London, United Kingdom – One year ago, the UK was placed under its first lockdown as the coronavirus surged across the country.
Since then, Britain’s East and Southeast Asian communities have seen a 300-percent increase in hate crimes, according to End the Virus of Racism, a UK-based advocacy group.
As worldwide headlines claimed the virus originated in China, takeaway restaurants were vandalised. Some in Chinatowns across the UK were boycotted altogether.
In the ugliest moments, people of Asian ancestry have been attacked on the street.
Comments from Donald Trump, the former US president, describing the coronavirus as the “China virus” and China as the “nation which unleashed this plague unto the world” did little to stem the hatred.
Many observers said the recent fatal shooting of eight people in Atlanta, six of them women of Asian descent, demonstrated how vulnerable some communities have become.
In the UK, anti-Asian racism has also reached the halls of power.
Sarah Owen, an MP with the opposition Labour Party, has described how two unnamed MPs referred to Chinese people as “those evil b******s”.
Al Jazeera spoke with members of the UK’s East Asian community about their concerns:
‘I don’t feel as safe as I used to’
Peng Wang, 37, lecturer in financial management
Before I came to the UK in 2014, I lived in Finland for six years. When I first moved, British people were more friendly than Finnish people, who are somehow more shy. But after Brexit and after this pandemic, things got worse.
On February 23, just last month, around 4pm, I went out jogging near my home. There was a car driving on the other side of the road.
The driver opened the window and shouted at me, “Chinese virus!” Immediately, I shouted back, calmed myself, took some deep breaths and kept on jogging.
When I turned the corner, they came back and started shouting at me again. I got extremely angry, approached the car, and shouted at them: “Why are you doing this? Get out!”
The driver and other guys got out of the car and attacked me.
Two months ago, my wife was learning to drive in her instructor’s car, when a boy on a bicycle asked if my wife was from an Asian country, and stuck his middle finger to her.
I don’t feel as safe as I used to. When I first arrived in the UK, I had no worries about running outside in the night. Obviously now, the situation for Asian people is really bad.
‘It was definitely a problem before the pandemic’
Sarah Owen, 38, Labour MP for Luton North
Attacks show this isn’t just an American problem. It is definitely a problem here in the UK [and] it was definitely a problem before the pandemic.
Last year, before coronavirus hit, we had [UK broadcaster] Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain poking fun at the Chinese language, taking a Chinese accent, and that was deemed to be okay. He didn’t apologise for it.
In terms of what I face online, nine times out of 10, I’m pretty hardened to it. But it’s things like videos being sent to me of live animals being eaten or jokes that punch down, depicting East Asians as inhumane because of the things we apparently eat. I had to point out to [an online troll] that, “No, I don’t eat dog, and my pet dog is alive, well, and very happy.”
I don’t think [the government] is doing enough. There’s some warm words occasionally, but we have to fight even to get those warm words. They bring cold comfort to people I know who have had their shop vandalised or who have been victims of hate crime.
‘I don’t feel welcome, I don’t belong to a city I call home’
Lisa Dang, 29, chef
Growing up, my dad had always said I needed to work twice as hard because I’m Vietnamese living in someone else’s country. I’ve always argued against his point: I was born here, and I belonged here.
My next-door neighbours were an elderly white couple who never had children. They took me in as their adopted grandchild.
It wasn’t until secondary school when the micro-aggressions started. Racial slurs, mocking my name, people saying things like I eat dog.
Fast forward to adult life, I genuinely felt safe and a sense of belonging to London. I would seldom hear racist remarks made towards me. If anything, it would be fetishising comments.
Last March, shortly after the news broke about coronavirus, my partner, who is Chinese, and I were visiting white friends in Essex. When we stepped foot into the pub, we were welcomed by someone shouting out, “Wuhan”. It felt as though the entire world had stopped. Nobody wanted to own up to who said it, but also nobody wanted to call out the person, stand up and be an ally. We sat at the pub defiantly, not wanting this person to win by leaving.
I marked this experience as an isolated micro-aggression as it was outside of London where it is less multicultural – until I went to a supermarket in London last November. A group of men in their twenties shouted, “Ni Hao! Konnichiwa!”, hurriedly put on their masks, and covered their faces. What was more disappointing is that the group were also ethnic minorities. Where was the solidarity?
Up until now, I never understood what my dad was trying to say. For the first time, I don’t feel welcome, I don’t belong to a city I call home.
‘This must have been what Muslims felt like after 9/11’
Daniel Ly, 28, consultant
I worry about my family. I worry about their safety when they’re going to the shops. I worry about the more elderly Asians in our country, being alone and unable to fend for themselves.
This must have been what South Asians and Muslims felt like after 9/11 for years. My best friend is Pakistani. We have always talked about how unfair the media has been when it comes to portraying Muslims, creating this undercurrent of anger in people who are easily infected with hate.
I’m very worried about kids going back to school. You’ve got a whole generation of Asian kids who are going to feel alone and more uncomfortable in their own skin, uncomfortable in the way they look different to their classmates.
The racism is going to knock their confidence, the love for themselves, their appreciation of their culture. It’s going to make them feel horrible. It’s difficult, and I’m not sure how to fix it.
‘Now it’s gotten so bad, I need to speak out’
Tiffany Law, 27, trainee solicitor
I was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Canada just outside Toronto. I moved to the UK in September 2016. I feel like I’ve had more racist encounters in the UK than I’ve had in Canada, even though technically, the UK is more international.
Two months after I moved to the UK, I went to a gig with a British-born Chinese friend in Leeds. While we were waiting for an Uber to go home, these two guys came up to us and started verbally harassing us, unprovoked, with racist remarks, asking us if we were from China. When we ignored them, one of them put their hands on me and pushed me to get my attention. I remember that very moment, I was really shocked. I was actually speechless.
In the beginning of the pandemic, people stared at me weirdly for wearing a mask.
With my dad living in Canada, there are a lot of times I’m like: “I’m so far away, what if something happens to him?”
I really am concerned because there is rising anti-Asian hate crime in Canada as well.
Growing up, I never felt the need to speak out just because it never was this bad. Of course, there were micro-aggressions from time to time. But it wasn’t until I moved here I felt that now it’s gotten so bad, I need to speak out.
‘My parents were asked if they brought COVID over to the UK’
Tuan Vu, 28, management consultant
After visiting my parents in Birmingham for Chinese New Year, before the UK went into lockdown, I was on the train returning to London. I was wearing a mask at the station while I was travelling, but I received a lot of glares.
On my train, there was a white gentleman who was coughing and sneezing in the vicinity and no one batted an eye. Knowing that this person was potentially spreading COVID or maybe had the flu or a cold, it made me feel very uncomfortable, because the eyes were on me.
My parents have experienced verbal harassment on the streets in Birmingham because of their skin colour. They were asked if they were Chinese, and did they bring COVID over to the UK. Fortunately, it was just verbal harassment. There was no violence involved, but it still scares me.
‘The people who are supposed to be protecting us don’t even bother’
Jan Le, 28, financial tech product analyst
After the Black Lives Matter marches, the [far-right] English Defence League movement marched in central London. We live in Soho, my parents have a restaurant there. They go on walks every day and I was just so worried.
I was like, “Please do not walk towards Trafalgar Square. Today, don’t even bother going outside. Please just stay indoors for a week until it all blows over.”
Even before I was born, in the eighties, my parents had to move because people kept throwing bricks through their window.
Way before the first lockdown last March, we felt the racism early on. Our business went really downhill, which is funny because we’re not even in Chinatown and we’re a Vietnamese restaurant. People just avoided us like the plague.
I’m starting to feel quite pessimistic. I was hoping people would take anti-Asian racism quite seriously, it would get more air time. I read politicians held a debate about it in Parliament for the first time and not one Conservative MP turned up. I honestly don’t know what we can do when the people who are supposed to be protecting us don’t even bother.
‘I’ve grown to normalise this in my life’
Lisa Huang, 27, management consultant
Being British-born Chinese has always had its challenges. I have always had people call out racial slurs at me throughout my life – kids at school, strangers on the street, at university.
I’ve just grown to ignore it, I’ve grown to be silent, I’ve grown to normalise this in my life.
Walking home at night and getting “Ni Hao’ed” or “ching-chonged” by a stranger on the street has just become a norm for me, but that shouldn’t be the case.
With the recent pandemic, racism has jumped to a completely new level to the point where people are losing their lives for their heritage.
What’s worse, the most vulnerable part of the Asian community is being targeted. What shocks me most is that no one is doing anything about it despite all the cries from the Asian community, despite all the attacks.
Some interviews were edited for clarity and brevity.