The first violent hate crime linked to the coronavirus outbreak has been reported in the UK. As global news coverage of the virus continues to build, it’s becoming evident that the outbreak has lifted the lid on centuries of racism towards Asian people, says Yuan Ren.
The report follows a worrying new survey from Ipsos, that found one in seven people in the UK would now avoid people of Chinese origin or appearance.
Personally, I’ve been asked by people if I’ve just returned from Wuhan. I’ve also been asked to name the last date that I was in China.
Last week, I was sat in an empty train carriage and a white woman made the point of sitting next to me and coughing consistently, with her arms folded on her chest.
I can’t help thinking she was making a racist point about coronavirus.
As a Chinese woman, I find that the words “East-Asian women” always come with connotations here in the West. We’re skinny, timid, soft-skinned, submissive, sexually liberated – a mystery that’s full of contradictions.
These ideas have come from nowhere, and they’re certainly not new. For a long time, “Orientalism” – the West’s colonial representations of “The East” – has been dominated by racist depictions of dirty men and of exoticised women; “yellow peril”, an idea popularised by Hollywood, long portrayed the inherent dangers of Far Eastern cultures.
Ideas of South-East Asians being carriers of infectious diseases also tainted immigrants into America and Europe in the late 19th century. Asian women, in particular, found themselves depicted as insidious dangers – the semi-clad ‘Femme Fatales’ of imperial courts and harems ruining unsuspecting white men.
If it all sounds too much like popular culture to be racism, the law ensured it wasn’t. In the USA, a law in 1875, known as the Page Act, banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States in an attempt to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labour and immoral Chinese women”. Those same women were called prostitutes by those who enacted the law.
In the past two weeks, with the world on high alert for the coronavirus outbreak that originated in China, such centuries-old ideas have returned with a vengeance. The latest global outbreak has vilified all Chinese people, manifesting in racist abuse and a series of anti-Chinese sentiments that sound exactly like they did 200 years ago.
Last week in North America, a petition in Toronto requesting that students returning from China stay home for at least 17 days garnered almost 10,000 signatures. Those who signed the petition are unlikely to have cared which part of China they had come back from, even though 95% of infections are associated with the sealed-off city of Wuhan.
Signs with “No Chinese” and “Chinese tourists out” have gone up in public and private areas everywhere, and I’ve heard stories of Chinese people being kicked out of shops and restaurants.
At the heart of all of this, East Asian women are being targeted yet again. They are feeling the fingers wagging their way for transmitting the virus.
In Japan, a Chinese woman who went into a Chinese food restaurant was shouted at and shooed out by its Japanese owner when she and her partner started ordering food.
Global news coverage has been equally appalling and highlights the disgust that many feel towards the Chinese. Using the same law-enacting rhetoric from nearly 150 years ago, the French newspaper Courrier Picard used the headline “Yellow Alert” on its front cover to describe the viral outbreak, with a picture of a Chinese woman in a mask below it. The paper has since apologised.
On social media, reams of tweets by Chinese minorities have revealed the extent of xenophobia and racism around the world, and women in particular have been pin-cushioned. Those born and bred overseas, like Dr Rhea Liang in Australia, have posted tweets sharing their experiences of racism, with Dr Liang describing the racist treatment she has received as a renowned breast surgeon of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. Her stories sound like the experiences of HIV carriers not long ago.
Dr Liang writes in one of her posts, which has since gone viral: “Today a patient made jokes about not shaking my hand because of #coronavirus. In front of my team. I have not left Australia. This is not sensible public health precaution.”
The fact is that if everyone washed their own hands more, like Dr Liang surely does as a minimum, infection rates would drop dramatically. If she had been a white man of the same professional grade, would the patient have humiliated her in the same way?
The abuse has also been overwhelming towards Chinese people’s eating habits, which have become a source of blame for the infection. With doctors trying to figure out which animal the primary carrier was, citing bats, snakes, and other exotic species, many have decided that women eating these are the ones helping transmit the virus.
One woman in particular has been the victim of a horrific media onslaught as footage of her eating a bat emerged online and went viral, in both China and the West. In the UK, the Mail Online called her actions “revolting” in an article headline and went onto vilify her behaviour in the story. The author also thought it appropriate to make a sexist comment about the woman, describing her as a “fashionably dressed young woman holding a bat”, as if that made a difference.
The woman in question is Wang Mengyun, a social media influencer who had in fact deleted the video, one which she said was filmed four years ago while she was on holiday in South-East Asia. Not that it matters, as the footage was then reposted and framed as a recent dinner in Wuhan. Since going viral, Wang says she has received death threats – all for an old video of her eating what’s considered a delicacy in some parts of the world.
Ms Wang is not the only victim, with videos of East-Asian women eating food being vilified everywhere online. South Korea’s Mukbang videos that show young women livestreaming themselves consuming feasts in one sitting have been overrun with offensive comments about coronavirus.
Throughout my life I cannot count the number of times I have been asked either seriously or jokily if Chinese people ate dogs, and the implication of how gross that makes us as a country and culture. It doesn’t make a difference that I’ve never even been in a restaurant where that has been an option on the menu.
The East Asian community have long been the ‘silent minority’ – that hard-working lot who never complain and endure racist comments silently. At the root of it all, yellow is an offensive term. Yet it is used by the Western media with almost zero repercussions.
What shocks me is that in this day and age, where the East is the rising star on the global stage and China one of the most powerful countries in the world, its people are still treated as cultural victims.
Let’s hope that the coronavirus outbreak will be over soon, but as the latest reactions to it have shown, the world’s problem with my people, and an entire region of the world, may not.
This piece was originally published on 31 January 2020