Woom Sing Tse, a seventy-one-year-old grandfather was shot twenty-two times in broad daylight outside Haines Elementary School in Chinatown as he was crossing the street on December 7. The suspect, Alphonso Joyner, twenty-three, was charged with first-degree murder and is being held without bail. Though the police commander found no motivating cause for what the police called an “execution-style” murder, several community members consider it yet another hate crime against people of Asian descent.
Messages expressing sorrow, concern, and anger intermingled in a virtual chat room of a community public meeting in Chinatown that was held online and in-person at Chinese Christian Union Church on December 21. The event brought together residents, elected officials, police representatives, and community organizers to discuss the shocking homicide. On the same day as Tse’s murder, a carjacking also occurred, another area of concern for Chinatown that has escalated during the pandemic.
For the Chinatown community, Tse’s murder is the continuation of over a year of violent attacks on Asian Americans since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. It began with a double homicide in Chinatown in February 2020, described as the first of its kind in decades, and then another in December 2020. These are among the constant incidences of anti-Asian hate crimes rolling in from across the country. According to Chicago Police Department data, homicides in 2021 in the 9th District are up fourteen percent compared to the previous year and are 121 percent higher than in 2019.
In response, the Chinese community in Chicago began to organize around public safety with unprecedented willpower. The Chinatown Security Foundation was established last February to raise funds for surveillance cameras on every major intersection in Chinatown. A neighborhood watch group, Chinatown Neighborhood Watch, was formed in close partnership with the Chicago Police Department and also works to donate surveillance cameras and provide installation assistance for residents.
Prominent voices, including Illinois State Representative Theresa Mah, have emphasized the importance of a “two-pronged approach” to combat violence. This includes long-term community investment to address root causes such as poverty, on top of increasing public safety resources.
At present, however, those calling for more policing are the loudest voices in Chinatown.
After the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021, where eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian women, hundreds gathered in Chinatown Square for a Stop Asian Hate rally spearheaded by Chinatown Security Foundation and sixty-five community organizations. Calls were increasingly made for individuals to take community safety into their own hands. Alarmingly, some discussions on Chinese social media channels encouraged Chinese residents to arm themselves in self-defense, vigilante style.
To gain insight into diverse perspectives on public safety in the Chinese American community, the Weekly spoke with Chinese and Chinese American residents from the South Side, both life-long Chicagoans and international college students, as well as organizers who are working to build cross racial solidarity.
Chinese and Black residents in the South Side have built their communities in close proximity to each other for over a century, according to Angela Lin. She is a Chinatown community organizer and co-founder of People Matter, a non-profit working to improve race relations among Chinese, Black and Latinx communities in Chinatown and surrounding areas of Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Douglas, McKinley Park, and Pilsen.
Since the late 1800s, racial tensions have existed in the largely immigrant and diverse communities of the South Side. After the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Chinese migrants escaping harassment and anti-Chinese sentiment on the West Coast moved east to cities like Chicago, Boston and New York. Most of these Chinese migrants were rural or urban working-class Cantonese speakers from southern China with little formal education.
In Chicago, they settled in the near South Side, where they were joined by working-class immigrants from Poland, Ireland, and Italy, as well as Black people who were leaving the Deep South. These groups all settled in around the area known as present-day Chinatown.
Communities of color in the South Side have a long history of living in fear due to racial tensions with “white ethnics.” Most infamous was the 1919 race riot that began in Bridgeport, when racist white mobs, mostly Irish, violently attacked Black Americans in Chicago’s Black Belt over the course of a week.
According to Lin, older Chinese residents remember Irish Americans increasingly gaining formal power as city cops being the main violent threat to Chinatown safety. “Someone who I talked to who grew up here in the 60s was talking about [how] she was surprised that we were talking about anti-Blackness among Chinese communities, because back then it was an anti-Chinese and anti-Black [attitude] from the white communities,” Lin said.
“There have always been a lot of Chinese folks and a lot of Black folks who live near each other,” she explained. “In the 1960s, a lot of public housing buildings were created. I believe that [in] this area, Armor Square, the number of Black folks increased… between the decade of the 60s to 70s.”
The racial makeup and dispersion of many parts of Chicago fluctuate dramatically by the decade, and the Chinatown area is no exception to demographic change. Lin cited that Haines, the school where the recent shooting happened outside, used to be all Black and now it’s about seventy percent Chinese. Archer Courts, which is a block down and offers section 8 housing, used to be one hundred percent Black. Now it’s seventy percent Chinese, she said.
Though the earliest Chinese immigrants in Chicago arrived in the late 1800s, today’s Chinatown population continues to be carried by recent immigrants from China and Hong Kong. Many have a limited understanding of English and stick to Cantonese. Unlike the more affluent, educated and white-collar Chinese immigrants residing in the suburbs, Chinatown remains a working class community and thirty-eight percent of residents of Armor Square, which includes Chinatown, live under the poverty line. According to a May 2015 report from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, more than half of Chinese residents report speaking English “less than ‘very well.’”
Lin pointed out that “because of the [racial] segregation of Chicago, a lot of different communities of color just aren’t in conversation with each other. There isn’t really a relationship that has been built up between Black and Chinese communities.”
Despite a century of proximity, there is little meaningful interaction between the Black and Chinese population, in large part due to the language barrier. Anti-miscegenation laws and strict quotas on Chinese female immigration prevented Chinese families from forming and assimilating into American society like other immigrant groups. Thus, Chinatown remained a tight and insular community without much interaction with others, even over generations.
Chinese immigrants bring their own understanding of public safety and the role of policing, shaped by lived experiences in their home country which are quite different from the United States.
A visible portion of the Chinese presence in the South Side are university students at the University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Illinois Institute of Technology who have not been to the United States until they attended college. Chinese youth enrollment in American higher education took off in the 2000s. In 2021, around a third of all international students in the United States were Chinese.
Chinese international students venture often to Chinatown for groceries and entertainment. Binweng Chen* is one of them. A 2021 masters graduate from U of C, he frequently made trips to Chinatown while living in Hyde Park. Before Chen left China, his family and friends had already warned him about safety issues in Chicago. However, he was told that he did “not need to worry about these [safety] factors because there are spaces that are safety zones and some dangerous areas. So if you do not go to the dangerous area, everything will be fine.”
For him, Chinatown and Hyde Park were safe places until 2021.
Chen’s sense of safety was irreparably shaken on January 9, 2021 when fellow resident and U of C PhD student Yiran Fan was shot and killed in the parking garage of Chen’s apartment complex. “In 2019, I thought these were very safe places,” he reflected. “But [after] violent accidents happened to the places I’m quite familiar with, this makes me feel very unsafe. Because you realize that if you go out at some point, maybe you could be the victim.”
Like many other international students and immigrants, Chen believes the solution to the uptick in violence should focus on increasing protection measures in the community. For Hyde Park, he believes the current levels of surveillance, UCPD patrols, and shuttle routes are not adequate to keep students safe from violence. Chen suggested that, “especially at night, they should patrol the community very often. I think that they should drive their car around Hyde Park and make sure that every corner is good.”
Chen’s views on solutions for public safety are shaped by a different political and social environment than the United States. China is a country of remarkable cultural homogeneity compared to the United States. The ethnic majority, Han Chinese, makes up 91.1 percent of the population according to the 2020 Chinese census.
Chinese people also generally have a high level of trust in the government. In 2021, the Edelman Trust Barometer showed that ninety-one percent of Chinese respondents trusted the government, while only thirty-nine percent of Americans trusted the government. China is also home to the world’s largest surveillance network, employing half of all global surveillance cameras and four times that of the United States.
Further, recent Chinese media has been criticized for focusing one-dimensionally on looting and violence in the United States during civil unrest in 2020, as part of a larger ideological battle that pits the perceived failures of open democracy with the security of state-controlled social order.
In Chinese media, police are part of the solution, not the problem. There is a household saying that goes, “If you are in trouble, seek help from a cop.” Wanting the Chinese model to look favorable to the U.S., Chinese media often zero in on gun violence in the U.S. and frame the violence as a consequence of “too much freedom” (see this political cartoon in Chinese state media), while boasting China’s own low homicide rates. This impacts Chinese immigrants abroad because many still get their news from Chinese sources, either official or on social media.
For Kesan Li, the rise in gun violence in Chicago over the past two years is not surprising. Li, also of Chinese descent, immigrated to Bridgeport as a young child from China over two decades ago. Unlike Chen, Kesan grew up in the South Side where he still resides.
“If I had to say, maybe it got a little worse, but you know, who knows? How much worse is worse? Because Chicago has always had a very, very rough, terrible track record of gun violence. We’re always hearing [about] people getting shot, people getting killed. And as unfortunate as it is, I think we’ve all become desensitized.”
Growing up as a South Sider and a Chinese immigrant has shaped Li’s understanding of the varying perspectives on gun violence. A proud graduate of Chicago Public Schools, Li comes from a family of Chicago educators. His mother and late step father both worked as CPS Chinese-language teachers, which inspired him to pursue his current career as a student counselor for a Hyde Park-area high school.
Li believes that the difficulty of Chinese immigrants to get on the same page about solutions to gun violence stems from lack of understanding of the Black experience in America. “They’re just really fearful of African Americans…They don’t really try to understand the African Americans in Chicago. They don’t. They have no experience of what it’s like.”
As a counselor at a predominantly African American high school, Li is intimately aware of the negative impact police presence can have on certain students.
“Racial profiling is one hundred percent real,” he emphasized. “When I did my internship to become a school counselor, there was this one student that I dealt with a lot. One day, she told me that she hates the police, because every time she sees them, especially ones that had guns right on their holster and it’s a visible trigger, sometimes they’ll cause [her] to have a meltdown. Because she’s seen loved ones and friends basically gunned down by the police before. I understand that it’s very traumatic. It’s just not conducive for the mental health of these students.”
Rising fear is a sentiment that both communities can relate to during the tumultuous years of the pandemic. Kesan agrees with Chen that the violence has spread to unexpected areas, stoking fear in new swathes of residents. “To hear people get killed in Chinatown, that’s almost basically unheard of, so yes, people were absolutely shocked. They were terrified. And as for Hyde Park, no one expect[ed] the university students to get shot and killed in that area.”
While the shootings in Chinatown and Hyde Park were disturbing and unexpected to many, “violence happens disproportionately within the African-American community in Chicago,” Li emphasized. Chicago crime rates have shot up, but the violence especially impacted already hard-hit Black communities in the West and South sides. This is on top of the heightened tensions with police following violent responses to Black Lives Matter protests.
Notably, the murder rates in more affluent, predominantly white Chicago neighborhoods last year were near record low levels, despite large media attention on the shootings, carjacking and retail thefts in those areas.
Li concedes that misunderstandings go both ways. When reflecting on the reactions of police critics to competing views on public safety, Li believes that sometimes “[they] don’t really understand the history of Chinese-American or Chinese internationals in America.”
“Asian Americans are also in a very unique position in America. When it’s convenient for white America, we serve as the proverbial model minority. But at the same time, there’s some resentment from the Black community because it’s seen as that we’re getting preferential treatment from the whites,” Li said. “But if you look at it as a whole, the history of Chinese [in America], it’s pretty sorry. We are the perpetual other, we’re always aliens in both groups. Because it seems that we’re so different, we’ll never assimilate into American society, whether it is white or Black.”
Similar to Black Americans, Asians also have a fear that their community and their people are under attack. Li pointed to the skyrocketing of Asian hate crimes as evidence of Asian-Americans’ precarious status in American society and fuel for the increased fear among the community that’s driving extreme responses. A recent report from Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate cited more than 10,000 hate incidents against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders between March 19, 2020 and September 30, 2021. Li describes it as a horror to have to “watch your back wher[ever] you go.”
Lin affirms that the violence has taken a hard toll on the Chinatown community, where “a lot of Chinese immigrants are scared to leave their house due to the most recent shooting.”
Despite both communities seeing rising crime rates, the Chinese community seemed to receive a quicker and more sympathetic response from authorities, perhaps due to the fact that some Chinese residents are calling for increased policing and some Black residents are calling for decreased policing. Li and Lin both agree that a major barrier to working together is a lack of a foundation. “There’s no open dialogue. [There’s a] lack of understanding, lack of communication. Again, fear mongering,” Li lamented.
Consuela Hendricks and Lin started the non-profit organization People Matter in February of 2020. They first met in 2018 while both working as organizers in Chinatown and recognizing a lack of cross-racial solidarity in a community that is home to many ethnic groups.
“We break down language barriers, we try to get them to talk across cultural lines, we try to get them to talk about how they feel, and to express their understanding of racism, in hopes that people will empathize with one another,” Hendricks explained.
Hendricks is a Black, third-generation Chicagoan, and thinks that the conversation on gun violence and fear is coded with anti-Black rhetoric. She explains that often people imply it is Black people rather than certain neighborhoods that are dangerous.
As a Black woman, Hendricks says that she sometimes feels uncomfortable and unwelcome in Chinatown. “Being a Black person walking in spaces, regardless of if I’m from a different community or live within that community. I’m getting stared at, I’m getting followed, I’m getting targeted. Because I am perceived as the danger in the community,” Hendricks said.
When people say that they are scared of a certain area because it’s dangerous, she feels that they are really saying that they feel unsafe around “a certain skin color, a certain feature, a certain look.”
Discussions around community safety in Chinatown often erroneously paint Black people as the source of violence. Images circulating on mainstream and Chinese ethnic media have predominantly depicted Black people attacking Asian people. However, analysis of crime statistics has shown that over three-fourths of anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States were committed by white offenders, both before and after the pandemic [cite].
Hendricks believes that this misleading media entrenches in the Chinese community the fear-mongering narrative that Black people are the source of crime. She sees how fear and misunderstanding destroys potential paths for racial solidarity between the two communities of color.
Hendricks and Li founded People Matter because they saw a need to move both Black and Asian Americans collectively towards better conditions in the South Side. According to Hendricks, many Black residents also want more police and surveillance in the community to achieve more safety. “I think that a lot of Black residents are calling for the same things [as Chinese residents],” she explained. “But it’s an underlying thing where a lot of Chinese residents think [the problem] is the Black people. And, again, associating danger with skin color.”
She points out that surveillance with the purpose of catching criminals does not solve “the pipeline of crime.”
Lin added, “Organizations need to be on the same page where they want to address the holistic solution. That needs to be our collective long-term goal. Even as people may try to have immediate responses, I think that the long term goal of addressing the problem at its root is really important.”
According to Lin, the newer Chinese organizations tackling gun violence have a lot to learn from Black-led organizations that have been addressing violence prevention in their communities for decades.
“Chinese organizations should listen to their expertise and understand what is the root cause of the issue,” she said.
Wendy Wei is a writer based in Chicago. She is on hiatus from a fellowship at People Matter where she researched political participation among immigrants. This is her first story for the Weekly.