Kevin Chan has a sticker on the entrance of his shop, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, that offers a simple plea: “Fight the virus, NOT the people.”
But given that foot traffic in front of the nearly 60-year-old business has dropped 80 percent since coronavirus fears sparked, it’s uncertain who is even seeing that sticker’s message. All the streets of San Francisco’s historic Chinatown are strangely quiet these days, like it is in many Asian enclaves in cities around America. It doesn’t seem to matter whether or not there is a confirmed case of coronavirus in a community. The tourists and locals who normally fill up these Asian-owned restaurants, markets, bakeries, salons and souvenir shops are flocking to other places — places that, for one reason or another, feel like a safer bet. And Chan has an inkling exactly what that reason is.
“We are fully targeted because it’s from China,” an exasperated Chan told The Guardian last week. “But it’s not us. It’s everywhere. In San Francisco Chinatown, we didn’t go to China. We’re Chinese American here. Why are we targeted?”
It’s not just San Francisco, and it’s not even just Chinese communities. Asian-owned businesses are struggling from Seattle to Houston to New York City. It’s happening in cities and states without a single confirmed case of the coronavirus. A mere rumor that a coronavirus patient ate at restaurants in L.A.’s Koreatown led to massive reductions in business, despite no medical evidence that you can catch the virus merely by sitting at a table. Shops that just a month or two ago had hour-long waits for dinner are now free for walk-in diners, as food journalist Kristie Hang discovered in the Chinese community of San Gabriel in Southern California.
Maybe it is just pragmatic nervousness to want to avoid Asian spaces and faces, given how news reports have racialized the coronavirus and defined Wuhan as ground zero of the outbreak. (Actual scientists, meanwhile, remain unclear on where and how it found a human host.) But what’s clear is that this nervousness about catching the illness is evolving into full-blown racism, with symptoms ranging from Asian people getting stared at in public spaces to literal slurs (like “diseased bitch”) and even assaults against kids.
The potential for this racism to burst into public view was obvious from the moment that coronavirus appeared in workers at a Chinese market full of exotic animals. One particular rumor emerged from the initial social-media fracas: That the virus came from wacky Chinese people eating bats. No matter that the images and video of bat soup actually came from Southeast Asia, literally hundreds of miles away from Hubei Province. The rumor has stuck, often being tied to assumptions that Asians eat cats and dogs.
You don’t exactly have to look hard to see non-Asian people absolutely dripping with disdain while proclaiming the same misinformation, over and over again. Most recently, Fox News hamster Jesse Watters demanded an apology from China on air while tripling down on the assertion that the coronavirus is a result of “very hungry people” eating raw bats — which he characterized as the result of a failure of the Chinese government to feed people (???). “I have not heard one word from the Chinese. A simple ‘I am sorry’ would do,” he whined.
There are, of course, legitimate things to criticize about the national response from the People’s Republic of China. But many of the reactions to coronavirus aren’t really good-faith arguments. Instead, it’s just an exhausting whirlwind of stereotypes past and present, spanning more than 200 years of Asian hatred and suspicion. It’s the same ideology that makes jokes about Chinese food being dirty and cheap so routine, despite China having arguably the most complex and vibrant food culture in the world. It’s why people still point to harmless, delicious MSG as the source of their bloat and sickness, aka “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”
And it’s why virus fears, and perhaps a panicky need to do something about it, has led to real public mockery and violence toward Asians, including in “liberal” cities with significant racial diversity. A middle school teen in L.A. getting attacked in school is only shocking until you realize that an atmosphere of antagonism and “other”-ing of Asians makes for the perfect setup for a rise in bullying. (A coronavirus-themed club night in Britain, where the first 100 guests receive “traditional Chinese hats,” almost seems like a pretty light offense in comparison. Almost.)
Communities in the U.S. and Europe dealt with this kind of racism with the 2003 SARS outbreak, which fueled anti-Asian sentiment throughout the Western world. Nothing has really changed since then, even in the way that news media continue to run photos of random, unaffiliated Asian faces for their virus coverage. If you look closely enough, you can see the ghosts of the hysteria around the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the way people talk about the virus and Asians today; there’s a cold, calculated callousness in the way people are willing to cut the cord with an entire culture in the name of both safety and retribution. In the language, you sense old tropes holding strong — like that of the sneaky yellow man, inadequate in stature but clever like a virus, ready to destroy the white man’s achievements.
Ultimately, given what we know about the persistence of racism toward minorities in 2020, this was the most predictable social reaction to a viral outbreak that seems to have “originated” on the literal and metaphorical other side of the planet. Asians in Western countries, meanwhile, can’t help but wonder what happens once the coronavirus fades away from pandemic status. Will people start filling Chinatowns again? Will they stop hurling slurs and fists at random people? And what happens if another outbreak puts Asianness in the spotlight again?
The lingering pain of being made to feel like a suspect is often slow to fade. The only thing that really helps is seeing shows of faith, every day, during the height of a crisis. If you’re adamant you’re not a racist, you can prove it by going out to a dim sum meal in your local Chinatown.
But even in 2020, it looks like this is easier said than done.