Asian Heritage Month has been celebrated in Canada for years — since May 2002 to be exact — when the Government of Canada signed an official declaration designating May as Asian Heritage Month.
However, actual awareness has been lacklustre.
I would sometimes hear of (and participate in) scattered events throughout the month, but rarely would I learn anything about AHM from the mainstream media. In America, a joint resolution proclaiming the first 10 days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week was made in 1977. That week was formalized to a month in 1992 and is now known as Asian American and Pacific Islander Month.
Yet many Mays have passed by with barely a blip of fanfare marking the occasion. Even last year, in mid-May, we still had not seen or heard much about Asian Heritage Month in the mainstream media. Yet this year, Asian Heritage Month campaigns are splashed everywhere from influencers, content creators, major brands to mainstream media outlets and more celebrating Asian culture and heritage.
So, what has sparked the sudden attention on Asian celebration both here and across the border?
There’s a saying when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Along with the spread of the COVID-19 virus has come the spread of Asian hate. Since the pandemic hit, we’ve seen a disturbing surge of anti-Asian hate crime, with racist generalizations of a “Chinese virus” weaponized against East Asians in particular.
Last year, Vancouver police documented 98 anti-Asian hate crimes, an eightfold increase from the year prior. According to pollster Insight West, an April survey revealed that 43 per cent of B.C. residents of Asian descent said they experienced a racist incident in the past year, ranging from racial slurs to property damage to physical assault.
Then there are all the incidents that are not reported. Across the country we have watched disturbing videos of elderly women and men being punched and pushed to the ground in broad daylight on our city streets, witnessed vandals defacing property in Chinatown with racist graffiti among other hate crimes. There were the horrific Atlanta shootings in March, which targeted and claimed the lives of six Asians — the violence has been horrendous.
It is no surprise that #StopAsianHate began trending on social media this past year. Asian trauma is trending. And while I am grateful for the attention given to Asian communities this May, I cannot help but feel skeptical about it.
Thinking back to last May, after George Floyd was killed, there was a surge in support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Large and small corporations across the spectrum showed solidarity for racial justice. Thousands poured into the streets in protest while others took to their Twitter and Instagram feeds with feverish social media activism.
There was a lot of “listening and learning,” and there was hope. Yet a year after the murder of George Floyd, after what felt like the beginning of a long-awaited racial reckoning in America and here in Canada too, little substantive change has come for the Black communities that we were fighting for. In that vein, I cannot help but wonder how much of this Asian support is performative or tokenism.
Madelyn Chung, founder of The RepresentASIAN Project shares some of that weariness.
“It has been great to see an influx of Asian stories in media this month, but it would be even better if this were a common occurrence year-round,” she tells me.
While The RepresentASIAN Project has made a point to acknowledge Asian Heritage Month, they are also encouraging their audience to continue to “reflect on and celebrate the contributions that Canadians of Asian origins continue to make, to the growth and prosperity of Canada.” (Which is the Government of Canada’s description of Asian Heritage Month).
It seems people are much more willing to pay attention to marginalized and underrepresented groups when there is trauma to see — and there is much less interest in their joy. Almost all the AHM campaigns I have seen thus far are centred around Asian hate messaging, which is important, but equally so is celebrating Asian joy. Moreover “Asians” are not a monolith — we represent over 30 countries. There are so many diverse cultures and countries to highlight in the month. There are certainly no shortage of stories to share, there never has been — yet the focus remains on what is newsworthy, not what will elevate our collective voices beyond the month of May.
That said, there are some noteworthy campaigns to highlight, which not only feature Asians, but also have Asians behind the lens. For example, the “Eyes Open” video was produced by an all-female Asian Canadian creative team, set to the poem by Asian Canadian poet Christopher Tse.
Earlier this week was the first-ever Asian Gold Ribbon Day, started by Dr. Gina Wong. TIFF is presenting an “ASIA UNBOUND” programme. And of course, the Reel Asian Film Festival, which has been going 25 years strong in its celebration of pan-Asian films has a powerful and inspiring selection once again.
A new film study released this week showed that of 1,300 top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2019, just 44 films (a mere 3.4 per cent) featured an Asian Pacific Islander lead or co-lead performer. Worse still, 14 of those 44 films, roughly 31 per cent starred the same person, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. “
“Unfortunately, when representation looks like tokenism, Hollywood is doing the bare minimum for inclusion,” said Nancy Wang Yuen, who co-led the study.
AHM efforts that are just lip service that offer no lasting impact to amplify Asian voices feel a lot like these study results: a bare minimum with a long way to go.
“While governments and corporations continue to profit from the ‘-isms’ that separate humanity, the voice of diversity will continue to be muted, no matter how loud our megaphone may blow,” said Raj Girn, founder and CEO of Anokhi Life.
“The question remains, will those in and with power exercise their responsibility to mandate societal and infrastructural change to create the necessary equality that’s being demanded by the masses?
The theme for Asian Heritage Month 2021 is “Recognition, Resilience, and Resolve.” But I want to be clear that we are not a trend, and our trauma is not a trend.
I hope the desire for Canadians to learn about and celebrate all racialized cultures and communities perseveres and that next year and years to come, we will see the same interest in Asian Heritage Month and that same desire to celebrate Asian culture as this landmark year.