Great Britain

We investigate the shocking rise in Asian hate crime since Covid hit

WALKING her dog through an Edinburgh park in June 2020, 33-year-old student Vivien was enjoying the feeling of freedom as the first lockdown lifted. Then, suddenly, she heard vile racist taunts ring out.

“I told them to leave me alone – then one of them threw a bottle of Corona beer, which bounced off me. I was livid – it made me so annoyed that they felt they had the right to do that.”

Vivien – who was born in Borneo and moved to the UK when she was very young – was certain that the Corona bottle was a statement about the virus. She left the park quickly but did not report the incident to the police.

“I didn’t feel that I’d be listened to,” she says. “I have always felt like my culture is portrayed negatively and that there is hostility towards people who are perceived as Chinese, but when the pandemic kicked in, I knew it was going to get worse for us.”

Vivien, who has now founded the campaign group East and Southeast Asian Scotland (ESAS), was no stranger to racial slurs. Like millions of other East and Southeast Asians (ESEA), she grew up around racism.

I have always felt like my culture is portrayed negatively and that there is hostility towards people who are perceived as Chinese.


She recalls first being racially abused by a classmate at school as a teen, and says she suspects she’s been turned down for jobs at interview in the past because of her appearance.

But since the pandemic began, things have become considerably worse. The ESEA community – which includes people of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese heritage – is under siege.

After news of the Covid outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan made headlines, London’s Met Police recorded 166 verbal, online and physical attacks against ESEA people in February and March 2020, a rise of more than 200 per cent on the previous two months.

As the virus spread, so did the hate. In February 2020, two women were attacked outside the Runcorn Chinese takeaway where they worked, with one left with head injuries.

Yan Xie, the daughter of one of the women, said they have been the constant target of unprovoked hate from a group of teenagers.

Other high-profile cases in the UK have included the attack of Singaporean student Jonathan Mok by a group of boys in London’s Oxford Street in February 2020.


His assailants shouted, “We don’t want your coronavirus in our country,” as they beat him, leaving him requiring facial surgery.

Race hate has even been directed at NHS nurses working on the frontline. In February this year, nurse Aldarico Jr Velasco, who is from the Philippines, was racially abused while on duty.

In London alone there were 261 ESEA hate crimes recorded in April 2020, 323 in May and 395 in June. What’s more, officers were found to be recording the ethnic appearance of victims as “oriental”, an outdated term now widely considered to be offensive.

Shockingly, the true figures are thought to be far higher. According to advocacy group End the Virus of Racism, there’s been a 300 per cent rise in Covid-related hate crimes towards ESEA people in the UK since the start of the pandemic.

Charley Wong, founder of Besea.n (Britain’s East and South East Asian Network), says: “These incidents include a range of violent attacks, verbal abuse and more.

"In addition to this, anecdotally, we know that hate incidents and crimes often go unreported.”

For Vivien, the bottle attack was the latest in a series of incidents since the pandemic began. In March 2020, a woman on a bus sprayed a cloud of sanitiser towards her.

“At first I thought she was just odd, but then I realised it was because I was sitting near her. She wasn’t spraying it at anyone else,” Vivien recalls.

“In June 2020, I called a shop for a quote to fix my bike. The shopkeeper was friendly on the phone, but when I brought it in, he made me wait outside for half an hour before finally coming out to say he couldn’t do it, after all.

"It was obvious – as soon as he saw my face, his attitude changed. Some places just refuse to serve Chinese customers.

“People cross the road to avoid me, and I’ve seen mothers pull their children away from me as I walk past.

"After the bottle attack, I didn’t leave the house on my own for months because the environment felt so hostile. I didn’t want to go out. But sadly, my experiences are not unique.”

The issue of Asian hate was brought into horrific focus in March this year when a gunman went on a rampage in Atlanta, Georgia. He specifically targeted spas and massage parlours, where six of the eight victims who died were Asian women.

The suspect, 21-year-old white American Robert Aaron Long, is now in custody, and Georgia Representative Bee Nguyen described the motivation for his alleged crime as “gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia”.

The shootings sparked an outpouring of anger and attention on a rise in crimes against Asian Americans,  which has been linked to rhetoric from former president Donald Trump, who repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus” and “Kung flu”.

His language was condemned by public figures including Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon and Star Trek actor George Takei. The #stopasianhate campaign, launched in response to the Atlanta shootings, also raised awareness of the issue in the UK and internationally.

After the bottle attack, I didn’t leave the house on my own for months because the environment felt so hostile.


The hate attacks have continued in the US, and in March this year, a shocking video emerged that showed lobby staff at a New York apartment block allegedly ignoring a 65-year-old Asian woman as she was kicked to the ground and stamped on outside.

The doormen only moved to close the doors as the woman, who was later hospitalised, lay injured outside, and two staff members were subsequently sacked.

Amy Lo is a 29-year-old writer from London. Her parents moved to Stoke-on-Trent from China before she was born.

She says racism was rarely an issue in the community she grew up in and that she became aware of it when she moved to the capital for work seven years ago.

In London, she’s been racially abused while walking with a friend, and sexually propositioned and called a “Thai bride”. Last year, she experienced Covid-related race hate while commuting to work from her home in south London.

“It happened just before the first lockdown,” she recalls. “I sat down on the train and the woman opposite pulled her coat over her face and turned away.

"I thought I was reading too much into it, but it was clear she did it specifically because of how I look. I was angry, upset and started questioning myself.

“It bothered me all the way into work and left me feeling extremely annoyed and frustrated. These aren’t the sort of incidents that you can report to the police, but they weigh on me heavily.

"My brother is 20 years older, so he had it worse when he was younger in the ‘70s and we talk about it, but it just perplexes me that people can be like that.”

“It’s really sad, because now that boy thinks being Chinese is a bad thing,” says Amy.

“My family are proud of our heritage and we want him to know that there is nothing wrong with being Chinese.”

These aren’t the sort of incidents that you can report to the police, but they weigh on me heavily.

Amy Lo

Dr Diana Yeh, associate dean of equality, diversity and inclusion for the School of Arts and Social Sciences at City University, believes one of the reasons ESEA hate crimes remained largely hidden until the Atlanta shooting was because it’s assumed Asian people are “model minorities”.

“Because of the racialised stereotypes that we ‘do well in education and employment’ and are supposedly ‘well integrated into society’, we are assumed not to experience racism or racial disadvantage,” she explains

“Another of the reasons why Asian hate crime is not acknowledged is the invisibility of East and Southeast Asians in the UK as a legacy of colonialism. Since Covid, we’ve seen a huge rise in anti-racist activism in ESEA groups. It’s a historic moment.”

Illustrator and campaigner Mildred Cheng, from Hong Kong and now living in London, runs an art project called Don’t Call Me Oriental, which is part of the new wave of ESEA activism. It raises money for anti-racist organisations.

She explains older generations remained silent about racist incidents because they didn’t like to “make a fuss”, and were concerned with making a living after moving to the UK.


She points out that many incidents are classed as “micro-aggressions”. “There are lots of smaller incidents that don’t get reported to police, such as someone being spat at or coughed at, or being called a racial slur,” she says.

“When you look at these things together, it is huge. Until the last few months, there wasn’t a lot of awareness outside the community and it’s felt like a bubble where only Asian people have known about it.”

Since the 2000s, UK police forces have enrolled in the True Vision initiative, which encourages greater reporting of hate crimes and improved services for victims.

Witnesses and victims can report incidents at or by calling 101. For people such as Vivien, the solution begins with understanding.

“Many don’t make the distinction between different types of ESEA people. But even if I were Chinese, this treatment isn’t justified.

"You look a certain way, which you can’t change, and you get conflated with events that have nothing to do with you. It’s not fair and it’s undeserved,” she says.

“When I was younger I would go along with the jibes, I’d take the mickey out of myself. I didn’t have the confidence to stick up for myself – but I’m empowered now.

“I understand the issues and the damage that is being done. I set up ESAS in July 2020 after I saw there were no similar organisations in Scotland at that time. I saw what was happening and how the community was being discriminated against and I thought: ‘It’s time to act.’”

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