British Columbia

Seniors in Vancouver's Chinatown manage fear, insecurity as anti-Asian racism persists

Two senior women were assaulted this spring as they went about their errands in Vancouver's Chinatown and Downtown Eastside. The attacks left them with far more than bruises.

Two senior women say being attacked has left them with far more than bruises

Judy Cheung is one of two women who spoke to CBC News after being assaulted in Vancouver's Chinatown. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

To Linh Diep is no stranger to hardship.

The Cantonese-speaking senior arrived in Canada as a refugee in the 1990s and spent decades working in a Vancouver food processing plant, handling sea urchins, known for their spiny shells that can sting.

Few things, however, have stung Diep as much as the racist words and slap across the face she received recently amid the rise in anti-Asian racism in Vancouver. 

Diep, like many other Chinese-speaking seniors in Vancouver's Chinatown, has been wary of leaving home in recent months, fearful of the hatred that exists beyond her front door. 

Hate crimes on the rise

Vancouver police have said anti-Asian hate crimes increased 717 per cent during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. And a survey released this week by the Angus Reid Institute suggests more than half of Asian Canadians have suffered discrimination in the past year. 

What the statistics don't show, however, are the many unreported assaults on Asian seniors and the impact they've had on their feelings of safety, security and independence. 

"We know that a lot of them are scared to come out of their houses, not just because of catching the virus, but also [because they're] at high risk of being attacked," said Beverly Ho, operations manager at Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, a non-profit that supports youth and low-income immigrant seniors in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.

Ho helps run a grocery delivery program that brings culturally-appropriate foods, like bok choy and rice noodles, to Chinese Canadian seniors weekly so they don't have to shop for themselves.

A woman buys herbal products through a plastic protective screen in Vancouver's Chinatown. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The program was started in response to the pandemic, but has also been an invaluable service to those, like Diep, who are worried about walking to their local grocery store due to the rise in anti-Asian racism.

Slapped while walking down the street

The physical attack on Diep, who is in her 60s, occurred at the end of March as she was walking near Columbia and East Hastings streets after getting a haircut. A woman walked up to her and slapped her across the face, she told CBC News in Cantonese.

Diep has also been the target of racist remarks in the past year. 

"They say, 'Go back China ... You don't live in Canada!' That's why I'm too afraid to go grocery shopping in Chinatown now. I don't dare go," she said through a translator. 

On the day she was assaulted, Diep had been walking to the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre to see friends. She goes there regularly for the sense of community, but also for help with government forms, or translating letters. 

Teng Lai Lim is an outreach worker at the centre, where she mainly helps lower-income women in the neighbourhood access support services. But since the pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian racism in Vancouver, part of her job has also been to help Chinese seniors file police reports about verbal and physical assaults. 

Teng Lai Lim, an outreach worker at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, is pictured in front of a mural by artist Eri Ishii. Part of Lim's job is helping seniors report verbal and physical assaults to police. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

While some seniors, including Diep, agree to go to police with Lim's help, others refuse to report the crimes.

"They don't have the courage … because they are scared that, you know, the person who attacked them may come back and hurt them more," Lim said. "I told them that, 'No, it's not going to happen' … but then they're just too scared to do anything."

Assaulted while getting groceries

Judy Cheung, who is in her 70s, is one of the courageous ones. She reported her assault to police and still makes a point of getting out for a walk almost every day. 

As someone who worked at a hotel for nearly two decades and rode public transit in the middle of the night to get home, Cheung is comfortable with a certain level of risk.

Until recently, she'd never been physically attacked, she told CBC News in Cantonese. 

Judy Cheung was punched in the face by a stranger as she left a grocery store on the Downtown Eastside. She reported the assault to police and now carries an umbrella for protection when she's out walking. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

But one morning in April, as she walked out of Sunrise Market — a popular grocery store at Powell and Gore — a woman punched her in the face. Bystanders rushed to make sure she was OK and reported the incident to police. 

Despite the assault, which left her with a bruised cheek for weeks, Cheung says she still gets out for regular walks — with an umbrella in hand to protect herself. 

"If I had an umbrella, I could have put up a fight. I may be elderly, but I'm still very strong," she said through a translator. 

The Vancouver Police Department says it can't speak to Cheung and Diep's cases directly, due to privacy concerns, but officers are investigating two incidents that match the dates and locations of the assaults. Officers are also looking into whether there are any links between the two cases. 

Normalized inequality

Michael Tan, co-chair of the Chinatown Legacy Stewardship group, says it's crucial that seniors are supported in this difficult time, because they are an essential part of what makes Vancouver's Chinatown special.

"For a long time … people are always just talking about buildings. But it's not just, you know, the physical built structures. It's all the happenings, the neighbourhood. And what's been really highlighted is the seniors in the neighborhood," he said. 

So often, Tan says, seniors stoically push away their fears. Having endured so much hardship through immigration, many of them have normalized inequality.

"In the past, most of the time, people would just, to be honest, suck it up," he said. "Our parents would have been more 'Keep your heads down,' 'Why go to the police when that's just life?' But I think now that people are more willing to not be that model minority … not be the quiet Asian."

For Tan, this pandemic year has been a reckoning around the need to address anti-Asian racism in ways that extend beyond putting an end to verbal and physical assaults. He sees it as an opportunity to look at other areas of inequality, including housing and culturally appropriate health care. 

"It's this pandemic of hate and racist acts … but there is the underlying systemic racism that's just always there that prevents communities from thriving," he said. 

"Now is a great opportunity to help highlight a lot of those systemic issues, but not just highlight, but for us to start addressing them."

In the last year, there has been a tremendous uptick in reports of anti-Asian hate crimes across North America. In Vancouver, police in February reported a 717 per cent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes over the past year. Today on Front Burner, producer Elaine Chau’s documentary shows how these incidents have changed one neighbourhood in the city: Chinatown.


Elaine Chau

Producer, Front Burner

Elaine Chau was born in Hong Kong, and grew up in Montreal and Vancouver. She is the 2008 recipient of the CBC Radio Peter Gzowski internship, multiple RTDNA winner, and Gold Radio Winner in the Health/Medicine category at the 2011 New York Festivals for her series "AIDS: Then and Now".

With files from Amy O'Brian