History Repeats Itself
Digging up the Roots of Sinophobia in the U.S.
“Scared of pandemics, but hatred's stronger than any virus is
Think I'm dealing with racism worse 'cuz of the outbreak?
No. We've been dealing with racism since birth without breaks
I still have faith in humankind, but what do I know?
Hatred's the most contagious, and these days it's going viral”
— Viral by Year of the Ox
February 16, 2020: I was on my way to a rock concert in Brooklyn, all by myself. Though this was a month before the nationwide lockdown, I masked up for my own safety. I thought nothing of it, and went on with my evening. I rode the subway by myself for the first time. It was one of the best nights of my life.
Less than a week later, an Asian woman in NYC also wearing a face mask was called a "diseased b****" and assaulted in the middle of a subway station. Had I chosen a different concert date...that could have easily been me.
February 2021: One year later. A Brooklyn man was charged with a hate crime for stabbing a 36-year old Asian American man in the back. We had to have walked the same streets. Rode the same trains. I remained quarantined at home when this happened, but the thought still haunts me. That could have easily been me.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and nation-wide quarantine, there has been an alarming upsurge in hate crimes against East and Southeast Asians in the U.S. Horrifying headlines and videos of Asian elders and youth alike being violently pushed to the ground, slashed in the face, and worst of all—killed in broad daylight—have once again made their way through the news and social media in overwhelming numbers.
Many are left wondering, where did we as a nation go wrong? At the same time, too many are unaware that this type of racially charged violence is nothing new to the U.S. For a while, it was dormant. It is the old skin of the nation, scratched at again by the COVID-19 pandemic; and so, the true nature of this country has reared its ugly head once more.
To understand how this is not a newly formed violence, we must rewind back to the root of anti-Chinese sentiment first. Sinophobia is generally defined as the “fear or dislike of China, its people, or its culture.” The centuries-old concept of “othering” China has introduced itself differently throughout the world. However, the presence of Sinophobia in the U.S. alone has a particular timeline of its own—and a very horrific one at that.
One of the most well-known instances of anti-Chinese policy in the U.S. was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, in which the immigration of all Chinese laborers was prohibited at the federal level by President Chester A. Arthur. Moreover, Chinese workers that were still present in the states were disenfranchised and treated like second-class citizens. Looking back, historians attribute this prejudice to a type of fear, often referred to as the “Yellow Peril.” Americans feared that Chinese immigrants would eventually displace them in the workforce since they were willing to work the same jobs for lower wages and longer hours. Thus, Chinese immigrants and, eventually, East and Southeast Asian immigrants as a collective group were deemed threats to the West. Widespread social propaganda would soon follow, depicting these groups as devious, rat-like people “infesting” the country.
One particularly violent instance of Sinophobia in the U.S. stands out among most, though: the 1900 Honolulu Chinatown Fire. When the bubonic plague hit Honolulu’s densely populated Chinatown in December 1899, even more mass hysteria followed. It began with a slow spread in Asia in the 1870s, and eventually reached commercial and port cities in southern China. It is believed that steamship freighters that departed from Chinese ports for Honolulu could have carried infected rats and fleas, thus leading to the emergence of the bubonic plague in Honolulu's Chinatown.
In short, Hawai’i’s Board of Health’s decision essentially led to the destruction of the entire Chinatown, deeming it a “hotbed for the plague.” They imposed a strict quarantine on the inhabitants of this area, and ordered the National Guard to hold the residents at gunpoint to enforce it. Keep in mind that Honolulu’s Chinatown at the time was almost completely home to non-white individuals: between 6,000 and 10,000 Chinese, Japanese, and Kanakas (native Hawaiians) lived and work there.
Starting on New Year’s Eve, the Board of Health began controlled burnings of individual blocks in the Chinatown. When this order was executed on January 20th, however, one burning expanded as a result of strong winds that day, blazing completely out of control and demolishing approximately one-fifth of Honolulu’s buildings. But worst of all: when the residents attempted to evacuate the areas set ablaze, white guards, police officers, and armed citizens forced them back into the inferno.
CONTENT WARNING: Brief mention of sexual abuse ahead. Skip the following paragraph completely if this is a concern for you.
Eight thousand residents, mostly the aforementioned Chinese, Japanese, and Kanaka ethnic groups, were left homeless and forced into detention camps where they would be stripped naked and physically inspected in front of everyone. White guards stood by and watched these individuals horrifically dehumanized in front of their friends and families.
In stark contrast, four white residents also lost their homes in the fires, but those suspected of having the plague were housed in hotels instead of “disinfection” camps. Even after the disaster of January 20th, the Board of Health set another thirty controlled fires in Chinatown.
The violence we see against Asian Americans today is nothing new. It is not reducible to “current events.” This is American history repeating itself. Many turn to shock as their go-to response: How could this happen? How could we let it happen? Why is there so much hatred in this world? But as painful as it is to watch these horrific events unfold, shock goes hand-in-hand with ignorance. The longer you sit in a room with the lights off, the more startling it is to feel the light penetrate your eyes once it’s turned on. Sinophobia lives—no, it thrives—in darkness. As shown throughout American history, hatred is so terrifyingly easy to muffle. Screams for justice from racial violence are reduced to white noise when disbelief drowns out rage. I say, let it be known that ignorance and disbelief are as violent as hatred.
I implore you all to be the ones to turn the lights on. Shake the table. We were bred to believe that history was recorded to prevent us from making the same mistakes as our predecessors, and that’s exactly why most of us haven’t learned about what happened in Honolulu in 1900.
To willingly turn a blind eye to the violence is to push the victims of the fire back into the inferno. Sinophobia, like all other forms of racial prejudice, are relentless flames that America has continuously refused to smother.
How do you feel knowing what you know now about the history of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment in America? Have you participated in any actions in response to the surge in anti-East and Southeast Asian hate crimes? Are there any relevant organizations or initiatives that we should be supporting right now? Leave a comment below. Thank you!
To further decolonize our minds:
The New Yorker | The Muddled History of Anti-Asian Violence by Hua Hsu
BBC | Sinophobia: How a Virus Reveals the Many Ways China Is Feared
The Daily Show With Trevor Noah | Hate Crimes Against Asian Americans Continue to Rise (Video)
TEDx Talks | Killed By Hate - How Hate Crimes Attack Identities (Video)
NBC | Activists Denounce Increase In Hate Crimes Against Asian Americans (Video)
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