Why Asian Hate Crimes Happen

On Feb. 13, Christina Yuna Lee is murdered in her apartment after having been stabbed over 40 times. Nearly a month prior, Michelle Go is shoved in front of a subway and killed in a seemingly random attack. And on the second day of last March, seven Asian women are physically assaulted in a string of unprovoked attacks on the streets of Manhattan. 

Recent attacks on Asian Americans have not been the first of their kind. Over 3,000 incidents have been reported since the onset of the pandemic.

With NYC’s new push to fight hate crimes, the question still remains: what causes these attacks? Why now? What has changed in the country to incite a massive violence against those of Asian descent?

The answer lies in the Trump administration. Between March 16 and March 30 of 2020, former President Donald Trump referred to the coronavirus disease as “the Chinese virus.” On other occasions, he also referred to it as the “Kung Flu,” shifting the blame to China and people of Chinese descent. Rather than urging the former president to acknowledge his own role in downplaying the virus, this act of scapegoating targets a specific demographic. Not only are Chinese Americans put at risk, but also those of East Asian descent, who are often lumped into and viewed as one pan-Asian group of people. To see a striking example of its effects, consider Marine corps veteran and syndicated radio host Jesse Kelly’s interview on the Tucker Carlson Tonight show. On the show, Kelly advocated for  “a military full of Type-A men who want to sit on a throne of Chinese skulls.” When defending himself from accusations of racism, he says he is “the furthest thing in the world from being anti-Asian,” as he has “been a supporter of Lucy Liu for quite some time.”

This hypocrisy is not a coincidence. The relationship between hating Asians while simultaneously fetishizing and sexualizing Asian women is nothing new. It explains why the majority of victims so far have been elders and women, oftentimes targeted due to perceived societal weakness and subordination. Like many raging issues in the United States, however, a deeper cause is at play. Hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. are not just linked to racism – they are deeply entangled in a history plagued by orientalism, fetishization and misogyny.

This explains the motive of the 2021 Atlanta spa shooter who killed eight people — six of whom were women of Asian descent, who described his reasoning as “curing himself of a sexual addiction.”

The idea of Asian women being sexual creatures has a long history, going back to the 19th century. When an influx of Chinese immigrants escaping the Opium Wars came to the states, a plethora of Irish and German settlers already posed an economic threat to the working American populace. However, Chinese laborers appeared as a bigger threat due to their race. They were therefore depicted as “dirty” and “disease-ridden,” with Chinese women being further tagged with the label of promiscuity. Though women of many ethnicities have historically worked in the sex industry, only the stigma of spreading veneral diseases plagued Chinese women. These stereotypes were then codified into law, resulting in the Page Act of 1875, which explicitly banned Chinese women from entering the country based on their presumed “immoral purposes.” The connotation of “dirty Asians” has stuck ever since. 

A little less than a century later, the racist rhetoric further solidified itself when the United States established military bases in both East and Southeast Asia during the Cold War. Around these military bases, U.S. troops bought — or more accurately, forced — Asian women into sex work in what were known as camptown communities. Camptowns were originally stations for comfort women, which were created by the Japanese army in World War II (WWII) to force women from China, Korea and other occupied territories into sexual slavery for soldiers. 

After the defeat of the Axis powers at the conclusion of WWII and the arrival of the Cold War, however, the United States increased military presence in Asia to protect its ideological and economic interests. American troops ultimately repurposed many of these comfort stations into camptowns, continuing this practice throughout the Korean and Vietnam Wars. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, American military presence significantly decreased in Asia, causing chain reactions in camptown communities and resulting in economic upheaval. As a result, general issue (G.I.) soldiers sent many sex workers to southern U.S. in brokered marriages with U.S. servicemen. This is where the link between Asian women, domestic servility and sexual availability originated and ingrained itself into Western society — it became mainstream to correlate Asian women with servitude and sex. 

This also explains the idea behind Orientalism: the manipulation of Asians and Asian culture into a dehumanizing and racist caricature of actual people and their way of living. Even before the Page Act, media and artwork depicted East and Southeast Asian women as docile and hypersexual. This has also continued in popular, modern works of art. The cult classic Mean Girls written by Tina Fey features two Vietnamese girls who speak no English and are sexually obsessed with their white gym coach. Ironically, Fey’s grandfather is a Korean War veteran, so it is not difficult to figure out where this implicit bias comes from. Fey has also made stereotypical jokes about Vietnamese prostitutes in the past, donning a racist accent in assocation with Vietnamese women to tease her daughter. Popular comedian and self-proclaimed feminist Amy Schumer has further contributed to these stereotypes. In one of her Comedy Central routines, she plays into the patriarchal myth that Asian women are more sexually satisfying because they have “smaller vaginas.” 

The rhetoric of these comedians thereby perpetuate the idea that Asian women are exotic and seductive, but most importantly, docile. Docility is a defining factor in the concept of Orientalism – it creates a standard of Asian women, upholding the traditional patriarchal values which value submissiveness and obedience in a woman.

Orientalism perpetuates the idea that Asian women are easy to hate crime due to their supposed docile nature. Compounded with the idea that they are dirty, the belief they are responsible for the pandemic and the perception that they will not fight back, the result is a concoction of hate and bigotry that will result in countless more lives lost.

I have had my fair share of anti-Asian experiences in New York City, a place typically revered for its melting pot culture and value of different perspectives. I have had men scream “ni hao” (hello) at me in the streets of Soho, classmates mock fellow students’ Chinese accents and acquaintances question why “Asian girls look like children.”

What stings the most is that I faced the same implicit bias from some of my trusted acquaintances. A few weeks after the Atlanta spa shooting, a teacher who I long viewed as a mentor claimed that the victims were prostitutes, despite there being no evidence (though the media’s assumption that this was true revealed a lot on its own). He then argued that most Asian spas were brothels while eyeing my chest. Strangely enough, all the Asian spas I have visited were completely legal, functioning workplaces. This type of rhetoric is not just sleazy – it is harmful. It has resulted in countless Asian women being killed and may result in many more. 

When Christina Yuna Lee was murdered, I read about it in a NYT article. The most jarring part was not that it happened on Chrystie Street: the same street where I went to the orthodontist every month as a preteen and got onigiri from Yayas as an afternoon snack. It was rather the fact that the news referred to her as “Ms. Lee,” which is my surname. It was almost like reading about my own death in real-time, a horrible tragedy everyone agrees should not have happened, yet a recurring event that no one is willing to prevent. It made me feel inhuman, like I was a statistic waiting to happen and a body prepped to be buried. 

Hate does not come out of nowhere. It is nourished, fed and taken care of. It is instilled in the minds of the next generation, and the generation after that. And unless we as a society do something about it now, the next victim could be someone you know. Someone like me. 

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