailing from Malaysia and my mother from Singapore, I can’t quite claim to be Chinese. But when I say British I am usually met with raised eyebrows. The cumulative effect of every glance is to impress upon me that I will likely never be truly accepted in the country I was born in.

Acceptance is not what we should be fighting for. We should not be trying to ‘assimilate’. Being quiet, hardworking and ‘good’ migrants has never protected us from racism and violence. Perhaps now, facing a wave of hate, ESEA people can fight back. We should take pride in the rich cultural tapestry from which we are woven, and celebrate who we are.

Maybe then I can tell people where I am ‘from’.

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