Taking Control of the Narrative
Updated: May 4
Jenny Leung, Executive Director of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, responds to anti-AAPI violence
Kathy: How has the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco responded to the AAPI hate that has erupted around the country?
Jenny: CCC has been responding with art. We participated in our first rally at Portsmouth Square on March 20 where the community created art - writing love letters and messages of hope, drawing, kite flying as displays of positive voices. Parts of the media narrative are dis-empowering. People were really needing a space to take control of that narrative. A counter-narrative is needed from the community.
Kathy: What was done with art, and how is art powerful?
Jenny: For example, we had artist Vida Kuang who was instrumental in leading the public artmaking with mural and visual art. If you read the messages on the ground at Portsmouth Square, they are powerful with phrases like: “Respect Asian Elders” and “Stop Asian Hate.” On the ground were lots of butterflies and that was a symbol of a mural painted by Oakland Chinatown seniors, and it represents those whose lives were cut short. Purple was used to symbolize violence against women. We had letter writing and hopeful messages which were strung up along the bridge. The letters are still with us. We are going to find a way to display them as a temporary installation and in upcoming events.
Art is a powerful medium used to amplify voices, and it is a powerful medium to be able to empower people to speak out; again, art is a powerful way to tell our own stories.
As an Asian women-led organization, we are creating a space that is able to uplift voices. Everyone on staff is feeling fortunate we can respond and make a difference. This includes recently supporting all the arts and artmaking, poetry reading, and display of letters of hope and positive messages and good wishes.
Kathy: What is next?
Jenny: We are planning a series of events around anti-racism and anti-Asian hate. The next one is April 10. It is an online bilingual poetry event called Artists Against Anti-Asian Violence with Asian and black writers and poets we worked with before.
Another will be a public mural taking a stand against Asian hate. It will be outdoors and allow people to contribute to art making which is empowering.
Kathy: What is your personal reaction to these murders and attacks on Asians?
Jenny: I was not surprised, and it (the Atlanta shooting) was heart breaking to hear, and I was very shocked it has come to this. Racism is not new; Asians have been invisible for a long time, and it is unfortunate it took this incident for other people to notice that we are still operating under misogyny and racism. The community is still grieving and we want to center on the victims and their families who are grieving. There are many issues burdening many different facets of the AAPI community where they are not heard.
Kathy: Can you give an example?
Jenny: In the arts realm, Asian Americans are considered the model minority, and it is difficult to advocate for funding for Asian American artists even though we are one-third of the San Francisco population; Asian American art organizations only receive 6 percent of the arts funding in San Francisco. This is true for many AAPI organizations. There is no equity in investment and support, it takes terrible events like this to happen to gain recognition and investment in the community. Few people know that the AAPI has the highest poverty rate of any minority group in San Francisco.
Kathy: What other key issues need to be addressed?
Jenny: Safety of Asians, specifically the elderly; and the economy in Chinatown. The community has already been struggling. There has been disinvestment and inequities in the community especially in Chinatown with the rise of anti-Asian hate and hate language being used. These incidents have been ongoing and assaults and break-ins have happened in SROs; early on in the pandemic, two elderly men were pushed to the ground by Portsmouth Square. It is not new but the cases are accelerating.
Kathy: What changes need to be made?
Jenny: What we need are not short term solutions, although I see immediate reactions, and that is great, but what is really needed is long-term investment in strengthening the infrastructure of our underserved communities to build healthier, safer communities, such as arts programming, cross-cultural community building, parks and outdoor spaces, affordable housing. We also need collaborative sharing in our grief and sharing our stories. We must enable the community to express how they are feeling; we want to have ongoing momentum and not forget what has happened.