6 Asian Women On Racism And The Impact Of The #StopESEAHate Campaign A Year On

·12-min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

‘I don’t want your coronavirus in my country!’ These are the spine-chilling words Jonathan Mok, a 23-year-old student from Singapore, heard as he was jumped and beaten up on Oxford Street, London in February 2020. British-Chinese filmmaker Lucy Sheen was on a bus to rehearsals last year when she suddenly heard a menacing whisper in her ear: ‘Why don’t you f**k off back to China and take your filth with you?’ Elsewhere in Ealing, Daryl Law was making his way home when he was shoved against a wall and told: ‘You don't belong here and you should go back to…’ before he was punched in the eye, left nearly blind with a partially torn retina.

These are only a few of the incidents that made it into the headlines since the Covid-19 pandemic began. The stories of countless East and Southeast Asians who have been subject to racially motivated attacks in the United Kingdom still remain largely unknown to the public. Instead, the media has reduced their different faces into a single profile, one defined by disease: between January and August 2020 33% of the images used in UK reports on Covid-19 are of Asian people. The pandemic was given an Asian face, distorted by the world’s prejudice and fear of a deadly virus and subsequently bruised and fractured by ignorance.

According to an ITV News report last year, attacks against East Asians and Southeast Asians had risen by nearly 50% in two years. Another study published in The Independent found that anti-Asian hate speech skyrocketed by 1,662% in 2020 in the UK. In response, influential public figures, such as Gemma Chan, Alexa Chung, Susie Lau and Prabal Gurung, joined hands to back their community and take a stand against anti-Asian hate by launching the #StopESEAHate campaign with GoFundMe in 2021.

Photo credit: d3sign - Getty Images
Photo credit: d3sign - Getty Images

A year later, we've tracked down six prominent Asian women in fashion, journalism, media and the arts to find out how anti-Asian hate has affected them over the last two years and where they think the conversation on diversity and inclusivity needs to head in their respective industries and beyond.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

The last two years have frankly been tough. On top of being in lockdown with two young children and struggling with the travails of home-schooling, I was worried when I heard people calling Covid-19 the ‘China Virus’. I remember buying bread in a store when someone said something derogatory to me. The rage I felt! I asked my parents, who are elderly and Chinese and, therefore, the most easily victimised group, to disguise their ‘Asian-ness’, which is so sad.

My parents are immigrants, and we spoke only Chinese at home. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, when there was less awareness, less diversity, and fewer 'hard' conversations about identity, ignorant kids bullied me. Even today, I can recall the bullies' exact words. They still sting. My children are growing up, for the most part, in a different time where there's heightened awareness of the differences that exist in society and how they can be superpowers. I decided to write my new book I Am Golden because I couldn’t find many books that reflected who I was as a child and voiced the reassurance I needed back then. I wrote the book to help children feel the joy of being uniquely themselves. I wrote the book I wish I'd had growing up.

To me, diversity and sustainability have been at the forefront of Instagram. Emerging designers have grown huge fanbases, creators have become fashion designers, and communities have rallied around supporting small businesses. I’m excited to see what will happen next. There's been a shift in the fashion industry which has involved a better focus on diversity and more pressure on mainstream designers to make clothes more inclusive, but there is still a long way to go. I encourage people to speak up — use your platform for good. And to the next generation of the Asian community: do not feel constrained by stereotypes or expectations. Be loud — and proud of who you are.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

Over the past two years, I've felt upset and unsettled in the face of increasing anti-Asian hate incidents. Since the #StopAsianHate movement has come to light, there's been some more coverage and awareness of the rise in hate crimes targeting the Asian community in the UK, but much more still needs to be done.

Heritage and identity are interrelated with a writer's voice, and I have found that internal and external pressures are often placed on non-White writers to represent their ethnicity or culture as a whole and/or explain its modes of otherness. I'm still finding my voice and how it relates to my perspective as an immigrant in the UK. I’m proud of my Singaporean identity and fascinated by what being Singaporean means - coming from a multi-ethnic, multilingual country which is perceived somewhat flatly internationally as some kind of slick neoliberal hub of commerce.

Photo credit: Eri Miura - Getty Images
Photo credit: Eri Miura - Getty Images

As a bridge between the reader and the writer, stories are empathy-making catalysts of thoughts and feelings and have great potential to facilitate change against a backdrop of prejudice. Beyond the realm of hashtag activism and surface-level gestures, the conversation surrounding diversity and representation in the publishing industry needs to move toward greater transparency. A wider scope of voices needs to be included at the levels of gatekeeping.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

I went from being invisible to hypervisible when the pandemic began. It was a weird sensation, from having my ethnicity minimised to having it be the first thing people noticed when they saw me. And it wasn't just other people reacting to me, but how I felt in my own skin. I became hyperconscious of my 'Asian-ness'. If I was in a really white space and suddenly felt the need to cough, I would get anxious and start thinking, ‘I hope nobody will look at me weird or confront me.’ But they did. People moved away from me on public transport and shouted at me on the streets.

One of the worst experiences I had happened during a walk. A guy came up to me and started sexually harassing me. Another guy walked towards us, and just as I thought he was about to intervene, he said to the other guy: ‘Nuh-uh, Covid’, meaning, ‘No, don’t go for her, she’s Asian and she’s got coronavirus’. This experience underlined to me that East or Southeast Asian women will always experience racism in a different way than any ESEA man would.

However, one beautiful thing to come out of the pandemic was that people in the ESEA community have been connecting in a way I’ve never seen before, branching outwards beyond their family circle to build friendships and collaborations. I found myself in affirming spaces like GGI, a nightclub for London’s queer, trans and nonbinary ESEA community in Hackney Wick, where I felt incredible being part of the majority on a night out for the very first time. Suddenly, young Asian people were forced to think about what it truly means to be Asian in the UK. It created a really powerful movement, something I couldn't have imagined happening five or six years ago.

When I started out in journalism, I was very wary of being the token Asian in the room, and I didn’t want to write stories about myself. I felt like I constantly had to battle against other people’s perceptions of what kind of stories I could write and how well I could speak English, and against their surprise when I didn’t fit into the profile they expected me to. It all operated on a subconscious level. You saw it in how they spoke to you or the stories and roles they assigned to you. It all added up. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become happier to bring more of myself to the table.

There needs to be diversity at the front and back end and on all levels of productions and publications. We need ESEA people behind the camera, in the edit suite, and in the writer’s rooms. People hiring staff are often very keen on improving ethnic diversity and gender diversity on a junior level, but it's important to support ethnically and gender diverse employees to make sure they reach the top. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

The rise of anti-Asian hate has made me feel uneasy and angry. When the pandemic started, I didn't wanted to leave the house. There have been numerous times when I’ve felt uncomfortable in majority-white spaces over the years, where my heritage has been raised in conversations to make me feel othered. Consequently, I've felt like I couldn’t have an opinion on certain issues or that it would be looked down on. So, I decided to carve my own career path in art and use embroidery art as an outlet for my emotions. I’ve always been proud to be both Hong Kong and Malaysian Chinese, both very vibrant and loud cultures.

Photo credit: Jasper James - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jasper James - Getty Images

Art is incredibly important as a vessel for those who have never felt heard in society and as a tool to force people outside of your circle to look at real issues. There’s a long history of marginalised communities using art to be heard and push people in power to make a change. Protest banners are a clear example of how art is a tool to encourage necessary change. In the context of Asian hate, protest banners with ‘hate is a virus’ or ‘I am not a virus’ all inspired a whole movement of protest art and activist groups.

There’s a more supportive network of female Asian creatives now, which is amazing. Still, the conversation needs to continue from a grassroots scale up to the corporate scale to make positive change thoroughly. Decision-makers within creative industries need to take responsibility for factoring diversity and inclusion into choices that could impact global perceptions and growth in art or design moving forward. Things will change only when laws and regulations hold people accountable for diversity and inclusion.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

There has been greater awareness and togetherness after the #StopESEAHate campaign, but I don’t think things have changed ‘for’ our community — our community changed things for ourselves. Initiatives like the first-ever ESEA Heritage Month, organised by besea.n last year, groups like ESEA Sisters, and projects like Don’t Call Me Oriental were all borne out of our frustrations, fears, hopes and dreams. But there’s more to be done. There always is.

I’ve found many movements, collectives and groups in the ESEA community via Instagram. At the same time, though, I think it’s important that there isn’t a constant burden on ESEA individuals to post and share traumatic content related to identity challenges. Our social media feeds can be a place for joy, fashion, food, and fun. They can be multifaceted, as we are. There’s often an undue pressure on marginalised communities to ‘speak on’ every issue, to be perceived as an expert on one identity you belong to, when really, all we can speak from are our individual experiences. We all have unique, overlapping identities. Sometimes, I think social media can flatten that.

When I started my career in media seven years ago, there were times when I felt lonely. I joined gal-dem to find a sense of community and like-minded people who understood and cared about telling stories so often overlooked. It’s so beautiful to see the range of outlets like Black Ballad, Azeema, Aurelia, Amaliah and more growing and building their own spaces. According to the NCTJ’s latest Diversity in Journalism report, 87% of UK journalists are white, and 80% are from the highest social classes. Those may have changed slightly in recent years, but it still shows there’s such a long way to go.

I’d like to see less tokenistic talking and more recognition and action to address the fact that British journalism, as it stands, does not represent British society. How can bigger institutions and outlets support independent organisations with training and resources? What opportunities do these established organisations have for marginalised people to get into the industry? And once they’re in, what does that career trajectory and journey look like? Are marginalised voices being heard in the rooms where decisions are made?

Photo credit: Toby Shaw
Photo credit: Toby Shaw

I have been disheartened by the lack of meaningful representation on any cultural level of British East and Southeast Asians in this country – particularly on our screens and in popular culture. We have been left out on the diversity agenda, and there are perpetual, two-dimensional stereotypes that persist, which ladder up to a lack of empathy and a culture of othering, meaning we are often left off the news agenda as well.

I've long wanted to connect those who shape the media landscape to those of East and Southeast Asian heritage shaping British culture, so in February 2020 I launched a monthly salon, East Side Voices, at The Standard Hotel in London. Then, the pandemic hit, and I was commissioned to write the book East Side Voices: Celebrating East and Southeast Asian Identity, a collection of 18 essays and poems exploring what it was to be British and of East and Southeast Asian heritage. Each essay was affecting in its own way, whether it was Filipina nurse Romalyn Ante lifting the lid on her experience on the front line during the pandemic to Amy Poon’s hilarious piece on announcing her divorce to her family. During the Atlanta mass shootings in March 2021, many of the writers were checking in with each other, and it was the first time I was able to articulate the pain associated with this terrible event with people who understood. It was a balm to create this book with them in a time filled with darkness and fear.

Photo credit: Eri Miura - Getty Images
Photo credit: Eri Miura - Getty Images

I have been fortunate enough to be a leader in the #StopESEAHate campaign. Since the movement came to light, I think there has been a sense of more community and a better flow of information – whether it’s fundraising, tackling anti-Asian sentiment, education in schools or cultural activities such as book clubs and socials. But we need to put the foot on the gas. We need more diversity champions on board to understand the British ESEA communities and what our hopes and needs are. British ESEAs need to be part of conversations about diversity and cultural identity. Otherwise, the empathy gap will continue to exist.

Ching Kaitlyn Lai is the 2021 winner of a Hearst Scholarship, as sponsored by SpareRoom.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .


You Might Also Like

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting