COVID19 Oral History
Museum of Chinese in America — COVID-19 Oral Histories — Phase III
Following the shooting of eight women in Atlanta at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Taylor Zhou published an opinion article “The Asian Mystique 2021” calling for change surrounding the representation of Asian women. During the interview, Ms. Zhou reflects on her own journey embracing her identity and passion to support the AAPI community through her work in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Ms. Zhou also delves into the messages conveyed in her article which links to Sheridan Prasso’s book, The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient.
Through exploring Prasso’s analysis of the fetishization of Asian women as erotic, mysterious, submissive and foreign, Ms. Zhou links to the targeting of Asian women during the COVID-19 pandemic. She goes on to talk about historical misrepresentations of Asian women, adding that a lack of awareness about Asian history in America has altered the way the AAPI community is perceived and treated today. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Zhou hopes that increasing awareness and working towards more balanced reporting in the media can help people in the AAPI community to more easily embrace their identity and no longer be perceived as the “perpetual foreigner.”
Megan Hobson: Taylor Zhou has worked in government, non-profits, startups and commercial real estate. Her work and story centers around creating a better understanding of Asians in America and as a passionate advocate for the AAPI community. Taylor has helped to establish the Manhattan Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID), is self-published on Medium and her work has also been published in the Village Sun, World Journal, Korea Daily and International Examiner. Thank you so much Taylor for taking the time to speak with me today.
TZ: Oh, thank you.
MH: So, to start could you tell me a little bit more about your life and your work?
TZ: I want to talk about my connection to the Manhattan Chinatown. My grandfather came to the U.S. following World War II. He had family here, and over time became the president of a fraternal organization that was founded in the 1800s to fight the Chinese Exclusion Act, fight discrimination in the U.S. It has multi-city chapters. The oldest and most well-known is in San Francisco and the chapter in New York was incorporated in 1883, one year following the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was the first self-help organization for immigrants in the country. It was where they turned to for any difficulties they faced in employment, housing, settling disputes amongst themselves. It was really the center of town life, city life. In San Francisco, the organization is called the Chinese Six Companies, and in New York it’s called the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA). The head of that organization is considered the mayor of Chinatown and the building in the neighborhood City Hall. So my grandfather was the head of that organization. It helped small businesses as well. That was the lifeblood of many immigrant neighborhoods.
The first Chinese small business in New York was established in the 1850s by the South Street Seaport, which is a few blocks away from the Manhattan Chinatown. It was a grocery store that sold candy and cigars. It was a natural location because it was where the sailors came in by the seaport, and where they needed to shop. So I feel very much that I continued in this tradition by helping to form the Manhattan Chinatown Business Improvement District. Chambers of Commerce are very popular in the rest of the country, but in New York City Business Improvement Districts or BIDS are much more prevalent, and it is a way for property owners, small business owners to gather, unite collectively to solve some of the issues in the neighborhood. So let’s say for example in the winter, instead of each one going out to their sidewalk to sweep or to shovel snow, there would be a collective of workers who would go out and do that for everyone, sharing resources. The same workers could help with neighborhood trees and maintenance, and, of course, sanitation and security is the basis for many of those organizations.
I learned after working to help form the BID that the concept came from a Chinese Canadian — Alex Ling. It became so popular and so successful that the idea and organization proliferated in Canada. I think there may be over 40 in Canada today, and he was given an award by the Queen of England for civic life or citizenship and that’s something that’s little known. I thought I was helping to advance my grandfather’s desire or his responsibility. I had no idea that it would connect with early immigrants in other countries, in Canada, so I’m just so proud and so thrilled that I was able to participate in that formation process. You have no idea. I feel the legacy of that and oh my gosh, I’m getting a little emotional, to see that how much of an organization like that was needed in the pandemic when there were so few resources. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to show you what is needed and what isn’t, and to have that foundation for the community. It’s another one of those things that I can look back in my life and feel a lot of gratitude and pride, so, wherever he is, I hope he’s looking down and he’s proud. So that’s my connection to New York City growing up here.
I learned more from Corky Lee when I attended the Hakka conference, and he told me that some of the Transcontinental workers may have been from the Hakka clan. As you may be aware, China has lots of regions, lots of dialects. It’s very, very diverse contrary to popular opinion. Corky told me that the Hakka clan, which is my clan, and my ancestors are believed to be among the Transcontinental workers who built the railroads, and the same workers, after they completed that job, also built the Stanford University campus. Wow, I mean if I had known that in school in college I undoubtedly, even if I were not accepted, would have applied. There is something to be said to walk in a place… and I’m sure African Americans feel the same way looking at historic buildings in D.C., that were built by the slaves.
I attended New York University for seven years -undergrad and grad- and I only found out perhaps a year or so ago that the early Chinese immigrants and civic organizations were located in that area in Greenwich Village, and they protested against the Chinese Exclusion Act at Cooper Union which is a famous architecture school. It’s kind of sad to me that I learned these things about my heritage so late in my life. I guess we all have this curiosity. When people do those DNA searches and ancestry searches — I think we all have this curiosity about our forebearers and what their lives were like, and it led me to this journey which is just incredible. I never could have imagined this, that it would lead me down this path. So that’s my connection to New York City, to my schools, to Chinatown.
MH: What was your experience like growing up in New York City and attending school in New York city?
TZ: I live in a very immigrant neighborhood. Well, it became very immigrant. I live in an Irish neighborhood by the New York Botanical Garden which was built by the Irish, and once that project was completed, they settled in the area. In the 1980s, a lot of immigrants moved into the area and slowly over time it transformed. Today, there are a lot more Latinos, Mexicans, Southeast Asians and it’s become much more diverse while the Irish bars, maybe it’s a stereotype, but there were a lot of bars in my neighborhood and after they closed the Irish population started to move away to perhaps the suburbs. And now I live in a very, very mixed, very diverse neighborhood. I like it because we all bring our tradition, our food, our culture, and it enhances my life. I can go to my Southeast Asian grocery store and have jasmine rice, basmati rice, buy turmeric or cumin, and try different cuisines and practice in my kitchen. I think it’s wonderful.
MH: Did you face any challenges embracing your identity and heritage as you were growing up?
TZ: Probably in high school. I think those were the teenage years that everyone went through. My father is college educated. He went to one of the best universities in China. My mother was a teacher. My grandmother was a school teacher, and I lived in a household that love books, love reading, love history and I have that grounding that not many people have. I also live in a very diverse neighborhood. I didn’t see representation. I mean there’s Bruce Lee, but that’s one figure and it’s incomplete. I realized that I have a grounding that not many people have. But in my teenage years, I struggled. On top of the teenage angst, I struggled with Am I American enough? And that identity when you’re between worlds. I certainly struggled with that, trying to find my way, but I think behind it always that foundation my parents gave me. Now that I’m older, I think we can’t solve all the world’s problems, but if you give your children a foundation, self-esteem — I mean they have a journey of their own, we all have a journey of our own — but if you have that foundation you will, even if you find yourself lost, you will find yourself on the path. There is stability or grounding that they can always come back to. Like a philosophy book, it’s a guide post. You will struggle — I mean that is human existence, but there’s something for you to always come back to and feel that you’re grounded in some way, and I think I was given that. I certainly searched for it, but I was also given that through my parents.
MH: Was writing quite an important part of your life during those early years or I guess when did you discover writing?
TZ: I would have to say that reading was much more of my hobby. I only began to focus on it in recent years in light of what was happening. I was doing demographic research on Asians, and also because I was looking into genealogy, I became aware of certain very disturbing trends — outlined in the Asian Mystique. I knew people were not aware of it. In many cities, crime stats were showing that the country was doing well. Crimes were trending down in major cities. It seemed things were okay or doing well but what was disturbing to me was that when I saw crimes against Asians, Asian enclaves in particular, the Chinatowns, they were escalating. They were going against trend. For example, in New York, Grace Meng, the Congresswoman, wrote a letter to NYPD, the New York police department, pointing this out. Why is crime in the city purportedly going down but crimes against Asians across all categories trending up? This happened in Seattle and then we saw in the news- crime — robberies, burglaries, assaults in the South — and videos from security cameras going viral — and it occurred to me that something was happening, and I wanted to raise the alarm. That’s when I began to write.
MH: You’ve published multiple articles over the last year what was your experience like living in New York City during the pandemic?
TZ: I felt that something bad was going to happen. In the early stages when Chinatowns or Asian neighborhoods were being emptied out naturally even without official shutdowns. So I knew. Combined with the stats that I was coming across, I didn’t have a good feeling about what was happening or what was about to come. Around March or February 2020 Google data published a very stark chart about the number of mentions of COVID in the news. It was only the first or second month into COVID, it was very early in the process, and there were already like 1.1 billion mentions in the news. That was astonishing to me. I just instinctually felt that something was coming, was headed our way. I went on a media summit — a junket — to try to bring attention to the issue. People were very polite about it, but I’m not sure they fully appreciated the gravity of the situation.
As we discussed before the interview, I was fortunate enough to work with an outdoors group and that really gave me a measure of peace. It was a great distraction. I knew that all was not well, but it allowed me to redirect that energy to something better in a very difficult situation. We know today that the group AAPI Data reported in March 2021 that up to two million hate incidents occurred in the U.S. They probably extrapolated that information based on the population and other things, so I think a lot of things happened that were not reported, that don’t make the news. Things could still continue to happen. The canner in New York [Yao Pan Ma, 61] who was violently beaten — I don’t even want to know if he survived — because it’s just one incident after another of very, very violent attacks. What I went through is small potatoes compared to some of the incidents that were reported. I’m happy that I did what I could to raise awareness.
MH: You also have the website MsZhou.us. Could you tell me a little bit about that project or that work that you do?
TZ: I was looking to start a small business. A few months before the pandemic I thought I’d set up a website. I have all this work experience and life experience, I thought it would be helpful to someone or something. I certainly felt it useful to have some sort of voice out there for a community that has so little representation. So that’s how I came to set that up, and of course there are lots of photos of Asian American history that I was never taught, that most of us were never taught, and that I’m immensely proud of their achievements. They inspire me so much. They give me strength. They lived in a much more difficult time. It is astonishing to me how they have accomplished things 50 to 100 years ago that we have not been able to do today, and I just wonder about that how is it that our ancestors who came here during a much more difficult time, much more discrimination and racism — outright, explicit — and they were able to accomplish so much more.
I have a page on the women pilots like Hazel Ying. She paid for her flight lessons when she knew no one would hire her, accept her. The doctors in the Midwest who built up this practice that was able to heal people that western medicine at that time couldn’t, and then when he passed — this is like the third or fifth generation now -but when he passed all the town officials and the townspeople that he helped turn up for one of the biggest funerals in the town’s history. Those things are so remarkable. History is far more complex than we’re taught today. When you asked me about growing up and struggling with identity, I think of the people, the young people, perhaps without the grounding I have or without knowledge of the Asian American history that I’ve come to learn myself, how lost they must be.
I love Bruce Lee, and he is without a doubt a trailblazer, and he brings so much pride, but one actor, one person isn’t able to provide that. We are far more complex than that. Our history shows us that there are many more trailblazers than we’ve ever been taught in our school, and I’d like that generation to know. Author Iris Chang who wrote the Rape of Nanking said in an interview that young people who feel like they’re not American enough, You Are American, you are Chinese-American. The fusion is American. That is as American as you can be because the history of this country is that fusion. We’re just not taught that and you don’t have to choose because you can bring the best of both worlds.
It’s sad that it’s only after she passed that I saw that. How many other kids could benefit from hearing a woman as accomplished as Iris say that? That you don’t have to choose. You can be the best of many worlds. I don’t remember her exact words but the spirit of what she said I remember and I think a lot more Asian kids or immigrant kids need to hear that because you’re put in a position where you feel that you have to choose. Oh, am I Chinese? Am I American? Your foot in both worlds. You are part of this and part of that, whatever your heritage may be, is very American. An Italian-American is not an Italian in Italy. That person is something that only America produced — that hybrid, that mix of heritage. They can go back to Italy and be proud of Michelangelo or Da Vinci but they are not fully that either. They are something else. They are made into something else when they come to this country. That is the same for many immigrants or ethnic groups.
MH: I’d like to touch on as well what you’ve just mentioned about the portrayal and representation of Chinese Americans and maybe discuss as well how that links into your article the Asian Mystique. Could you explain that article and what inspired you to write the piece?
TZ: It came about because of the mass shooting in Atlanta. I read some of the comments online. People said things like it has nothing to do with race because two Caucasians were killed in the shootings. There were a lot of incomplete explanations or uninformed opinions. Well, he did go to an Asian massage parlor that had Caucasians, but his target was Asian if he’s going to an Asian massage parlor. Why is there this negative connotation with massage parlors? Why is there an assumption that because it’s a massage parlor that it’s illicit. I don’t doubt that there are illicit massage parlors, but there are also legitimate businesses. I go to those spots to get massages and they are legitimate businesses. Afterwards, we realized that some of the women were working mothers who were in a legitimate business just trying to raise their family. The police said they did not find any illicit activity associated with those locations. It’s a malicious innuendo for people who work very hard at their job which brings me to Sheridan Prasso’s book. If you remember The World of Susie Wong? That was the Pretty Woman of her day. She was a prostitute that William Holden met in Hong Kong.
Combined with history of the U.S. military going overseas and patronizing the brothels, there’s some tie there. I think taking that out of context with history and what Prasso said about most fetishes of women fetishes are Asian — “far by far more than any other group” online. Those factors have to be taken into consideration. To just say oh it’s not racially motivated because there were two Caucasians killed, to me, is a very myopic way of seeing things. The Asian Mystique refers to that. It’s inevitable. If we’re portrayed a certain way, if we’re not seen in a certain way. By the way, I’m not sure if people know this, I recently learned that Asian women in the U.S., Asian American women, are more educated than White men. I was shocked to read that. How is it that we don’t know that? If that is indeed the case, why don’t we see more Asian women in senior positions, in leadership positions? If Asians also dominate the best schools in this country, why are they also not in senior positions? That’s a very curious thing. So that’s the Asian Mystique 2021.
MH: What are some of the core messages that you are hoping to convey through the piece?
TZ: Perception impacts how people see us, and representation impacts how we’re treated. The movie Pretty Woman was in the 90s and then The World of Susie Wong was just an Asian woman in the same story. It’s been updated, but we love prostitutes in Hollywood.
MH: How have these representations but also in conjunction with the public tragedies and recent events impacted you as an Asian American woman?
TZ: I mentioned that the summer before the COVID shutdown, while at a crosswalk someone in a van threw a water bottle at me. At that time, I thought Oh, What an idiot. He was aiming for the trash can and then when COVID happened I realized that he was aiming at me. I think I had my head down. I was looking at the phone. I was at the crosswalk and all of a sudden I was like ouch. I looked up and this guy was in the van. This happened to a professor, a Korean professor. She’s a pharmacist, and she teaches at one of the local SUNY, city or state universities. I think I mentioned in the article that on the way home two men also threw something at her. There are worse things that have happened to other people. Kathy Chen was urinated on in the subway, which is just horrendous to me, horrendous. As of March or April, six thousand incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, and those are some of the horrible things and not to mention seniors and children.
Before COVID, I saw a video on social media where an elderly Asian man walking with a cane on an empty street and this big, buff young man was taunting him, calling him names. “Go back to China” was the most friendly line, and it was captured by the security camera. Because he was on a cane and frail, he could not escape or walk away from that abuse, so he had to endure that walking very slowly while this young man was hurling those kind of horrific words to him, and it reminded me of my father.
One year, I was walking with him on the street accompanying him. He was walking with a cane and he was also walking very slowly, and the man behind him said Why are you so slow? Why don’t you walk faster or something like that in a really hateful way. I was startled. I turned around and said Can’t you see he’s walking with a cane? The sidewalk is frigging 15 feet wide. You could just walk around him. So I knew. This was a few years before COVID. I knew that something was very wrong, something in the culture. Something is very wrong with people who come up to frail, vulnerable seniors and act that way. It takes these kind of incidents to remind you that it’s not isolated. Something has been building up over time. I’m so glad that nothing else happened to that elderly man in Canada. Those incidents don’t rise to the level of hate crimes, because hate speech, at least in the U.S. is protected, but they are horrific in terms of what it says is happening in the society and in the culture.
He wouldn’t report it because he is a senior. I’m so glad that people are reporting these attacks and assaults. Of the two million that AAPI Data estimated, there are those that have gone unnoticed, unsaid and only captured by security cameras.
MH: I’d like to go back a little bit more to your article again and in the work you also mentioned Sheridan Prasso’s theory about the kind of dangerous intersection between the fetishization of Asian women and the rising violence and hate crimes. How dangerous do you think this representation of Asian women in the media is?
TZ: Well, Stop AAPI Hate found that Asian women are nearly two and a half times more likely to report assaults, so I think it can be, under certain conditions, very bad. When U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, there’s concern about the women there. They were afforded some measure of protection but when the Taliban retake territories…the brutality is horrific.
I worry about what’s happening to us in these countries. Vancouver was apparently ranked the highest in anti-Asian hate crimes in the world. I don’t know the source of that information, but I heard it on the news, so it is disturbing. That’s where the Meng Wanzhou case is happening right now. For many years, Asians or the Chinese have been buying real estate and it’s driven up prices in Vancouver, and that causes resentment. You’re a foreigner, you contributed nothing to this country, you’re here, you’re buying up real estate making it unaffordable for us and you’ve done nothing to build this country — which is a effing lie — if you study American history which is why I think Asian American study needs to be taught because the combination of being the perpetual foreigner and not contributing and being rich on top of that — the resentment that it instills in people when they’re going through a very difficult time produces this kind of result.
I remember an article mentioned that the Chinese are buying up real estate in the major cities and driving prices up, and then I read the stats. Asian buyers or overseas buyers as a group are less than ten percent of home buyers. If those facts and data is accurate, then why all this volume of news and volume of coverage that makes the home ownership so seemingly feel like it’s a takeover, an invasion? News coverage is very distorted.
The same with Russians. I remember a big story about how Russian women were coming into Miami and buying up these homes and then when you look into the articles, it’s a hundred of them. Okay, are you telling me that we are as a country is under some sort of a dire emergency because a hundred wealthy Russian women choose to make America their home, choose to buy homes here, choose to invest in businesses here, choose to have their children grow up here? You mean a hundred of these women are so deadly? Okay, if you don’t like it, that’s something else, but where is the balance in that reporting?
MH: What would you like to see in the media when it comes to the portrayal and representation of the AAPI community?
TZ: The fairness that everyone deserves. You do some basic research on the subject matter, and that I think speaks to the collapse of the journalism schools. Endless articles or research studies have shown that newsrooms are overwhelmingly homogeneous, and they’re not informed themselves. They have not the qualifications to even write some of these articles.
Newsrooms, because of social media, in some ways are on life support. The pay is low as well so people in the industry or fresh-faced college kid are not going to have skills. A good journalist requires decades of experience and sharpening. So if you’re fresh out of school you know very little, and the history is not taught to you and you’re kind of struggling with jobs available and you don’t know whether this industry is going to survive. This is the kind of result we’re gonna get. The articles can be better researched but I think it goes back to that you don’t know what you don’t know. You won’t even research things that you don’t even know.
If newsrooms are that homogeneous, and it’s a dying industry, how do you attract different voices, and how do these journalists even make an effort? Do they even have the time and the resources to make an effort to do deeper research on their topics. The solutions are pretty simple, but the money and the resources available just isn’t there. I’m not saying anything that ten other research organizations haven’t said.
MH: What are some of the lessons you hope we have learnt during the pandemic about the AAPI community and how they’re viewed and treated?
TZ: I would say that how marginalized they are. It takes a pandemic to expose those fault lines. The AAPI community in New York but also nationwide receives very, very little funding. Less than one percent from public and private funding sources. Those inequities become obvious — no pantry, no shelter. Non-profits not having the resources to manage the volume of need, not having the resources to even hire staff, much less qualified staff. All those things and then of course if they’re under resourced then there’s just limited safety net to help themselves. We just didn’t listen to the alarms raised by various institutions and studies. I mean it’s not a secret that AAPI organizations are underfunded. It’s not news if your community is given 0.5 percent over decades. It shows. It’s obvious.
We lifted the veil, cleared the cobwebs because of the pandemic. Rich and successful is not uniquely Asian. They’re across all nationalities and ethnicities. You know there are like 1.3 billion Indians, and 1.2 billion Chinese?
MH: Do you think there will be positive changes going forward from the pandemic about how the AAPI community is treated and viewed?
TZ: Well, I hope so. It’s hard to say. Change is very, very slow, it could be imperceptible. I don’t know. That’s the hope, right?
MH: Thank you so much Taylor for sharing your story experiences during the pandemic for discussing your work your views about the representation of the AAPI community in the media and also more specifically the portrayal of Asian women. Also thank you for your contribution to MOCA and taking the time to speak with me today.
TZ: Oh, thank you so much. I want to thank MOCA too for undertaking this. They also did the same following September 11th and the impact on the community. It’s important. It’s our history as well and I thank them for undertaking this effort and recording this. It’s much needed and appreciated by me.