This article is a collaboration between New York Magazine and The Verge.
For 72 hours after it happened, Brian Chin hardly left the building. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t eat. He had arrived at 111 Chrystie, the 23-unit apartment complex his family owns in the heart of Chinatown, at a little before 6 a.m. on February 13 after getting a call from one of his tenants. It was a chaotic scene: The street in front of the building was blocked off, NYPD squad cars and officers everywhere. The police let Chin inside, but no one would tell him what was going on. Outside, the sky was black. Snow was lightly falling. Inside, an alarm blared through the building until a cop took a sledgehammer and silenced it. Finally, an officer told Chin there had been an attack — then asked to see the security footage.
By now, Chin has watched the tape so many times he’s memorized the time stamps: At 4: 21 a.m., Christina Yuna Lee, who lived on the sixth floor, returned home from a night out. The grainy video showed her getting out of a car and unlocking the door to the building and a man she didn’t know following her. He trailed her up the stairs, and when she entered her apartment, he pushed his way in. Police arrived minutes later, called by neighbors who heard Lee’s screams, but they couldn’t get into the apartment until a tactical team arrived. By the time they entered, Lee was dead. Police officers found her slumped in her bathtub with dozens of stab wounds on her torso, and the man who had followed her still in her apartment; they arrested him and took him outside.
Lee was covered in so much blood that, according to Chin, the officers initially couldn’t tell she was Korean American; he said they told him the victim was African American, and he thought she might be a stranger. When they said she could be Lee, Chin felt something in him snap. He’d had a kinship with Lee, who was 35 when she died; they had both attended Rutgers as undergraduates, and they would chat about their student days. The last time he had seen her was earlier that night as she passed him in the hall. Chin later recognized the man who followed her, too, even if he didn’t know his name: Assamad Nash, a 25-year-old Black man who reportedly lived in a homeless shelter nearby and was part of a group that Chin said he frequently saw using and selling K2 — synthetic marijuana — on the corner of Chrystie and Grand Streets. Chin realized, he said, that “this was a crime that was just senseless.”
As he paced around the building — talking to the police, dodging the TV trucks that would fill the street — he started thinking of everything he had seen change on the block since the beginning of the pandemic. He knew that the two Chinese women who ran the bodega on the ground floor had started closing earlier after being robbed several times. There had always been a community of unhoused people in Chinatown, but now those living on the street seemed particularly on edge and prone to outbursts. “For the most part, everyone used to sort of just leave everyone alone — regular New York stuff. Over this past year or two, everything spiraled out of control,” Chin said. “I started seeing this new breed that everyone in Chinatown saw, where there was this aggression that was just unprecedented.”
This article is part of New York Magazine’s “At Home in Asian America” series.
Chin, 30, is a trained psychologist, a former Army reservist, and a TA in Harvard’s extension program, in which he helps teach a class on the “psychology of diversity.” He has a soft face and an easygoing demeanor and has never thought of himself as political. He said his family has lived in and around New York since the 1930s and bought the building in the early 1970s; Chin started managing it only last year. His family had always “kept a very, very low profile because that’s how Asians survive in America.” But Lee’s death, combined with the other incidents he’d heard about, felt to him like a pattern; just the month before, an unhoused man had pushed a 40-year-old Asian American woman named Michelle Go in front of an oncoming subway train in Times Square, killing her instantly. “This is just a shift from what we’ve been used to,” he said, “to a new type of violence — a new type of racism against Asians.”
He wasn’t alone in drawing this conclusion. Asian America can feel nebulous, lumping together people as varied as a third-generation Chinese American landlord and a Hmong refugee. A kind of social invisibility has long been considered one of its few unifying qualities — and in the nearly three years since Donald Trump started calling COVID-19 “kung flu” and the “China Virus,” that has been replaced with hypervisibility. In New York, pandemic-era violence against Asians started more than a month before lockdown: The first widely reported attack occurred on February 2, 2020, when a man called a woman wearing a face mask “a diseased bitch” and punched her in the head. By late March, progressive advocacy groups had counted hundreds of news stories about similar assaults and confrontations around the country.
You didn’t have to be Chinese to be targeted — you just had to look vaguely East Asian. When that news-tracking effort morphed into an organization called Stop AAPI Hate and started inviting Asian Americans to submit their own firsthand accounts, reports of verbal harassment, public shunning, and physical attacks flooded in. The name of the organization caught on as a hashtag, simplified, and spread: Asians and non-Asians alike went from calling it “xenophobia” or “racism” to calling it “anti-Asian hate” or even just “Asian hate.” A lot of Asian Americans would soon start using another shorthand: They began referring to any attack on an Asian person as a hate crime.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Don’t worry about it. Everyone will forget about this.’ But I don’t want it to be forgotten.”
The specter of hate crimes has become a political rallying cry. In New York, people including Chin pin the blame on 2019’s bail reforms and Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, who won last year’s election on a platform of criminal-justice reform. That election saw voters in the city’s Asian neighborhoods swing to the right, a shift that community activists said was due in large part to concerns about public safety. In San Francisco, a conservative-led effort to recall the progressive DA Chesa Boudin succeeded in part because organizers appealed to Chinese American voters who were alarmed by the rise in violence. In Oakland and Dallas, Asian American business leaders responded to attacks by calling for more police patrols. In May 2021, two months after a white man killed eight people — including six Korean and Chinese immigrant women — at spas in Atlanta, Asian American civil-rights organizations cheered when President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. The legislation was meant to strengthen relationships between law enforcement and AAPI communities, and it passed with rare, and broad, bipartisan support in the House and Senate. “As a proud husband of an Asian American woman, I think this discrimination against Asian Americans is a real problem,” said Senator Mitch McConnell.
Chin is a registered Democrat. He’s uninterested in electoral politics but thinks New York mayor Eric Adams is “going in the right direction”; he shares Adams’s belief that bail reform has made the city less safe. That puts Chin, and the many Asian Americans like him, at odds with the civil-rights activists who believe that measures such as rolling back that reform and putting more police on the streets will have a disproportionate effect on Black Americans. “You’re seeing anti-Asian violence being used in a backlash against what people see as liberal or progressive, which is being used as a coded word for ‘caters to Black people,’ ” said Tamara Nopper, a scholar of Asian American race politics who has studied Korean American and Black race relations. “There are these other political agendas being marshaled through the anti-Asian-violence conversations, and that really concerns me. I feel all these political agendas are on the wrong side of history.”
Lee soon became yet another symbol of all the indignities and violence of the past two years, as Asian American activists declared her death a hate crime. A CNN correspondent published an op-ed tying her murder to the Atlanta killings, writing, “Asian Americans are under siege.” A bitterness was beginning to take hold — a sense of grievance that was hardening into a politics of self-protection.
I met Chin in April in his office in the basement of 111 Chrystie Street. On the sixth floor, just outside Lee’s former apartment, he had set up a small ad hoc altar with a single offering: an orange resting on a short metal stool.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Just don’t worry about it. Everyone will forget about this.’ But I don’t really want it to be forgotten,” said Chin. “That night affected me profoundly.”
Before the pandemic, Manhattan’s Chinatown had already undergone rapid change, mutating from a primarily working-class Cantonese and Fujianese area into a decidedly more white and wealthy one. The neighborhood was still filled with Asian residents and businesses, but the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic was a double whammy: Struggling businesses closed, and residents began to be concerned about their safety.
Chin had been feeling cautious even before Lee was murdered. He told me a story about how, in late January, he had encountered an unhoused man who he said was defacing a mural outside his building. “I was chasing him off. He turns around, and he was like, ‘Fuck you, chink.’ And then pulls out a can of pepper spray and sprays me right in the eyes,” he said. “That shit burned — I was just a roaring man. He seemed terrified, like, Oh God, it’s not working. At that point, I chased him down in the subway and then shot him in the back of the neck with a taser.”
I was taken aback. “Wait, so do you carry a taser around with you?” I said.
“Oh yeah. Absolutely,” said Chin. “I actually recommend you carry one as well.” The man fell down the stairs when Chin tased him before running off. According to Chin, there happened to be a couple of NYPD officers in the station: “They said they couldn’t find him. He escaped into the subway.”
Chin characterized this incident — the man calling him a chink and hitting him with the pepper spray — as a hate crime. “Everyone’s terrified out of their minds now because we’re seeing stuff like this,” he said. “I think the collective sense is that criminals are being protected more than citizens at the moment.” Lee’s murder served to galvanize that conviction.
In the days and weeks following Lee’s death, neighbors set up flower-strewn memorials in Chinatown, where people left messages in her name. The West Village art gallery Eli Klein, where Lee had once worked, commissioned an exhibit in her memory. A GoFundMe set up by her family raised more than $400,000, which they used to create a nonprofit in her honor; they planted a memorial tree in Prospect Park. (Lee’s family declined to be interviewed for this story.)
By this time, District Attorney Bragg had announced that Nash had been charged with first-degree murder, first-degree burglary, and first-degree burglary as a sexually motivated felony. But he wasn’t charged with a hate crime. In legal terms, hate crime means something specific: a crime motivated by bias based on some aspect of the victim’s identity, typically their perceived race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. A hate-crimes conviction often comes with a sentence enhancement, which could mean more time in prison. The decision about Nash’s case had fallen in part to Hannah Yu, chief of the Manhattan DA’s hate-crimes unit. One aspect of her job involves explaining to Asian American victims why their cases may not be prosecuted as hate crimes — a charge that would require evidence of explicit animus toward the victim’s perceived identity, such as a shouted slur or a pattern of targeting people of the same race. Yu declined to discuss Nash’s case specifically, saying that, in general, “sometimes there’s just simply no evidence and we have a very scared and hurt victim. What we say is ‘I know you feel that there’s no reason why you were victimized other than your race or how you appear, but we have to prove what the defendant’s motivation was beyond a reasonable doubt.’ ” She added, “Most of the time, we don’t have 185-page manifestos.”
Federal hate-crime statutes have their roots in laws first passed in 1968 in response to attacks on Black Americans and civil-rights activists. Black Americans are still by far the most common victims of reported hate crimes: A 2020 FBI report noted that hate crimes against Black Americans had risen nearly 40 percent since 2019 to a total of 2,755 incidents. But the most widely discussed takeaway was the 77 percent increase in reported hate crimes against Asian Americans, which totaled 279 incidents. The numbers are imprecise; many people don’t go to the police after attacks, and many police departments don’t submit their numbers. Although nearly all states have some form of hate-crime statute on the books, the vast majority do not have laws regulating how to train police to recognize or report them. Researchers have pointed out that most perpetrators of reported physical harassment of Asians are white, but even there the data is limited. Another narrowly focused, more recent survey implied a drastic jump between 2020 and 2021: The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found that across 16 of the country’s largest cities, including New York, hate crimes against Asians had jumped 342 percent. In nearly every city surveyed, Black Americans were still much more likely to be targeted.
Critics of the hate-crime framework argue that, rather than preventing attacks, labeling things this way serves only to prop up the power of police and prosecutors. But to groups like the Asian American Bar Association of New York, the difficulty of proving something a hate crime means governments are failing to take bias-driven attacks seriously. In the first three quarters of 2021, AABANY researchers found that for the 233 reported attacks against Asian Americans they had documented in New York, the NYPD had made only 91 arrests. Of that number, fewer than half of the defendants were charged with hate crimes, resulting in only seven hate-crime convictions, a number the Manhattan DA’s office — which disputes AABANY’s methodology — says has since risen to eight. Karen Kithan Yau, a lawyer and former member of the AABANY anti-Asian-violence task force, said this shows the bar for adding a hate-crimes charge is too high. “There often needs to be words exchanged. That often just does not happen with crimes perpetrated against Asian Americans,” she said. “I think that the laws need to be changed.”
She pointed to the case of Elisaul Perez, who had allegedly hit the 61-year-old Chinese woman GuiYing Ma on the head with a rock as she was sweeping a sidewalk in her Queens neighborhood; after being in a coma for three months, Ma died in February. Perez’s charges were upgraded to include murder and manslaughter, but the attack wasn’t designated a hate crime. Yau acknowledged there were “problems charging Perez with hate crimes” but thinks this decision didn’t look at the assault in the context of the others. “A lot of the prosecutors are like, ‘Why bother? It’s murder, and he’s gonna go in for life. What more do you want?’ ” she said. “From our perspective as advocates, it is a recognition that this is real, that the impact on the community is real.”
Photos by Alex Lau
Yau, who now works at a law firm that specializes in workers’ rights, describes herself as progressive and is a former community organizer. In her spare time, she reads books about the injustices of the criminal legal system, such as the lawyer and criminal-justice reformer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, about his work with poor and marginalized clients. She believes keenly in the law’s ability to redress wrongs, and during her time at AABANY, she led a project that provided pro bono assistance to survivors of anti-Asian violence. Yau herself had become afraid, avoiding eye contact on the subway and carrying a panic button, a small device that emits a loud noise when activated. She said she was struggling with the tension “between what it means to hold people accountable for the harm that they have done and yet, at the same time, not to promote overincarceration or overpolicing, particularly in certain communities. I think about it all the time.”
I think about that too. I’ve spent the past few years walking around the city with a heightened awareness, one I’ve questioned the validity of even as I felt it deep in my body. I’ve exchanged snarky comments with my Asian friends: “Shouldn’t it be #StopHatingAsians?” one texted me. “We need more Asian haters,” another joked; meaning more prickly Asians with sharp edges. We read the impassioned op-eds written by other East Asian professionals with liberal, anti-racist politics pleading for people to truly see us, and we quipped that we would actually prefer to remain unseen. (Wasn’t being too seen part of the problem?) As politicians and celebrities blared out calls to “stop the hate” and Asian Americans armed themselves with guns and pushed for more cops, we were cynical that any of the solutions at hand would amount to much.
Maybe we made jokes because we were unsettled. News stories about and videos of attacks saturated our feeds — often contextless snippets featuring abrupt acts of violence, alarming and hard to parse. We traded links and told one another of interactions that had unnerved us: the time a woman pulled a stun gun on me at a grocery store in Brooklyn, the man who screamed at my friend in Queens, the weird looks we all got whenever we coughed in public. At one point last year, I bought a panic button and started wearing it on a lanyard around my neck, a tiny weight that I would rub absentmindedly to self-soothe. My aunt in San Diego, who for years had been part of a dance troupe with some of her Taiwanese American friends, told me they had canceled their outdoor meetups. In Texas, my mom began worrying her mask would make her a target.
It was inevitable that questions of safety would be linked with those of policing and mass incarceration. In 2020, I had joined many of the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the moral imperative of the call to defund the police was, to me, clear. I believed long-term safety meant reducing the need for police and prisons with well-funded public schools, a stronger social safety net, affordable housing, and a dismantling of the structures that determine, along racial lines, who gets to live a dignified life. If the roots of anti-Asian violence were foundational, only a total transformation would suffice. But these beliefs lived uneasily next to the day-to-day. People wanted, and deserved, to feel safer now.
Efforts began springing up in New York City’s Asian neighborhoods: community-safety patrols, programs that paired volunteers with people who didn’t want to walk outside alone. Some residents began demanding fewer shelters for the unhoused in their communities at a time when the pandemic had exacerbated the housing crisis across New York — in particular for single men with unaddressed mental-health needs. These activists pointed to the fact that unhoused people were responsible for some of the most widely reported attacks, including the deaths of Lee, Go, and 61-year-old Yao Pan Ma, who was assaulted in East Harlem. Chin joined a campaign to halt the conversion of a hotel to a homeless shelter on Grand Street not far from his building. Those in favor of the shelter pointed out that providing housing and medical care to unhoused people would improve community safety, but their voices were largely ignored. In May, the city announced it had canceled plans for that shelter. (The decision reportedly stemmed in part from a union issue.)
Many housing advocates say the city relies too heavily on the shelter system and should focus instead on creating permanent housing, and shelters do tend to be clustered in poorer neighborhoods. But there remains a dire need for them in a city with tens of thousands of homeless individuals and families. Although there are no complete statistics, organizations including the Coalition for the Homeless have reported that more than half of the city’s shelter population is Black. The fact that fighting shelters, criticizing bail reform, and pushing for harsher sentencing — all of which are likely to have a direct effect on many poor Black New Yorkers — have been painted as practical solutions to anti-Asian violence seems to contradict the calls for solidarity that gained visibility during the racial-justice uprisings of 2020.
The scholar Tamara Nopper told me she felt some Asian Americans were using hate-crime discourse as a way to avoid “dealing with anti-Blackness.” She admitted she had hesitated to tweet #StopAsianHate because she was concerned that joining in would contribute to the impression that we’re living through a crime wave and should turn to carceral solutions. “I’m not saying there are not efforts to steer the ship in another direction,” she said. “But there’s a way that it’s assumed that Asian Americans are going to be pro-policing that doesn’t fully get challenged in all of this critical discourse.”
Nopper, who is Korean American, said the attacks on Asians had influenced her own habits, making her think more carefully about something as quotidian as riding the bus. “I live in a city where I’m highly visible,” she said. “Do you know what I mean? So I have to navigate stuff all the time just to get back and forth.” She praised the mutual-aid initiatives that have started in some Asian communities, such as outreach to the elderly and volunteers who will escort you home. “Some are being started or run by folks who don’t identify as abolitionists,” she said. “But they are trying to keep Asian people safe in ways that don’t involve partnering with the police, and this is immensely important.”
As I spent the spring tagging along with community patrols and attending pepper-spray giveaways with lines stretching several blocks, I kept hearing about new self-defense classes for Asian Americans. In April, I decided to attend one in a Chinatown park. All around were other Asians enjoying a beautiful spring day — teens hitting a volleyball, a group playing soccer — but a handful of us were there to learn the grim art of fighting back. The teacher, Henry Zhang, 34, stood in front of us demonstrating what he called “shankjitsu,” a style of self-defense he invented that involves using tools like tactical pens and flashlights to stun an attacker. He wore a long-sleeved black shirt printed with the phrase VIOLENT PROBLEMS REQUIRE VIOLENT SOLUTIONS, BECOME THE SOLUTION.
“We do this training in case we cannot run away. You see how easy it is to get killed,” he told us. The goal, he said, was to “increase your chances so you can survive a few seconds longer for your escape, or maybe, if you’re lucky, you can finish him off.”
Zhang and a friend founded these classes, called Dragon Combat Club, in April 2020 and pitch their teachings as “self-defense against violent racists” primarily for Asian Americans. As Zhang once put it in an interview, “There was a day I did martial arts for fun. Now it’s survival so I can live.”
Zhang is a psychology doctoral student who grew up in Queens. He started DCC because he was “sick of the inaction of the system,” of the cycle that would repeat itself after an attack made the news — condemnation by elected officials and endless social-media posts promoting a vague sort of awareness, only for another incident to make the news soon after. Zhang believes no one will protect Asian Americans but themselves. And even then, not all Asian Americans are to be trusted: DCC’s Twitter posts are littered with disparaging references to “boba liberals” and “blue-check Asians,” people who Zhang said “sell out other Asians” to seem like they’re helping other marginalized groups. He saw his own message as simple: “I’m just saying, ‘Please stop killing us.’ ”
“We do this training in case we cannot run away. You see how easy it is to get killed.”
Early in the pandemic, a group of strangers harassed Zhang’s fiancée, calling her “coronavirus” while she walked on the Lower East Side. Zhang said that when he shared what happened with a fellow Asian he’d grown up with, they “told me I didn’t know enough about white supremacy, I didn’t know about the minority myth — basically lecturing my ears off. They gave me a bunch of articles I needed to read to ‘do better.’ ” Zhang had once believed speaking out about the violence would help end it, but that had curdled into a sort of pessimism. “The discourse will never be on how Asians are affected,” he said. “The discourse is ‘Oh, the perpetrator, think about the mental health of the perpetrator.’ Never our mental health.”
He gathered the ten of us in a circle and handed each of us a tactical flashlight, which we would later practice whipping out of our pockets and wielding like a knife to stab an assailant. According to Zhang, he had used a tactical pen several times to fend off a potential attacker. We broke into pairs to practice grappling. I was partnered with a young Chinese American woman, and we took turns pushing each other’s arms; later on, I was paired with a soft-spoken 20-something Vietnamese American man to practice how to get out of a choke hold. “Remember to keep your hands up because later on, you’ll be hitting each other,” Zhang exhorted us. At the end of the session, he had each of us face off with him to demonstrate the skills we had learned. Someone handed me a black rubber knife, and Zhang and I began grappling; he quickly overpowered me and pushed me to the ground.
Zhang, who is autistic, has self-published three memoirs detailing the creation of the Dragon Combat Club, a series he called “Neurodivergent Ninja.” He estimates that DCC has trained hundreds of people. “If you’re anti-cop, I understand where you’re coming from. There are many valid reasons. However, if you’re using that to promote inaction as we’re literally getting stabbed in our own homes, in our own goddamn bathtub 40 times?” Zhang said. “That’s racism.”
When I got home that evening, I shoved the tactical flashlight into a drawer. A can of pepper spray I got at a giveaway sponsored by the group Chinatown Block Watch was already pushed into a corner. For a time, I had walked around with a canister tucked in my purse. Far from making me feel empowered, carrying it made me paranoid. Its presence was like a pebble in my shoe, a constant, uncomfortable reminder of the potential for violence and a fear that had increasingly begun to seem counterproductive.
In January, just two days after Michelle Go died, 67-year-old Hoa Nguyen was walking to a grocery store near her home in Clinton Hill on its senior-citizen-discount day. A man approached her and, without warning, punched her in the face several times, bruising her cheek. He ran off, but a passerby stopped and called the police. That same day, the NYPD arrested a man named Mercel Jackson for the attack. Nguyen isn’t sure if Jackson, who is Black and was reportedly unhoused at the time, said anything to her directly — but police investigators said he told them he had hit her because he “doesn’t like how Chinese people look” and “thinks Chinese people look like measles.” For a week after, Nguyen said, it hurt to cough or move her neck.
Around the same time I took the self-defense class, I visited Nguyen and her son, Khanh, at their apartment in Clinton Hill. She sat on their sofa, knitting a sweater for her grandchild; Khanh, a lawyer, hovered nearby, typing on his computer. Nguyen had fled Vietnam in a boat with her husband and 1-year-old Khanh after the war. Their first stop was a refugee camp in Indonesia. In 1981, they arrived in the U.S., landing in North Carolina. Her husband got a job at a snack-food factory; after their daughter was born, Nguyen started working there too. Their lives were filled with the small satisfactions of a striving family — they saved some money, bought a house, sent their kids to college. After her husband died nine years ago, Nguyen moved to New York to live with her children. Since her attack, she had been transformed online into a figure activists call “Grandma Nguyen”; an illustrator drew her image as a cartoon, complete with the bruise on her cheek. When the tech entrepreneur turned activist Ben Wei posted it on Instagram, one person commented, “Majorities are blacks who targets Asians and those who denied it are oblivious. That’s the end of that.” Another tagged @nycmayor, writing, “You own this.”
The Brooklyn DA, Eric Gonzalez, charged Jackson with assault, a felony, and added hate-crimes charges. If found guilty of felony assault, Jackson could have spent years in prison. I asked Nguyen what she wanted to see happen. “I’m not hurt so bad, so I just didn’t want him to go to jail or something like that,” Nguyen told me. Although she deferred to the police’s judgment, she wasn’t too upset by the comments Jackson had made. She forgave him. “Maybe someday I’ll make mistakes and somebody will forgive me,” she said.
Several months later, I spoke with her again. The Brooklyn DA’s office had reached out to her, asking if she wanted Jackson to serve a short sentence or if she was comfortable with him instead receiving mental-health services. She chose the latter. “I said, ‘Just let him go out and take medicine for him to be okay.’ It would make him probably feel better, and after he got out, he’d probably live his life better than he was,” she said. “If he was in jail, he might be angry and he might attack some more people. I don’t want him to be like that.” A spokesperson for the Brooklyn DA’s office later said Jackson had been deemed eligible to go through the borough’s Mental Health Court, which would place him in a mental-health program as an alternative to incarceration; these programs usually last from one to two years.
Nguyen admitted that she was now more hesitant whenever she saw a Black man walking toward her, though she tried to resist that impulse. “You don’t know who is bad, who is good,” she said. Before she was attacked, she would walk around Brooklyn for hours, all the way to the waterfront and back. Recently, she has started venturing out again, though she still doesn’t want to take the subway alone. Her daughter had for months warned her to be careful when in public, giving her pepper spray and urging her to carry it, but Nguyen didn’t have it with her the day she was assaulted. She doubted it would have been useful. “It happened so fast,” she said.
I visited Brian Chin again in late August. Since Lee’s killing, Chin had taken it upon himself, as he put it, to “clean up the neighborhood as much as I can.” He handed out pepper spray to his tenants; in an effort to discourage people from loitering, he removed his building’s awnings, which had offered shelter and shade to some of the neighborhood’s unhoused residents. Whenever a small sidewalk memorial to Lee was vandalized, he would pull up surveillance video and file a police report. His attention had now turned to nearby Sara D. Roosevelt Park, where he felt that the drug problem was getting worse and worried that local seniors were at risk for crimes of opportunity — which he said could also be called “hate crimes.”
A few days after I first met Chin in the spring, New York governor Kathy Hochul passed the state budget, which includes a limited rollback of the 2019 bail reforms as well as an expansion of Kendra’s Law, a statute that allows judges to mandate psychiatric treatment for people with mental illness. While some feel the statute forces people into unwanted treatment and unfairly assumes that those with mental illness are prone to violence, Asian American activists had called for this change after the death of Michelle Go, and both Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams had championed it. The budget also includes a provision making all alleged hate crimes committed by adults potentially punishable with a night in custody. Chin had met Hochul when she stopped by his building after Lee’s killing, and he was pleased to think he had perhaps played a small role in her decision.
Chin was still convinced that the unhoused population was making Chinatown less safe, and he bristled at the suggestion that fighting a homeless shelter in a city where the majority of unhoused people are Black is itself a form of racism. In his view, anyone who actually lived in the community would support his efforts. “I’ll go on the record — all this criticism is from limousine liberals who do not have any experience with what we’ve been dealing with,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are truly the victims here.” He repeatedly told me how traumatic Lee’s murder was, how even the cops who were there seemed shaken and how he had been hounded by journalists begging him for the surveillance footage: “What everyone wanted to see was him chasing her through the apartment door.” The New York Post managed to obtain it, claiming the landlord had provided it. (Chin denied that he would have done this.)
It had now been six months since the murder, and Chin couldn’t shake the feeling that he could have done something to prevent it. “What struck me the most when everything happened was Why did this happen? How did we end up in this situation, when Christina was just walking home, something that we all do? That’s what still haunts me the most,” he said. “You can’t really blame society. You can’t blame governmental agencies. You can’t blame police. I’m more the kind of person to place blame on myself — maybe if I had kicked out the crew that was dealing drugs that this guy was part of. I was fixated on that. And it brought me to a pretty dark place for a while.”
We stepped out of his building onto Chrystie Street. A vendor was at the corner, hawking zongzi, and kids were strolling with their parents. “Honestly, this is nice here,” Chin said. Then he gazed at Sara D. Roosevelt Park across the street: “The park is bad.” As we parted ways, he warned me that I should never walk there at night. And for that matter, he added, I should avoid Delancey Street, too.
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