This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action. This article also was produced in collaboration with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), who provided the interviews of elderly tenants in Los Angeles Chinatown.
We at the Xīn Shēng Project are each tied to a Chinatown in some way. Some of us grew up and/or worked in a Chinatown in New York City, Boston, the Bay Area, Chicago, Houston, or Los Angeles. Others drove from the suburbs to the nearest Chinatown for dim sum, Chinese school, dance class or kung fu. Many of us have grandparents who live, or once lived, in a Chinatown.
For Chinese Americans across generations, Chinatowns are important places for our communities, especially our elders — our 公公, 婆婆; our 爺爺, 奶奶.
This year, many of the most visible acts of anti-Asian violence have occurred against elderly Asian Americans living in Chinatowns across the country. When we see those videos, our bodies react viscerally — our blood boils, skin crawls, heart stops. In February of 2020, an elderly Asian man was attacked, humiliated and called racial slurs while collecting cans in a San Francisco neighborhood. Chinese Americans across the internet rallied against his attacker. Few, however, would have rallied against the conditions that forced him into collecting cans for a living to begin with.
Lilly spends eight hours a day sifting through other people’s recycling for enough bottles and cans — worth three to five cents each — to get by. Lilly is one of many elderly residents of Chinatowns who make their living this way. (Source)
When we see old Chinese women pushing carts of recycled cans to sell, we don’t see their photos flooding our feeds. We tweet and blog and rant about anti-Asian hate incidents, then walk through Chinatown past homeless men curled up on the sidewalk — short white beards tucked against once-white tank tops. What they endure is violence too, but there’s no demand for justice. No palpable urgency; no viral headlines.
Framing incidents of anti-Asian violence as “Black-on-Asian crime” creates a tangible crisis with ostensibly tangible solutions. There’s a sickening pro-Chineseness in anti-blackness. (It should be noted that this is false, as the vast majority of attackers are white.) 280 characters on a tweet cannot sensationalize gentrification, eviction threats, or lack of healthcare. There is no self-righteousness in acknowledging that the elderly and the working class Asian Americans — who are the most likely to be targeted in anti-Asian hate incidents — need more than our hashtags of #StopAAPIHate.
Elders of Los Angeles Chinatown — such as this 90-year-old tenant speaks to Meta Housing’s CEO John Huskey (the white man on the far left) — protest against unaffordable rising rents in a CCED-led demonstration. (source)
We, as Chinese Americans, rarely react to the type of violence that is less visible, less visceral but always present—the “slow violence” that continues to target Chinese people, Chinatowns, and the elderly in particular. “Slow violence,” as coined by Princeton scholar Rob Nixon, occurs “gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” Nixon’s scholarship, which analyzes the effects of environmental disasters on poor and disempowered communities, helps illuminate the widely unacknowledged race- and class-based violence facing Chinatowns, the Chinese elderly, and Chinese Americans.
As an example of slow violence caused by rising rents, please listen to elderly Chinese American tenants who live in Los Angeles Chinatown apartments for low-income residents over the age of 55 — such as Metro and Alpine Apartments — tell their stories. The interviewees are Ms. Guang and other Metro tenants, Mr. Huang from Alpine, and Ms. Young from Metro, respectively. They recount struggles to afford food and a place to live as rents skyrocket but their incomes remain the same. The following interviews were recorded in 2018 — before the pandemic has made the housing crisis even worse — by Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), an all-volunteer, multi-ethnic, intergenerational group organizing for Los Angeles Chinatown workers and residents, including these elderly tenants. Because we often don’t hear from Chinatown communities — especially their elders — in mainstream media, it’s essential to amplify and honor their voices at the forefront of the movement against anti-Asian violence.
In the first video clip, Ms. Guang describes how despite decades of labor, government benefits to working-class seniors — housing and retirement, like Social Security — are far too little. Instead, the government turns a blind eye to tenants, and existing policies unjustly favor landlords and developers.
In the second and third clips, Mr. Huang and Ms. Young tell us when rent rises, seniors worry about how they will survive. A $61 dollar rent increase means seniors in LA’s Metro Apartments are left with only $100 monthly for necessities. Barely enough for food and other basic living supplies, Ms. Young’s net income — like many other seniors — is only slightly supplemented by her children — who, too, struggle in supporting their mother.
“If [the landlord raises rent] again next year, then I won’t have enough money to buy food,” Ms. Young admits.
CCED demonstrators protest against developers Atlas Capital — who plan to build luxury condos to displace working class Chinatown residents who already struggle to afford rent, which would only rise with this new corporate development — and against the city government of Los Angeles, who approved Atlas’ development. (top source, bottom source)
These Los Angeles Chinatown residents interviewed by CCED re-affirm that slow violence can be just as deadly as acts of racial hatred. Most violence occurring against Chinese Americans is not individual attacks captured in viral videos or headlines, but rather systemic race- and class-based violence.
Indeed, the perpetrators of anti-Asian violence often “wear suits,” as CCED observed. They are corporations and developers who have financial incentive to gentrify and replace Chinatown with profitable luxury high-rise buildings and big chain businesses. They are landlords who have financial incentive to evict working class tenants. They are government leaders with political incentive to rile up a voter base and public against a common enemy of China and Chinese people. They are “professionals, creatives, and even other Asian Americans,” as CCED pointed out. They are people in power who want to keep the status quo: a nation in which BIPOC communities and the working class are scapegoated, exploited, and subdued so that white supremacy and the wealthy can continue to reign.
People in power, such as Atlas Capital Group members (pictured at top) and politicians (pictured at bottom), are responsible for the anti-Asian violence of displacing Los Angeles Chinatown residents out of their homes. (source)
We Chinese Americans must hold these people in power — and ourselves — accountable to our elderly and Chinatowns, as stopping anti-Asian violence will require stopping the slow violence raging in Chinatowns across the country. Increased policing and carceral responses do nothing to stop this systemic violence. Those approaches only address individual perpetrators instead of the broken systems at the root of the problem, and police have only further hurt BIPOC communities, including Los Angeles Chinatown. CCED offers an alternative to increased policing to address the root causes of systemic violence — such as poverty — in our Chinatowns and greater Asian communities.
During the pandemic and beyond, CCED has been providing mutual aid to Chinatown residents, supporting struggling small businesses and tenants, protesting for affordable housing and an end to evictions, and organizing against private corporations and developers. CCED has also been part of a larger Coast to Coast Chinatowns (C2C) coalition that unites organizers to fight against the displacement of Chinatown communities across North America — in Montreal, Toronto, Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City, San Francisco, and Boston.
CCED joins forces with Southeast Asian Community Alliance volunteers to provide food, PPE, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and more in mutual aid care packages tailored to the needs of each low-income household of Los Angeles Chinatown. (source)
Coast to Coast Chinatowns (C2C) coalition members protest together against Atlas Capital developments approved by the city government that would gentrify and replace Los Angeles Chinatown with luxury apartments. (source)
In Los Angeles Chinatown, slow violence looks like encroaching corporate developments, rising rents, and the threat of eviction faced by low-income and elderly Chinese people, a reality that is typically not viewed as violence at all (Source: CCED). In Boston Chinatown, slow violence is inhaled as the worst air quality in all of Massachusetts, the result of transportation emissions which lead, gradually, to negative health outcomes (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists). In Chicago Chinatown, slow violence slowly seeps into home gardens as toxic levels of lead, contaminating family crops and poisoning families who grow bitter melon, sweet potatoes, and Chinese eggplant (Source: Chicago Asian Americans for Environmental Justice).
It is difficult to protect oneself from hate incidents. It is even more difficult to protect oneself from slow violence. No amount of personal hard work, legal obedience, nor filial status has protected the elderly residents of Los Angeles Chinatown from corporate gentrification, the residents of Boston Chinatown from transportation pollution, nor the residents of Chicago Chinatown from toxic industrial contamination. These are systemic problems, and we need to fight for systemic solutions: better housing, healthcare, employment, and other social and economic support for Chinatowns and other working class, elderly, and BIPOC communities.
To do so, donate to, amplify, and volunteer with CCED and your local organization from the Coast to Coast Chinatowns network. Join Chinatown residents’ protests and workers’ picket lines. In your Chinatown, eat at mom and pop restaurants and shop at local stores instead of chains and corporate businesses. If you are a class privileged Chinese American professional who is considering moving into a metropolitan area, think about the low-income people whom you may be displacing. Ask yourself: how can I stand in solidarity with the working class, with tenants’ rights, the houseless, and the elderly among our Chinese diaspora community and beyond?