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NYC's Vietnamese Community Wary After Anti-Asian Incidents

FILE - Protesters march at a rally against Asian hate crimes past the Los Angeles Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, March 27, 2021.

The Vietnamese American community in New York City remains cautious after city officials suspended a housing inspector for allegedly using a racist slur in a communication to a tenant after a heat and hot water inspection.

Soon after that came the brutal daylight attack on an Asian woman near Times Square witnessed by onlookers who failed to intervene as her assailant kicked her in the head and shouted racial slurs and “You don’t belong here.”

Nguyen Van, a longtime Bronx resident, who refused to disclose her family name, told VOA's Vietnamese Service that she’s now “really scared” to get out, although she said she wasn’t aware of any anti-Asian hate incidents in her neighborhood. Other Vietnamese she knows have expressed similar concerns, she added.

“I’m 76 years old, so I have to be very careful when I go out. I’m afraid if they hit me, I’ll fall,” she said. “I don’t get it why they would attack an Asian woman in the street, I feel so bad for her.”

On March 24, Duc Pham received a letter from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) addressed to “Chin Chong.” The 22-year-immigrant who graduated from New York University last year posted a photo of the envelope on Facebook that evening.

"On that letter, the recipient's name is 'Chin Chong,' a word that disparages Chinese people in particular and Asians in general," said Duc, a Facebook software engineer in New York. "It’s one of the racist terms often used to mock Asian people perceived to be Chinese."

The online outcry was immediate. “My god,” tweeted City Hall press secretary Bill Neidhardt. “This employee has been immediately suspended without pay as a full investigation has been launched. @NYCHousing has contacted the person who received this letter to apologize as well.”

“This is infuriating,” tweeted City Council member Brad Lander. “Bias has no place in NYC — and especially not in an agency whose mission includes fair housing & equal justice."

By Friday, the inspector had been suspended without pay, according to @NYC Housing.

“Update: the employee is suspended without pay & we’re conducting a full investigation to determine further disciplinary action. We've reached out to the individual affected to express profound apologies. Racism has no place in NYC. We stand with the AAPI community against hate.”

Duc told VOA that the inspector, who did not ask for his name, was "professional and polite." According to the New York Post, the inspector was responding to a complaint about heat and hot water filed by other tenants in the Manhattan fifth-floor walk-up.

"I think this is a very serious mistake committed by a city inspector, especially in the situation where the entire U.S. is talking about racism against Asians,” Duc told VOA.

“The HPD sent a representative to my place to apologize to me and they told me they were investigating the incident and that the inspector has been suspended,” he added. “What I hope is they would investigate not only this incident but also a culture of behavior at the HPD in particular and of the city in general, and then take practical actions — for example, refreshing training for office employees.”

On March 25, the New York Police Department (NYPD) launched a plainclothes push to contain the surge in anti-Asian incidents.

The department is sending undercover officers to the city’s Chinatowns and other areas with significant Asian populations to try to prevent and disrupt attacks, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said at a news conference, according to The Associated Press.

Chief of Department Rodney Harrison described the complement, all of whom are of Asian descent, as a “robust team.” Shea also announced at the press conference that Inspector Tommy Ng will head the department’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force, replacing the retiring Deputy Inspector Stewart Loo.

The NYPD has tallied 26 anti-Asian incidents this year, including 12 assaults, compared with eight stemming from misplaced blame for the coronavirus pandemic at the same time last year, according to Deputy Inspector Jessica Corey, commanding officer of the department’s Hate Crimes Task Force.

That tally was made before the Times Square attack, which New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called “absolutely disgusting and outrageous.” He urged New Yorkers to intervene when they see assaults, according to The New York Times.

The NYPD tweeted video footage of the attack and asked for help in finding the attacker.

On Wednesday, police arrested and charged Brandon Elliot, 38, with felony assault as a hate crime. Elliot, who was released from prison in 2019, was on lifetime parole after the stabbing death of his mother in 2002, according to police.

The NYPD identified the victim of the Times Square attack as Vilma Kari, a 65-year-old woman who had immigrated to the United States from the Philippines.

Tara Thu Nguyen, a Queens resident in her 50s, told VOA the recent attacks on Asians across the U.S. have made her very cautious.

New York accounted for the largest surge from three hate crimes targeting Asians in 2019 to 28 in 2020, an 833% increase, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino. While hate crimes decreased overall by 7% last year, those targeting Asian people rose by nearly 150%.

“If I absolutely need to get out for essential things, I’ll be more cautious but won’t get scared or nervous,” she said.

Her children had voiced their concern about recent anti-Asian attacks, she said, and urged her not to stay out for too long or too late, offering their company or ride-share services.

Older people should have a companion when they go out, said Nguyen.

“I think the most important thing is know what we need to do, [what] precautionary measures we can take, then we should be fine.”

This story originated in VOA's Vietnamese Service.