When Looks Kill


Two recent violent crimes involving Asian victims have Asian rights groups wondering whether New York City is following a nationwide pattern of racially motivated attacks.

The September 1 beating murder of Chinese restaurant owner and deliveryman Jin-Sheng Liu was explained by investigators as a botched robbery by a bunch of misguided teens out to get a free meal. And the September 23 stoning of a Korean man in Flushing, who eventually died from his injuries, was reported with no mention of a motive except speculation that the crime was part of a gang initiation.

Asian advocates say crimes involving little or no practical motive, like robbery, suggest one based on racial hatred or the assumption that Asians are easy, passive targets.

A report to be released in Washington, D.C., this Thursday by a national coalition of Asian American advocacy organizations will show that in 1999, anti-Asian violence was on the rise. Kathay Feng of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles attributes the problem in part to recent trends in politics and media that have ignited long-standing anti-Asian perceptions that could promote violence. She points to partisan panic in recent years over Asian campaign contributions, racist overtones in the Wen Ho Lee case and how it was covered by organizations like The New York Times and mocked on NBC’s Tonight Show, and a proliferation of anti-Asian hate and humor Web sites.

Advocates say these relatively new developments underscore decades-old stereotypes that Asians are wealthy, suspect, passive, or foreign. The dehumanizing nature of such characterizations, they say, makes Asians seem like easier targets for attack.

While watchdog groups say it is impossible to comprehensively track hate crimes, since legal authorities sometimes do not formally classify or report them as such, the following partial list of recent national incidents hints at the prevalence of anti-Asian violence. Some received high-profile coverage in the mainstream press, while others, advocates complain, went virtually unnoticed. Some resemble the recent New York incidents in their ambiguity; others are clearly cases of hateful violence.

  • At Cornell University, a recent rash of racially based harassment has Asian women on edge and Asian student groups calling for prompt action from university officials. On September 16, an Asian woman student walking alone was sexually assaulted after shouting an obscenity at a group of white men in a passing car who had made racial taunts. Following her remark, two of the men emerged from the car, wrestled her to the ground, and sexually assaulted her, according to university police. Several days later, another Asian woman walking alone was verbally harassed by two men who got out of their car and approached her, voicing racial epithets, and then returned to their vehicle. On September 22, a carful of white males verbally harassed a group of four Asian women with ethnic slurs.

  • A 5-foot-6-inch 49-year-old Laotian man, Somanh Thamavong, incurred serious head injuries after two black youths chased and repeatedly beat him with a broomstick on the morning of August 12 as he was walking to a bus stop in Baltimore. Police hesitated in establishing a motive, since all that was taken from Thamavong was a wallet containing only a few dollars. But one of Thamavong’s sons called the attack “basically a Rodney King beating,” while the victim’s sister-in-law said, “It’s plain racist.”

  • Asian women in Chicago this summer were terrorized by a man who posed as various government agents—a police officer, immigration official, and FBI agent—to force his way into their homes. Mark Anthony Lewis, whose DNA was found to match semen taken from three of his victims, was arrested for beating and in some cases sexually assaulting eight women but said he was innocent. Prosecutors said he used a gun and handcuffs to hit, intimidate, and restrain the women. Victims included three Vietnamese women, two Chinese women, one Korean woman, one Japanese woman, and a Serbian woman who Asian advocates believe was mistaken for an Asian woman.

  • This May, Hubert Chow, a Burmese man who lived in San Francisco, was taunted by a group of more than four men before being shot to death while heading home from a midnight fishing outing, according to a friend who was with him that night. Bullets followed beer bottles, as the group assaulted the friend and shot at Chow, who died at the scene. Investigators could identify no motive for the crime.

  • A Chinese man and a Vietnamese man were killed, along with a Jewish woman, an Indian man, and a black man, when Richard Baumhammers, a white immigration attorney who was apparently involved in forming an anti-immigrant political party, went on a shooting spree in the suburbs of Pittsburgh this April. Authorities initially found Baumhammers, who was charged with murder and hate crimes, incompetent to stand trial, but reversed the decision several months later.

  • A Korean pastor, Chang Yoon, died this March when he was shot numerous times in broad daylight while sitting in a truck in East Oakland, California. A multiracial coalition of residents joined in asking for help to solve the crime when investigators said there was no evidence that robbery was the motive or that a hate crime had been committed.

  • Four Korean American students at SUNY Binghamton were assaulted this February on campus by a trio of white men, members of the school’s wrestling team, according to initial police reports. The altercation began when the wrestlers began taunting the Korean Americans with racial slurs. Freshman John Lee suffered the most serious injuries, including a skull fracture and brain hemorrhaging. In the weeks following the incident, Asian student groups protested that the university was not quick or severe enough in its condemnation of the attack.

  • In October 1999, a six-months-Pregnant Chinese woman was kicked in the stomach by a white man and a white woman in Brooklyn. The attackers told the victim, “Chinese are cockroaches,” according to Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney Sin Yen Ling, who represented the victim. “But the police didn’t feel it was a big deal,” Ling says, pointing out that only the accused woman was charged, and that the charge amounted to a misdemeanor.

  • Hien Nguyen, a 60-year-old retired farmer, was beaten to death last August while taking a walk around his neighborhood in San Francisco. Police said the attacker, José Nunez Ortiz, was drunk when he beat and stomped on Nguyen, spitting and then urinating on him. A neighbor said she heard Ortiz shouting, “You’re not from Sunnydale, fuck you!”
  • Archive Highlights