"We Can't Be Silent": Asian Americans in Hollywood Denounce "Chinese Virus" and Racist Incidents

Tzi Ma, Ciela Au and Eugene Lee Yang-Getty-H 2020
Gregg DeGuire/FilmMagic; Monica Schipper/FilmMagic; Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Actors, creatives and advocates offer ways to promote inclusivity amid a crisis and say Trump's attempt to racialize the pandemic is "only adding fuel to an already blazing fire."

"I want us all to understand there is no 'Chinese Virus.' A virus knows no nationality, and wherever and however it started, it does us no good to point fingers, ostracize, attack or demonize Asian people."

Shannon Lee, daughter of martial arts film star Bruce Lee, recently wrote this message on her late father's Instagram, offering a not-so-subtle criticism of President Donald Trump and senior members of his administration who have continually referred to the novel coronavirus — which has caused a global pandemic comprising almost half a million confirmed cases of the disease COVID-19 and over 20,000 deaths — as a "Chinese virus," despite the World Health Organization's warning against using geographic locations when naming illnesses.

The phrase is now linked to a wave of racist attacks against Asians and Asian Americans, from hate-filled messages on social media platforms to physical assaults in public. 

The Young Turks host Cenk Uygur tweeted about his children being bullied by classmates. Weijia Jiang, CBS News' White House correspondent, revealed that a White House official had referred to the coronavirus as the "Kung Flu" "to my face." Actor Daniel Dae Kim, who recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus, wrote that it had been "too heartbreaking" to initially comment on the "blatant acts of racism against Asian people during this outbreak."

Social media campaigns such as #WashTheHate and #RacismIsAVirus — as well as a website by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council documenting accounts of anti-Asian discrimination — have launched as a response to Trump's rhetoric, aiming to shed light on misinformation about the novel coronavirus while also aiding Asians and Asian Americans under attack. 

In interviews over the past week, six Asian and Asian American actors, creatives and advocates spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about incidents they've recently endured, reactions to Trump's attempts to racialize the pandemic, and how they and others in their community can advocate for truth and peace.

Eugene Lee Yang, one of the four comedic online personalities that form The Try Guys, tweeted on March 13 that while at a local coffee shop, "an older woman in front of me demanded her drink get remade because her barista was Asian."

Yang tells THR that while his response in this situation was typical for him (telling the woman while he was not Chinese, her "ugly-ass knockoff purse" was), he understands not everyone facing a bigoted incident will have that privilege.

"My job is literally clapping back every day online as a comedian. It wasn't hard for me," Yang says. "That's not the truth or the situation for almost every other Asian American, particularly those who are elderly, those who might have a language barrier, those who are young, those who are female. They don't have that option." His biggest advice to those who experience hate amid the coronavirus outbreak is to "remember you're not bad inherently, you're not wrong."

Eugénie Grey, a fashion, beauty and travel blogger who runs Feral Creature, posted on social media that she was body-slammed and her dog was kicked while she was out walking him. "The person kept walking without reacting to anything I said to them," she wrote on Instagram.

Speaking to THR, Grey says she has felt depressed and has not walked her dog outside herself since the incident. "I worry about everyone else who doesn't have the chance to stay home around the clock: those who need to go to work or lose their apartments, those who don't have partners to walk the dog for them, or those who have to go get groceries."

She says that Trump's calling the coronavirus a "Chinese virus" is "only adding fuel to an already blazing fire."

"I have a heavy feeling in my gut that it's just a matter of time until something really bad happens," Grey adds. 

Yang finds Trump's usage of the phrase "calculated," calling the president a "master of verbiage that can inflame things like xenophobia that then help his administration's priorities."

"When you see the deeming of this as the 'Chinese virus' or 'Kung Flu,' I sincerely don't think it's just because Trump is asinine and doesn't understand how Chinese people or people of Asian descent live," Yang added. "I think it's really just a deflection and a misdirection to place blame elsewhere, … tapping into people's innate xenophobia to shift focus away from his administration's poor response to the virus. It's the same thing that happened with him placing totally unfounded blame on Mexico. It's the same of his Muslim travel ban."

Barb Lee, president of Point Made Learning, tells THR that Trump's doubling down on using the phrase "Chinese virus" is not surprising given the United States' history of discriminatory public health and immigration policies — such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion act, the first immigration law excluding an entire ethnic group.

"There have been incidents throughout history where new groups of immigrants come in and we will [compare] them to disease; we call them filthy, we comment on their hygiene," Lee says, adding that "when it comes to things like disease, when we can't see it, we have a primal instinct to try to visualize it — which is, of course, ridiculous."

Lee adds that even the usage of "xenophobia" itself is an issue when discussing Asian-targeted attacks related to the coronavirus outbreak. 

"The definition of xenophobia is actually the fear of strangers and foreigners. What's happening to Asian Americans is not xenophobic. We are citizens. We belong here. What's happening is bigotry, and the incidents that we see should really be labeled as bigotry," Lee explains. 

Mulan's Tzi Ma spoke with THR about a recent visit of his to Whole Foods in Pasadena. The actor said a man drove a car past him while saying, "You should be quarantined."

Ma says he went numb for a moment before screaming and yelling at the driver who by that point had exited the grocery store's underground parking. "This is in Pasadena, a really diverse community. I was really caught off-guard, and that taught me a lesson," Ma tells THR. "I should always be on guard in these troubled times."

Ma adds that this is also the time to hold leaders accountable for their actions and the impact words have. The actor is involved in one such social media campaign to do just that — #WashTheHate.

The Asian American communications agency IW Group teamed up with Ma, Opening Ceremony founders Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, and more artists and creatives to launch the campaign, which raises awareness around racial insensitivity. As part of the campaign, actors, social media influencers and musicians are tweeting videos of themselves washing their hands according to CDC guidelines while speaking out against racism.

"We’re hoping this campaign sends a message of solidarity and compassion to the world," Ma shared in a statement about the campaign. "Hatred and division aren’t going to prevent this virus from spreading and will only make an already difficult situation even worse. We’re calling for everyone — regardless of their race or country of origin — to recognize that we’re all in this fight together."

"With the increasing rate of hate and biased incidents against Asians as a result of the coronavirus, our organization felt obligated to take action," says Telly Wong, chief content officer at IW Group. "We tapped into our relationships in the community to bring together some influential voices who not only want to address the problem but also be part of the solution."

Ma added that in turbulent times, very often a group is picked as the scapegoat for the nation's anger and frustration. "I grew up in the '60s. I understand all of these reactions. … What I see here is another incident of a particular group being targeted, and Asian Americans are not unfamiliar with these targets — the internment of Japanese Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Rock Springs massacre, the 1992 Los Angeles riots."

Celia Au, who stars in Netflix's Wu Assassins, is also participating in the #WashTheHate campaign. "There are serious concerns in the Asian American community about scapegoating and becoming the targets of misplaced fear and anger," she shared in a statement. "The mission of this campaign is to get our stories out there and build a constructive dialogue with the public. We can’t be silent."

Speaking with THR, Au voices her own frustrations with leadership in D.C., commenting that the usage of "Chinese virus" as well as "Kung Flu" can create a harmful ripple effect into the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic — the health care system. Au detailed stories from Asian American friends who work in health care that have been questioned about their race, specifically being questioned if they are Chinese or not.

"Many Asian Americans work in the medical field," Au said. "They're already risking their lives going to work every day trying to save your life. By attacking them, they are afraid to go to work. They're afraid that on their way to work, they're going to get attacked by people. … If these people don't go to work, you're not going to get care."

Guy Aoki, leader of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, tells THR that those safety concerns could easily move into entertainment when film and television sets become fully active again. The activist says if someone is discriminated against for being Asian while working in Hollywood, his organization would be on the front lines to help. "If we did hear that any staff or a writer or an actor on the set was being discriminated against, we'd get on the horn and say, 'What are you doing about this?'" 

Aoki adds that no matter the circumstances, be it before the pandemic or after, any set must "set the tone and policy for how we treat our fellow coworkers here who happen to be Asian American."

Still, it's hard to imagine an active Hollywood set at the moment. For now, actors like Ma and Au hope campaigns such as #WashTheHate can promote messages of coming together amid the anxiety and worries that come with living through a pandemic.

Says Au: "We should all love each other. I know it's hard, but we should — and we should care about each other, especially during a time of crisis."