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Asian Americans in Hawai’i grieve attack in Atlanta

When Sandy Ma, 50, read the news of the fatal shootings at three massage parlors in Atlanta, she worried about her family members who reside there.

By Cassie Ordonio for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser

April 15, 2021


When Sandy Ma, 50, read the news of the fatal shootings at three massage parlors in Atlanta, she worried about her family members who reside there.

Ma, who is Chinese and a downtown Honolulu resident, called them the next day. Their response: “Yeah, they’ve always hated us.”

The news broke Tuesday with reports of a white man who shot at three massage parlors and left eight dead, most of them Asian women. The names of the slain individuals were disclosed Friday: Soon Park, 74; Hyun Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Yue, 63; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; and Paul Andre Michaels, 54.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian American hate incidents have grown significantly across the U.S.

Hawaiʻi is more than 4,400 miles away from Atlanta, which is where Ma grew up. She said even though Hawaiʻi and the mainland have different cultures and attitudes, racism can happen anywhere.

She reflected on the challenges her parents faced while emigrating from Taiwan to the U.S. in the 1960s while raising a family. She emphasized that many immigrants traveling to the U.S. longed for the “American dream.”

“They wanted to come to this country so badly because it is their dream,” Ma said. “Because they know if you can work hard, you can achieve anything. Not just for yourself, but for your kids to make it. But to be vilified and not wanted is just unfathomable.”

Hawaii’s anti-Asian sentiment

Asian Americans — comprising Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos and more — make up the largest ethnic group in the state.

Diverse as Hawaiʻi is, it still has a history of anti-Asian incidents, such as the Japanese internment camps on Oʻahu during World War II.

Amy Agbayani, former ethnic-studies lecturer at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, recalled the 1988 name change of UH’s Porteus Hall, which is now Saunders Hall. Stanley Porteus was a UH professor who made racist and misogynist comments in his research.

“He would have horrible comments saying you can’t trust the Chinese or Japanese,” Agbayani said. “He also said Filipinos are unstable and they will never become American.”

These anti-Asian sentiments are not only a part of Hawaiʻi’s past.

Recently, Kauai Police Chief Todd Raybuck faced backlash for making racist comments about an employee who was of Japanese descent. The Garden Island newspaper reported on an audio recording about what Raybuck said.

In the recording, Raybuck said, “So, somebody in the Japanese culture, if they think your idea is absolutely stupid and the dumbest thing they’ve ever heard, what’s their typical response to you? Yes, yes, yes.”

“He’s absolutely tone deaf if he doesn’t understand that people in Hawaiʻi would be offended by these types of statements,” Agbayani said. “The people in Hawaiʻi have experienced racism for centuries, and it’s easy for them to identify with the attack on the Asian Americans in Georgia. There’s also a history of white supremacy in the state. Many people of color have experienced racism.”

Grieving but resilient

AF3IRM Hawaii members Cu Ri Lee, 32, and Jasmine Pontillas Dave, 31, said they were not surprised about the violent event against Asian Americans in Atlanta. However, that did not stop them from grieving and then reflecting on what it means to be Asian American women.

AF3IRM Hawaii is a local feminist group, organized by a diverse group of women.

“The attacks were horrific but foreseeable,” said Lee, who is Korean. “We’ve normalized harmful stereotypes on Asians, specifically Asian women. Obviously, this isn’t new. We’ve seen this type of violence against Asians throughout American history. We’ve seen the yellow peril as the demise throughout society.”

Both Lee and Dave grew up on Oʻahu. Both said that “violent acts against Asians” have happened in Hawai‘i.

They added how they felt sexualized because of their ethnicities. Both have said they’ve been called exotic — particularity by white men in Hawaiʻi. They emphasized how before the COVID-19 pandemic they never felt safe, and remain vigilant of their surroundings.

Dave was appalled by the reason why the gunman targeted the massage parlors. She cited the fetishization of Asian women working in these businesses.

“There’s a particularly disgusting stereotype that persists, and it’s the idea that Asian women are passive, submissive individuals who exist just to give men access to our bodies for sex and for labor,” she said.

Dave is Filipino and Indian.

“This was motivated by race,” Dave said, referring to the Atlanta shooting.

“A white man felt that these Asian women are a form of temptation to him as if they were objects available for him to purchase and use, instead of seeing them as human beings.”

Following the increased attacks on Asian Americans in the U.S., local organizations voiced their support to the Asian communities.

The Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii released a statement Thursday addressing the incidents, citing that though Hawaiʻi is a melting pot of ethnicities, that doesn’t mean racial discrimination doesn’t exist.

Even the state Legislature passed resolutions condemning any type of xenophobia or anti-Asian sentiments — especially in Hawaiʻi.

There were 42 pages of written testimony supporting the resolutions. Ma was one of the testifiers at Thursday’s hearing and gave emotional testimony about her hometown.

Despite the increase of Asian American hate incidents, Ma, Dave and Lee echoed the resilience of their communities.

“Don’t let other people define you,” Ma said. “Just be unique. It’s OK to speak up and speak out.”

Along with being a co-editor for Ho‘a O‘ahu, Cassie is also the campus...

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