For Simon Timony, news of an increase in violence against Asian Americans quickly became personal. His fiancee’s Chinese grandfather was harassed on a bus and an elderly Asian man was attacked a few blocks from his house in San Francisco’s Ingleside neighborhood.
Timony, who is part Filipino, began distributing care packages to seniors, which included a card with a police tip line number, masks, hand sanitizer and a cookie, “just to make folks feel better,” he said.
“When it hits that close to home, you’ve got to do something,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Following what California’s attorney general called an “epidemic of hate” against Asian people amid the spread of Covid-19, San Francisco’s Asian American community repeatedly took to the streets.
In August, hundreds of protesters marched from North Beach to Chinatown, carrying banners that said “Asian Elders Deserve Safety.” Other rallies bore names like “Stop Asian Hate,” “Asians Are Strong” and “Asian Justice Rally.”
But behind the protests and politics is a quieter, also important story: Ordinary Asian Americans who sprung into action to push back against the hateful incidents striking terror in their community.
Timony’s work blossomed into a neighborhood organization that serves immigrants and elders, with its tip line card now offered in nine languages. Others taught self-defense to elders, created advocacy groups or aggressively reported on anti-Asian hate in the media.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have an overlooked history of leadership in the struggle for civil rights. Among many historical examples, in the mid-1960s Filipino farmworkers led strikes against grape growers and in the 1970s Chinatown activists protested the exclusion of Asian American construction workers.
But community leaders say recent events represent a new and important wellspring of activism and civic engagement.
“I have never witnessed this level of activation and interest in getting involved and doing something,” said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a San Francisco advocacy organization.
In February 2020, an attacker knocked a disabled 84-year-old Chinese American man to the ground as he waited for a bus in the Tenderloin.
Two days later, a 68-year-old Chinese American man was assaulted and robbed in the Bayview while collecting recyclables.
Among the most shocking crimes was the killing of 84-year-old Thai American grandfather Vicha Ratanapakdee, who was shoved to the ground during a morning walk last January. He died two days later.
The attacks, combined with news about similar incidents around the country, created an environment of fear in San Francisco.
Laurel Song Mayeda, a 27-year-old graduate student who lived in Oakland, said that after her grandmother and mother got Covid-19 vaccines, she continued to do shopping for them.
“I didn't have a vaccine, but I was going out because I was the youngest one and probably the only one who could defend myself if I were to get into a fight with somebody,” she said.
Choi’s organization joined with two others to form Stop AAPI Hate, which has a web portal allowing visitors to report hate incidents that might otherwise be overlooked.
“This is an issue that is so cross-cutting that it has really been a wake up call for so many parts of our community,” Choi said.
Last year, Chinese American Kung Fu master Jeff Chow began offering two-day self-defense seminars for people over 65 at his dojo in San Francisco’s western Richmond neighborhood. More than 200 people—about 70% of them Asian—took him up on the offer.
The initial seminars have now become a special martial arts class offered twice a week for senior citizens.
Chinese people often “want to be able to succeed, but not make a big ruckus or big noise about it,” he said. Culturally, they have often been hesitant to speak out about or even report the problems they face.
The reports of violent incidents changed that.
“It’s the randomness of these events, I think, that really mobilized the community,” Chow said.
Watch: Kung Fu Master Teaches Self-Defense to SF Seniors
For Dion Lim, an anchor at KGO-TV/ABC7 News, violence against Asian Americans made her imagine herself on the other side of the camera.
The violence “triggered something within me, because it was the first time I uncovered a story where the victims so graphically looked like my loved ones or could very well be me,” Lim told The Standard. “Something ignited in me.”
At previous jobs, Lim had been told she belonged on a morning show because she was alway smiling and loved to laugh. She had a reputation for finding uplifting and positive stories.
She is now an “accidental AAPI hate reporter,” she said. In both her reporting and her social media, she has told the stories of Asian Americans who faced racism and violence.
In March 2021, Lim grilled then-District Attorney Chesa Boudin about his handling of violence against Asians.
"Denouncing is one thing, but what have you implemented, boots on the ground, yourself?" Dion said.
Watch: Dion Lim, Popular Bay Area News Anchor, Reflects on Two Years of Covering Anti-Asian Hate
Asian American voters have long been influential in San Francisco politics, but in 2022 the effects of this power seemed ubiquitous.
In February, voters recalled three members of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education. Among the reasons was a move to end merit-based admissions at Lowell High School, whose student body is more than half Asian American, echoing similar controversies at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York City and at Harvard University.
Two other votes—the recall of Boudin and the election of supervisor Joel Engardio—were also perceived as races where Asian voters played a decisive role.
Lillian Sing, a retired San Francisco Superior Court judge and a community activist, believes that alongside activism, direct participation in the political process is also growing.
“Our community is getting better because we have empowered the community with more voters,” she said.
When Sing got her start in civil rights activism back in the 1970s, the community’s needs were more basic: food security, housing, education. She says lingering fear from the Red Scare era kept some people from speaking up.
“I'm very happy to see so many Chinese Americans involved in so many different movements,” Sing said. “We are going forward.”
Han Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org