This is What East and Southeast Asian Hate Looks Like in the UK

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This piece was written for GoFundMe by writer, performer, activist and Mandarin translator Enxi Erskine Chang as part of our campaign to support the UK’s East and South East Asian community.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, hate crimes against people of ESEA (East and Southeast Asian) descent have seen a terrifying increase. There has been significant media attention on violence towards Asians in the US, like the horrific Atlanta spa shootings where 8 people lost their lives, but this focus on the US can sometimes make it seem like this isn’t also an issue in countries like UK. 

This needs to change. Racism and violence towards the UK’s ESEA community is real, and we need to start addressing it.

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The scale of the problem

In the UK, police data shows hate crimes towards ‘Chinese, East and Southeast Asians’ tripled in just the first quarter of 2020 alone, and the true number is probably much higher, since many of these incidents will go unreported due to some of the victims being unable to speak English, or simply a lack of education on how to report hate crimes. 

There have been a couple high profile incidents in the UK, like the broad daylight assault of Singaporean man Jonathan Mok on Oxford Street towards the start of the pandemic, or the more recent attack on Southampton University Lecturer Peng Wang earlier this year. However, many of these attacks will go unreported by the media, and the overall UK population seems generally unaware of what is happening to our East and Southeast Asian community.

There are a couple reasons for this. Despite the significant historical presence of East and Southeast Asians in the UK since the 1800s, ESEA people are all but invisible in the UK’s overall cultural landscape. 

There is barely any media representation of the ESEA community, and there are many people who assume that British ESEA communities do not even exist, or that the only ESEA people in this country are immigrants or international students, a racist belief that stems from the perpetual foreigner stereotype. To fight against this, better media representation of our ESEA communities is essential, especially given the current representation we do have.

Sinophobia

MP Sarah Owen held the first debate in the House of Commons about how images of ESEA people have been used by the media to illustrate UK-based COVID-19 stories, even in articles that have nothing to do with China or the ESEA community. This is a clear example of Sinophobia (discrimination towards China or Chinese people) and reinforces the stereotype that COVID-19 is the ‘Chinese virus’, and that Chinese people and other ESEA people are to blame, as shown by the popularity of phrases like ‘China Lied, People Died’. However, zero Tory MPs showed up for this debate, sending a ‘damning message’ that our leaders do not care about the ESEA community. 

Systemic discrimination in media depictions of ESEA people is a major reason for these hate crimes. Anti-ESEA hate is not just random attacks – it is enabled and encouraged on a systemic level by our leaders and media. 

British MPs have been overheard calling Chinese people ‘evil bastards’. Recently the Times ran an article saying that the British public ‘secretly rather enjoyed’ Prince Philip’s racist ‘gaffe’ of calling Chinese people ‘slitty-eyed’. It is clear that our leaders do not care about our community, and that violence and hatred towards ESEA people everywhere is just collateral damage in the ruling class’ ongoing Cold War against China.

This racism affects all levels of society. Recently Prime Minister Boris Johnson wished the British Chinese community a happy Lunar New Year, which was met with a horrific display of overt racism from the British public, as exposed in a viral Instagram post by @dearasianyouthlondon. The fact that these horrific beliefs are expressed so casually by so many members of the British public is terrifying for our British ESEA communities and can easily transform into real life violence.

Asian erasure

Sinophobia has a serious effect on not just the UK’s Chinese community, but all other East and Southeast Asians. It is a common racist stereotype that people cannot tell ESEA people apart, which leads to many ESEA people being profiled as Chinese. This is reinforced by the erasure of non-Chinese East and especially Southeast Asian communities – on the UK government’s official website, the only ethnic groups available for ESEA people are ‘Asian – Chinese’ and ‘Any other Asian background’

This is despite the huge presence of ESEA communities across the country, with Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Burmese, Filipinos, Cambodians etc. making up a significant portion of the UK’s ESEA community. When combined with the rampant Sinophobic sentiment in the UK, this erasure of individual communities implicitly suggests that all ESEA ethnic groups are Chinese, making all ESEA people extremely vulnerable to sinophobic racism.

The British Filipino community has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. Despite their significant presence in the UK and significant contributions to the NHS (there are 22,043 Filipinos working in the NHS out of 1.28 million staff, despite Filipinos only making up 0.3% of the UK’s total population), this has been all but overlooked by the general population, even though it was recently reported that more Filipino healthcare workers have died of COVID-19 in the UK than in the Philippines. If this wasn’t bad enough, despite the community’s major contributions to this country during the pandemic, many Filipinos have been victims of Sinophobia-fuelled racism – but Clap for Our Carers, right?

Model minority myth

Despite all this, many in this country will deny the existence of Anti-ESEA racism, or gaslight the ESEA community when we try to speak up about it where and how it manifests. 

The heavily criticised 2021 UK Race Report stated that ‘Chinese ethnic groups are on average earning notably more than the White British average’ in a clear attempt to suggest that racism against Chinese (and other ESEA communities) does not exist. It is a very common sentiment for people to say that the perceived wealth of the Chinese community means that they do not face any systemic disadvantages or discrimination.

Human history has shown us time and time again that certain ethnic groups being stereotyped as wealthy hardly makes them immune to discrimination – in many cases these stereotypes can actively contribute to their persecution  Furthermore, there are significant working class ESEA communities across the UK, particularly Southeast Asian communities. 

This belief that ESEA people are all wealthy is rooted in the model minority myth (MMM) which stereotypes ESEA people (particularly East Asians) as hard-working, successful and wealthy but lacking creativity or individuality – essentially robbing ESEA people of our humanity and reducing us to our labour. 

The MMM perpetuates violence against multiple communities of colour. It means that ESEA people are held to unreasonably high expectations in order to be seen as societally acceptable – realistically, there aren’t that many people who can achieve As in every subject, study at prestigious Russell Groups and go on to become accountants, doctors and lawyers, all while being classical instrument prodigies – and yet this is considered the standard for ESEA people. 

This creates impossibly high expectations for ESEA individuals and actively excludes ESEA people who are disabled, working class, neurodivergent, LGBTQIA+ (particularly trans), Black, and anyone else who falls outside of the suffocatingly narrow parameters allowed us by the MMM. 

Furthermore, this myth harms other communities of colour, particularly the Black community by suggesting systemic disadvantages faced by these communities are due to ‘not working hard enough’. In fact, this is the reason why the MMM was first created.

You can make a difference

Anti-ESEA racism is not just a US problem, it is just as bad in the UK. It is everything from subtle comments and microaggressions to violent hate crimes, and it is enabled and perpetuated by our leaders and media. It is everyone’s responsibility to fight against it and support our ESEA communities. 

East and Southeast Asians are not a faceless monolith. We aren’t just quiet, hard-working takeaway owners or accountants, we are a diverse and beautiful community of different genders, sexualities and ethnic backgrounds, we are actors, healthcare workers, writers, teachers, singers, activists, rappers, artists, designers, DJs, and so much more, and we deserve to be seen, heard and protected.

You can support the UK’s ESEA community by donating to the ESEA community fund, and you can also follow grassroots UK-based ESEA organisations like besea.n, Dear Asian Youth London, Kanlungan UK, Hackney Chinese Community Services, End the Virus of Racism, Racism Unmasked Edinburgh and more. 

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 The views in this piece are the author’s own and do not represent the views of GoFundMe.