Vulnerable Asian American seniors are once again making headlines in San Francisco: 70-year-old Mrs. Ren was violently robbed and assaulted in a viral video, while former city commissioner Greg Chew, also 70, was seriously injured after being attacked on the street.
During the pandemic, soaring hate incidents against Asian Americans gave rise to a climate of fear in the community as they were unfairly blamed for bringing the virus into the country.
But for many Asian seniors, living in fear is nothing new.
“It’s a long struggle for us,” said Rev. Norman Fong, a well-known Chinatown activist and leader who recently retired from the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC).
For him, the memories of those Asian seniors being attacked, the protests, and the constant calls for justice, reach back further than 2020, and are never going away.
Fong vividly remembers the safety for seniors rallies he helped organize. But the violence is non-stop.
“The hate is worse now,” Fong said.
The Feeling of Being Targeted
A week after being attacked, former commissioner Greg Chew’s pain confirms his deepest fear, he’s been picked on by the perpetrator because of his race.
The 70-year-old long-time city political appointee served on several commissions, including immigrant rights and art and culture.
He was brutally assaulted on Aug, 2 at about 7:30 p.m. on Folsom Street and 3rd Street. He’s hospitalized for his shoulder injury and bruises were all over his face.
“This totally changed my life,” Chew said. “It’s terrible.”
Chew said he was just walking on the street, but the suspect “went after” him, not for money, but just personally “targeted” him. The incident was first reported by ABC7 and quickly picked up by other media.
Days later, SFPD announced the arrest of 34-year-old San Francisco resident Derrick Yearby for the assault.
Chew thanked the swift action from the police and the outpouring of support he received from the community. But he’s still concerned.
“There will be more”, he said. “Other seniors will unfortunately be victims.”
What Are They Thinking Now?
Wing Hoo Leung, Wei Zeng, and Guoren Wang, are all aged over 80 and are often quiet.
On a normal Friday morning in early August, the three Community Tenants Association (CTA) leaders gathered in Chinatown to prepare pamphlets to be mailed out to their members, who are mostly low-income Asian seniors.
But when facing questions about public safety, the atmosphere exploded as seniors felt a strong urge to express their opinions on the violent crimes facing their community.
“We want a peaceful life,” said CTA president Leung, “But seniors are getting attacked, their homes are getting broken into.”
He said he follows Chinese-language news very closely and the attacks against Asians are happening every day. He feels little hope for the situation to improve, especially for low-income seniors, who are facing extremely challenging situations during a public health crisis, high inflation, and crime fears.
“It’s easy to talk,” said Leung. “But it’s hard to bring real change.”
However, Zeng and Wang have some solutions in mind.
“The government should think about the root cause of the crime,” said Zeng.
He believes the people who are committing crimes are dealing with their own crises, including housing insecurity or job insecurity. He suggested the city should provide them with more guidance and support, perhaps in a mandatory way.
He wants better coordination between the police, the district attorney’s office and the court to improve public safety, rather than just focusing on one part.
But for Wang, his approach is more “law-and-order”, and more aligned with many in the community.
“There needs to be serious punishment,” said Wang. “Now they rob as they want, kill as they want. And this needs to change.”
Recent attacks on Asian elders have done nothing positive for stretched racial tensions between communities. But efforts to bring solidarity have continued.
Earlier this year, San Francisco renamed a park after Yik Oi Huang to highlight friendship and peace. She was a victim of a brutal assault and passed away in 2021 at the age of 90.
Retired Board of Supervisors president Norman Yee said different communities need to sit down and talk to better understand each other. He mentioned that after the high-profile incident of the Asian man with recycling bags was attacked in Bayview in 2020, all the leaders across the board immediately joined for a unity rally together.
But said he hasn’t seen enough of that lately. To overcome the division, he suggested there must be more healing processes and joint efforts.
As a 73-year-old, Yee said he doesn’t necessarily feel unsafe in San Francisco, but indeed now lives with heightened awareness when he’s going out.
Yee’s request for more dialogue between communities resonated with Fong.
“There’s hate because they don’t know our suffering,” said Fong, who has been fighting racism since the 60s and vows to continue. “I will never give up.”
Han Li can be reached at [email protected]