Courtesy of Ding Bong Lee.

As news broke in early 2020 that a deadly and contagious Covid-19 virus hit Wuhan, China, American tourists disappeared from Chinatown’s streets. By mid-February, former San Francisco Superior Court Judge Julie Tang realized she and her friends were the sole diners at a normally popular dim sum restaurant. 

No one was there — or in any other Chinatown restaurant, the owner told her, because diners feared catching the virus from Chinese people. The restaurant normally earned thousands of dollars per day. In mid-February, 2020, it was averaging $300 a day. 

“What happens in China doesn’t have anything to do with us,” Tang recalled telling the owner. And San Francisco had not yet reported any cases

“But [people] call me a virus. They say, you,” — a Chinese person — “are a virus,” Tang recalled the owner replying. 

This whole thing is going to take down Chinatown, Tang thought, and she began making calls. By the end of the month, Tang, Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association former president Dan Ding Bong Lee, and other Chinese leaders had organized a rally and crafted a banner and slogan: “Fight the Virus, Not the People!” More than 1,000 people marched through Chinatown proudly carrying the banner. 

On Tuesday morning, representatives from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History will be in San Francisco to accept the banner and add it to the collection. “This one artifact shows how members of the oldest Chinatown in North America challenged scapegoating during a public health crisis” and other “ongoing violence and discrimination,” said Smithsonian director Anthea Hartig in a press release. 

For now it’s just an acceptance; there are no “immediate” plans to display the banner, because the museum’s measurements still need to be assessed, a Smithsonian statement said. But Hartig will attend Tuesday’s San Francisco ceremony at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Smithsonian will launch a “digital program” based on that event.  

As Hartig notes, aversion to Chinese immigrants in the United States is hardly new — just look at the Chinese Exclusion Act, the deadly labor conditions of the Transcontinental Railroad, Cold War sentiments, films like “Sixteen Candles,” and other insensitive remarks about food or culture. 

But, after former President Donald Trump used phrases like “Kung Flu” and political tensions rose between the countries, violent hate crimes toward Asian Americans increased. 

According to Stop AAPI Hate, which was co-founded by local Chinese for Affirmative Action and San Francisco State professor Russell Jeung, more than 10,000 anti-Asian hate crimes occurred nationwide from March, 2020, to December, 2021. 

In San Francisco, 84-year-old Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee was violently pushed to the ground and died. A massacre of white and South Korean women working in an Atlanta spa made national headlines that same year. Just last month, in New York City, a 28-year-old man spent two hours assaulting a string of Asian women

Many viral videos that emerged in 2021 showed attacks against Asian seniors in San Francisco. The former judge said one Chinatown friend was walking with his daughter when a tourist accosted him and told him to go back to his country. Tang said her Chinese friend was approached by a white woman at a restaurant in the Marina District and demanded she learn English. Her friend, shocked, shot back, “When I first spoke English, you weren’t even born.” 

Tang, like other elderly Asian seniors, now fears for her safety and avoids Market Street. She started carrying a whistle when she’s out. Then a whistle became pepper spray. Then a pointed object. Tang stopped short of purchasing a gun. 

“I lived in San Francisco for oh, over 40 years,” said Tang, who emigrated from Hong Kong in 1967. “I have never felt, by just being Chinese, that my personal safety is at such risk. Until now.” 

Hate crimes spurred Tang and others to take action; she joined protests led by young people that celebrated safety and upheld solidarity between the Black and Asian community. 

A spirit of fighting for her community also motivated her to spread the word of Chinese Americans’ current plight. A Smithsonian curator who is Filipino, Theodore Gonzalves, happened to reach out to SF State professor Jeung about the banner. Jeung got Tang involved, who agreed to give the museum the banner, but the deal dragged on. Tang eagerly reminded the museum about the importance of displaying it, she said, until it became official. 

Tang felt the Smithsonian, which brought in some 2.8 million visitors in 2019, would have significant reach.

She recalled carefully planning the message with Lee and others amid a stressful period. The vinyl sign is black, red and gold, lucky colors in Chinese culture. Below the English message, one in Cantonese reads, “Together we support the businesses, [we are] against discrimination.” And “[We] support fighting the global pandemic, with courage and determination.”

“The power of media, and of museums, is truly so important,” Tang said. “A moment like this is a shining star.”

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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