When fear goes viral: Battling prejudice in Chinatown

Why We Wrote This

Fear of COVID-19 can fan racism. But our reporter finds that communities around the world are countering prejudice with acts of kindness and gratitude.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tables are mostly empty at the New Golden Gate restaurant at lunchtime March 2, 2020, in Boston. From Boston to San Francisco, London to Johannesburg, customers have been avoiding Chinatowns amid fears of the new coronavirus.

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From Boston to Johannesburg, customers have been avoiding Chinatowns. There have been news reports of bullying, discrimination, and xenophobia against Asians. But others warn that such isolationist impulses create a sense of alienation in those communities. And some are stepping forward to practice acts of kindness and model support for Chinese businesses.

In Canada, Markham – sister city to Wuhan, China – is striving to counter negative associations. In February, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti launched an Asialicious festival in which more than 100 Asian restaurants in the Toronto area invited customers to tasting events.

When the mayor attended a recent event, he shared a video with guests. In it, dozens of people in the quarantined city lean out of their balconies and shout, “Wuhan jiayou,” which is roughly translated, “Wuhan keep up the fight.” Markham’s mayor recorded a video in which the thousand attendees at the banquet shouted, “Wuhan jiayou!”

“The mayor of Wuhan sent us a letter expressing their gratitude,” says Mayor Scarpitti. “It’s a reminder that we live in a pretty big world, but it can get pretty small at times and we can be connected in some pretty powerful ways.”

It’s lunchtime at New Golden Gate seafood restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown. Amid fears of the new coronavirus, just two of its tables are occupied. In a back corner, two waiters sit as listless as the lobsters inside a nearby tank.

Today they’ve had fewer than 20 customers over three hours, says manager May Deng. “At least a 90% drop. That’s huge.”

If business doesn’t pick up in the next two to three months, she’ll have to close. “How can you survive?” says Ms. May, tears rimming her eyes.

From Boston to San Francisco, London to Johannesburg, customers have been avoiding Chinatowns amid unsubstantiated fears that the virus jumped from China via these neighborhoods. There have been news reports, too, of bullying, discrimination, and xenophobia against Asians. But others warn that such isolationist impulses create a sense of alienation in those communities. And some individuals, public officials, and organizations are stepping forward to practice acts of kindness and model support for Chinese businesses.

“The virus has no nationality. The virus does not practice discrimination. Why should we, being a human being, discriminate against any ethnic group?” says Justin Yu, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, a business and community organization in New York City. “This is a time for everybody to learn we should have sympathy.”

Deeply ingrained cultural prejudices about Chinese people as supposed carriers of disease date back further than the outbreak of SARS, says Winston Tseng, a research sociologist and lecturer of community health and human development at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health in California. In 1899, Honolulu forcibly quarantined its Chinatown due to fears of the bubonic plague; the following year, San Francisco circled its Chinatown with rope for two days.

“There was an assumption ... of ‘the yellow peril,’” says Mr. Tseng. “So Chinese or Japanese back then were [viewed as] dirty and carrying a lot of diseases.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
May Deng, the manager of the New Golden Gate restaurant in Boston's Chinatown, says business is down 90% because of the coronavirus.

Today, individuals across the world are reaching out to help Chinese and Asian businesses. In Australia, the progressive activist group GetUp! encouraged its members to dine in Chinese restaurants and also post pictures of meals on social media with the hashtag #IWillEatWithYou. It was a response to news reports such as the closure of Shark Fin House, a three-decades-old restaurant in Melbourne’s Chinatown, says the group’s media adviser Chandi Bates. The hashtag is now popping up on Twitter and Instagram accounts in other parts of the world.

“I Will Eat With You is giving people a practical way to take a positive step, show support and solidarity to businesses that need it, all at the same time as eating a delicious meal,” says Renaire Druery, campaign director for the GetUp! Human Rights Campaign, via email.

In mid-February, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh started a social media campaign with the hashtag #LoveBostonChinatown. He and other city councilors organized a photo-op dim sum lunch at once-popular eatery China Pearl. In early March, there’s not a lot of foot traffic beneath the pagoda-style arch entryway into Chinatown. A nearby outdoor table of tourist trinkets remains untroubled. Atop the lamp posts along Beach Street, American flags flutter in tandem with Chinese flags in the wind.

“It’s important to continue supporting the people that would be perhaps impacted the most right now because they have bills to pay,” says Andrew, a Massachusetts technology professional who asked that his last name not be used, after coming to Chinatown specifically to support the restaurants.

Another tourist, Fred Brown from Atlanta, was surprised how much busier Boston’s Italian North End neighborhood was by comparison, given the news of the outbreak in northern Italy.

“I would take precautions, but I don’t think it’s necessarily here in Chinatown in Boston,” says his daughter, Emily Brown, just prior to entering a restaurant. The Boston resident says she’s not fearful about contagion. “Especially when this place has an acceptable health code.” 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, there have also been multiple reports of racist online comments and also some troubling incidents offline. 

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of public health for Los Angeles County, says the county has dealt with hoaxes related to the virus, including a bogus press release on a fake official letterhead that attempted to target an Asian community.

The letter stated erroneously that five infected patients had supposedly visited five businesses in Asian areas of Carson, including a Chinese restaurant.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
People walk under the gate in Boston's Chinatown March 2, 2020, where fewer people are walking through the neighborhood because of coronavirus fears.

“None of that was true,” says Dr. Ferrer. The department responded quickly to stamp out the misinformation, and the case is being investigated by the county sheriff’s department and the FBI.

A lot of Asians and Asian Americans live in the county – more than anywhere else in the country – and “unfortunately and inappropriately” a “stigma” is attaching itself to that community, she says. “Chinese restaurants are safe,” she emphasized.

At least two U.S. officials, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – have begun labeling COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus.” This month, the World Health Organization implored people not to attach locations or ethnicity to the disease, including “Wuhan Virus,” “Chinese Virus,” or “Asian Virus.” “The official name for the disease was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatization,” said WHO.

In Canada, the Toronto suburb of Markham – sister city to Wuhan, China – is striving to counter negative associations. When Wuhan Noodle 1950, a Chinese restaurant across the street from city hall, started losing business due to fears of the virus, officials knew exactly what to do. During the height of the SARS crisis in 2003, the neighborhood successfully persuaded many people in Toronto to overcome their fear by inaugurating a Taste of Asia festival. In February, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti launched an Asialicious festival in which more than 100 Asian restaurants in the Toronto area invited customers to tasting events that included special offers.

When the mayor attended a recent Chinese New Year event, he shared a social media video with guests. In it, dozens of people in the quarantined city lean out of their balconies and, in unison, shout, “Wuhan jiayou,” which is roughly translated, “Wuhan keep up the fight.” In turn, Markham’s mayor recorded a video in which the thousand attendees at the banquet shouted, “Wuhan jiayou!”

“The mayor of Wuhan sent us a letter expressing their gratitude for the video and for the fundraising and just generally the support that has been shown to Wuhan,” says Mayor Scarpitti. “It’s a reminder that we live in a pretty big world, but it can get pretty small at times and we can be connected in some pretty powerful ways.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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