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SF Event Celebrates Strength of Asian Women, 1 Year After Atlanta Spa Shootings

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Two women hug each other at an event.
After an announcement to hug the person sitting next to you, attendees embrace one another during the 'Break the Silence' event at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on March 16, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Wednesday marked one year since a gunman killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at spa businesses in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. Rallies and other events were held in the Bay Area and across the country to remember the victims of the shootings and promote awareness about ongoing violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

A "Break the Silence" event at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum — featuring a robust speaker lineup of influential Asian American women — provided free legal and mental health resources, including group discussions led by a therapist, and a self-defense workshop.

Zeien Cheung, co-founder of the group Asians Are Strong, said she helped organize the event both to commemorate the Atlanta spa victims, and to create a safe space for Asian American women.

woman with 'asians are strong' t-shirt speaks at microphone with mural of strong female asian faces in background
Event organizer Zeien Cheung speaks during the 'Break the Silence' event at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on March 16, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"We need to remember, we need to acknowledge the pain," Cheung told KQED. "But yet at the same time, how are we moving forward together and collectively doing something to change this?"

Cheung said the event was not only a time to grieve, but also to acknowledge and celebrate the experience and strength of Asian American women.

"What can we do, how can we be together, how can we stand together stronger?" she said.

smiling women seated next to each other look up as speakers make remarks
Ashlyn So, youth activist and fashion designer, and her mom, Angela, listen to speakers during the 'Break the Silence' event at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on March 16, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Between March 2020 and December 2021, nearly 11,000 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported to the California-based coalition Stop AAPI Hate. More than 60% of those incidents were reported by women.

"[The spa shootings were] a reminder for Asian women that we experience violence and discrimination in a particular way, the objectification of women, the stereotypes," said Cynthia Choi, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, which is calling for more government investments to support victims of violence and discrimination.

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"Because of [the spa shootings], America was finally shocked awake to the reality of anti-Asian hate," Southern California Democratic Rep. Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said at a news event on the U.S. Capitol steps on Wednesday.

"But in reality, for over a year, xenophobic slurs like 'China virus' and 'kung flu' have been terrorizing Asian American communities across the country with thousands of anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents."

Two women talk over a table.
Anna Tong (right) speaks with Diana Vuong about the Southeast Asian Community Center during the 'Break the Silence' event at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on March 16, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At Wednesday's Asian Art Museum event, Cheung said she was frustrated that more hadn't been done — locally and nationally — over the last year to make Asian American women feel more secure in their own communities.

"I personally haven’t seen any improvements [to safety]. I absolutely do not feel safe," she said. "I definitely have given up a piece of my freedom because I used to go out very freely, but nowadays I have to think multiple times and visualize where I’m going and whether it’s safe to go by myself."

In a raw and emotional address to attendees, Shinhong Byun, the president of the Korean American Bar Association of Northern California, described the trauma she continues to regularly experience 15 years after being sexually assaulted.

A woman is embraced by a young man and woman
Shinhong Byun (center), president of the Korean American Bar Association of Northern California, is comforted by friends and family after an emotional address during the 'Break the Silence' event at the Asian Art Museum on March 16, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"My purpose here, I realize, is to show you what violence looks like. What PTSD looks like," she said. "It’s not [just] in our heads. It’s in the body, too. It gets trapped."

Jennifer Li, the executive director of the Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council, applauded Byun for her bravery and honesty.

"It's nice to recognize somebody else who’s showing their vulnerability. And that tells us it’s OK to feel those things," she said. "Seeing her share that vulnerability with us was just a really nice reminder that we’re human beings, and to humanize ourselves."

Li said the event highlighted the growing level of engagement in the Asian American community.

Two dancers perform on a stage.
The K-pop dance group Groobue performs during the 'Break the Silence' event at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on March 16, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"In the past year, I feel like the Asian American community has really started to activate," she said. "People who have never been in community organizing or activism have started to spring up."

Dorothy Polkadot Quock, who recently turned 88, said she was grateful to attend the event, despite the echo in the museum that made it hard for her to hear the speakers.

"I’m very encouraged that the Asian community had the support and the spirit to have an event like this," she said. "I assumed they would have something that would be nominal in memory of the anniversary. But to see the number of people that were here and also the response ... is very, very encouraging."

KQED's Farida Jhabvala Romero, Juan Carlos Lara, Beth LaBerge and David Marks contributed to this story.

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