Chinese Canadians share their experiences of racism during COVID-19

The pandemic has exposed Chinese Canadians to new levels of hatred and abuse. Here are just a few of their stories. Words and pictures by Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee
Rachel Chen and her son Mason, 7, and Tristan, 9, at their home in Caledon. In February, during the start of the pandemic, Mason was teased by a classmate and was told that he had the coronavirus because he is of Asian descent. “I was a little shocked that that happened because they’re so young. I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked but I was. I wanted to almost jump on it as a mama bear but I realized I kind of have to figure out what he was feeling and how he was feeling about the whole thing and not make a mountain out of a molehill right off the bat, and then take his lead and his understanding and how he felt and have that conversation about why someone had said that.” “Because we’re all isolated in our own worlds [right now], they’re not being exposed to what could potentially be racist comments but I do worry about what happens when they do go back to school in September.” “I worry that there might be some comments that would make them feel badly about being Chinese but I’m also hoping, anyway, with my older son, that he’s built enough confidence to be able to carry through knowing that as a Chinese Canadian, he should be proud of who he is.” She hopes to see a conversation happen at schools before the September school year starts about how everyone treats each other regardless of their skin colour.

(Photo by Jessica Lee)

In May, Human Rights Watch compiled a list of xenophobic acts stemming from the coronavirus in countries such as England, Australia and Russia. It found that in some instances, government leaders have directly or indirectly encouraged hate crimes through anti-racist rhetoric. Case in point: United States President Donald Trump continually refers to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” But even cultural icons fuel the hate. In May, Canadian singer Bryan Adams blamed “some f–king bat-eating . . . greedy bastards” for putting the world on hold. Adams later apologized.

That same month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged governments around the world to enact measures preventing discrimination and violence against Asians due to the pandemic.

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From a global perspective, Canada flies under the radar when it comes to racism, maintaining its identity as a welcoming society for immigrants. But the numbers tell a different story. In early February, the Chinese Canadian National Council began recording incidents of anti-Asian racism. By the end of June, there were more than 300 cases.

Racism toward Chinese minorities is nothing new: the head tax, implemented in 1885 after 15,000 Chinese workers were brought in to help complete the Canadian Pacific Railway, is just one shameful example of systemic racism perpetuated by the Canadian government; in early 2003 and 2005, respectively, Chinese Canadians also endured xenophobia related to SARS and the H5N1 bird flu. Now, there’s COVID-19.

While acts of violence have occurred in recent months, much of the discrimination Asian Canadians face is more subtle: microaggressions, discrimination in professional settings and the normalization of problematic stereotypes.

Here, seven Chinese Canadians share their experiences of racism during COVID-19.

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