Chinatown Is Grieving

Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The senseless death of Christina Yuna Lee has left New Yorkers of Asian descent reeling. Prosecutors say that the 35-year-old digital producer, who was described as “a star” by people who loved her, was followed into her Chinatown apartment and then fatally stabbed by a 25-year-old homeless man early Sunday. Though authorities have not classified Lee’s killing as a hate crime, it was another chilling reminder of the surge in violence Asian American communities have faced throughout the pandemic. The NYPD reported a 361 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021, going from 28 incidents in 2020 to 129 last year.

2022 isn’t showing improvement: Since December 31, at least three Asian Americans, including Lee, have died after being attacked in the city. Yao Pan Ma, a 61-year-old Chinese immigrant and former dim sum pastry chef, died on New Year’s Eve from injuries sustained when he was attacked in April. Michelle Alyssa Go, a 40-year-old who worked in finance and loved travel, was fatally pushed in front of a subway train in Times Square on January 15. And just two days before Lee’s death, a South Korean diplomat was punched in the face, unprovoked, in Manhattan.

New York State assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, whose district includes Chinatown, has spent the last several days grieving Lee’s death and connecting with her constituents while handling a wall-to-wall legislative session. On the phone with the Cut, she sounded exhausted. For weeks, she and other community leaders have attended back-to-back vigils and rallies, which has taken a toll. “It’s been so many incidents that we are asked to internalize and process all at once,” Niou said. “It’s heavy, it’s a lot.”

Below, Niou talks about her community’s grief, why anti-Asian hate remains so pervasive, and what the city can do to address the root causes of these violent attacks.

How is your district handling Christina’s death?

Our community is just really in pain. We’re in pain. We’re scared. Things are clear: There are people who hate us. There’s that fear and that anger and that sadness. The scariest part is the normalization. We have to fight against that. We have to make sure that people understand that this is not okay, this is not normal. But it’s also really hard to fight against that in the sense that anti-Asian sentiment, xenophobia, and hate have always been there.

Anti-Asian hate is very much baked into the DNA of this country. 

And our history books don’t teach this. This is why it’s so important that we have Asian American history. It is clear when you put it all together that this racism, this hatred, and this xenophobia are actually state-sanctioned. This racism is state-sanctioned in the sense that this is the same country that put together the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment camps, and laws banning us from intermarrying. You can tell where the perpetual-foreigner syndrome and the model minority stem from, right? People can’t see you as western because you’re not one of them. “You’re outside of us.” It’s that mentality that allows people to dehumanize one another by seeing that person as an other, you know?

How can we combat that? What tools do we have to deal with this type of violence and to protect the community?

People should be taking bystander-intervention training just to protect themselves and others. If you’re an ally, it’s really helpful. We should be checking in on one another.

One of the things that I really think that the city can do immediately is just basic wellness checks. In my office, we’ve done wellness checks during the pandemic — basically just calling people and saying, “Hey, how’s it going? Do you need any help?” For the most part, people respond, “Yeah, no, thank you for calling. It was great to hear from you. We’re okay. We got groceries yesterday. We’re fine.” That’s the majority of the calls we got, but other people would tell us, “Oh, it’s a little hard to make ends meet right now.” Or like, “My partner has to go on unemployment,” or, “This form was really hard. Can you help us?”

The city could already be making calls, following up with anybody who ever needed services. We could be utilizing social workers and health-care professionals to help. The Department of Homeless Services could be helping. That would be good for anybody who needs shelter or anybody who has gone through our system. Hearing another voice on the line would be helpful for a lot of people already during this very anxious time. But also, it’s a time for people to be able to catch if something is off and then make sure that somebody’s getting services.

Two things that I saw you call for in the last couple of days were more funding for Asian American community organizations and expanding the mental health services that the city provides. Can you talk to me about those initiatives and what type of difference could they make?

Having culturally appropriate services and language access for our community is really key to being able to get people resources properly. That’s the same for every community out there. This would help to expand the social services that are provided. Until I was elected several years ago, Asian American organizations and community organizations did not even have a single line item in our state budget. We made sure that there was a line item in the state budget — and it was too small. It was like $300,000. Last year, we were finally able to get $10 million, but this year, we need a lot more. We need to make sure that we are actually getting the funding that we’re asking for to make sure that we can educate people and make sure they can get the services that they need.

I will say that mental health services have to be expanded, too. People often blame others for not taking care of their own mental health. There’s so much stigma in society about it, and I think people are ashamed if they need mental health help. We need to destigmatize it, and we need to make it so there are a lot more people who are getting therapy or getting the help that they need and are not ashamed of getting the care. The wellness-checks conversation is part of this. It’s important for us to make sure that we are giving the right and appropriate services. We have some basic stuff that people could be doing.

New Yorkers are grieving and angry about these recent attacks, and many believe more isn’t being done to address the root causes of the violence we’re seeing — poverty, homelessness, mental health issues. It’s almost like a misguided sense of government priorities. Do you think they are right?

Yeah, absolutely. Right now, our city could make sure that shelters are open in the daytime. Why are our shelters not open in the daytime? Why is it then that people are just waiting outside in the cold, in the heat? It’s really messed up. If people had a place to go, they would go there, but they don’t. Why are our shelters so dangerous? Why is it that some people would prefer to be on the street rather than in the shelter? And why is it that we don’t have actual housing? It costs less. Instead, we’re just building more shelters, you know? Why is it that we have all of this money that’s not actually going into helping to make things better but instead just making things worse?

I don’t understand. And if we’re building transitional housing, I wish that it was actually supportive housing. But if we’re building these kinds of places and providing resources, the resources have to be appropriate. It would be great to help people in actuality. And if somebody is leaving supportive housing, how long does the city and state follow up for? Not very long at all.

The majority of the women who are homeless are people who are victims of domestic violence. There’s not a lot of support or follow-up in where they go and what they do. It’s really important to follow-up because then you end up with a lot of homeless kids in the system, and then you also end up with homeless adults, you know? It’s so easy for anybody to become homeless, and we need to make sure that we are doing preventative things.

I will say that right now, I’m one or two paychecks away from being homeless myself. If I had a medical emergency, I would be homeless.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Chinatown Is Grieving