Andy Sue’s flower shop in Toronto’s east end has been in his family for 48 years.
The family business was passed onto him from his parents.
He grew up in the multi-ethnic neighbourhood known as the Upper Beach and had never experienced racism.
Then he noticed his customers acting strangely when COVID-19 surfaced.
“People started questioning was it safe to approach me anymore because of my Asian background,” he said. He said he was even asked if he had ever been to Wuhan, China — the first epicentre of the virus.
“I’ve never been to China,” the 39-year-old Torontonian said.
The origins of the novel coronavirus virus have led to spikes of overt acts of racism against Asian communities in Canada.
The World Health Organization believes COVID-19 originated in China but quickly spread to other parts of the world.
More than six million people have been diagnosed with this potentially deadly disease. Close to 400,000 people have died.
Trixie Ling can relate to how Sue felt. She was walking down a Vancouver street when she said she was confronted by a young white man who called her names and then spit on her. He kept walking, she said, adding she was too stunned to call police so there were no charges.
“I felt so angry,” says Ling.
The Vancouver Police Department says there has been a 600 per cent increase in reports of hate crimes targeting the Asian community, whether they’re of Chinese, Korean or Japanese descent.
British Columbia’s Anti-Racism Network doesn’t think there’s a rise in hate crimes because it’s always been there.
“We are in a time right now where people are feeling more open about expressing their feelings. They’re exposing their racist ideas,” Jane Hurtig, the organization’s director, said.
Sandra Hyde, a professor at McGill University, has been researching the correlation between pandemics and how different cultures get targeted during health scares.
“In a pandemic, where we have no cure and no vaccine, people are afraid. They want to place blame, “ says Hyde. “It’s easier to place blame on someone different from you.”
The so-called “yellow peril” has been entrenched in health scares ever since the Chinese started immigrating to Canada.
The Chinese were blamed for the 2003 SARS crisis because it first appeared in Guandong, China.
In 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “China Virus.”
“Donald Trump has normalized the ability to be racist,” Hurtig said. “In Canada, we need to do things differently.”
The outbreak of racism is so palpable in B.C. that Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin has launched an anti-racism campaign on Twitter. “Different Together” is aimed at quelling the hate by celebrating diversity during this tumultuous time.
Anti-racism advocates are supportive of the initiative but want to see more anti-racism workshops in elementary schools and in the workplace.
“You have to make it mandatory,” Hyde said. “You don’t set it up as if it’s an option.”
Trixie Ling knows she’s going to be a voice for change. She wants an end to systemic racism.
“Silence is a weapon,” she said.
Back at the flower shop, Sue is back in business after closing down during the lockdown. He has a message for anyone who wants to turn the pandemic into a cultural war.
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“The virus has no face. It could happen to anyone. We shouldn’t be afraid of each other.”