A #hyphenatedAsians POV: Amy Phung of Besea.n
Amy Phung, a British-born Chinese campaigner talked with Xindi Wei of The Universal Asian about how she co-founded an ESEA grassroots movement tackling hate crimes during the pandemic.
“If you define an activist as someone who cares about people, who is vocal, and is working on a social injustice campaign, then here I am,” said Amy Phung from her flat in South London. It’s been nearly a year since Phung co-founded Besea.n—a U.K. community network that champions East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) voices. “It’s actually very hard work. It’s mentally draining because constantly every day you’re thinking about the social injustices of the world, such as racism, which is very sad.”
We met over Zoom, where the campaigner and graphic designer recalled how her network has come together during the pandemic.
“I had anxiety when the pandemic first started last year. Mainstream media, even the ones that are neutral and well-received were using words like ‘China Virus,’ and I could see a pervasive sort of xenophobic messaging, which could potentially influence unconscious biases,” said Phung.
“When I talked to my white friends about the possibility that I could be racially attacked—I found that there was a lack of understanding, and there seemed to be no empathy or thoughts going towards sympathising with my situation.”
Phung paused slightly as she recounted her frustration and worry around that time. She explained that she wrote to newspapers and complained about the issue, but the feedback she received was very invalidating as they denied that their image choices were influenced by racist attitudes, even though there was a disproportionate use of ESEA faces in their COVID reporting.
However, by chance, Phung found some people on social media who shared her indignation and causes.
The six of them, all British-born Asians, thus came together because of a shared trauma and for a common goal: to show the diversity, vibrancy, and history of the ESEA community, as they believed that there is a missing part of media representation and a lack of education around who ESEA people are.
“It was great to meet people who can validate how I’m feeling,” Phung continued. “We know that as ESEA people, people will notice us if we are seen in any public platform because we are very invisible. So, it is quite a big deal when we do get seen. But unfortunately, when we do get visibility, it is in a negative light.
“For many decades we have been less able to organise and connect, because we are so spread out across the country. And, so, being able to find that community online, especially during the pandemic, is a way in which we can connect with people.”
Growing up in Clapham, London in a Chinese family, Phung shared she has definitely experienced racism and discrimination, but on a very subtle level. She explained: “I never had people constantly shouting at or harassing me, but I certainly have experienced people pulling their eyes back, and people ‘othering’ me like saying ‘Where are you from?’ It’s generally very ignorant things, and that is from strangers and also people who I grew up with and called my friends.”
However, she has experienced more direct instances of racism since March of last year. “I was walking in the park with my daughter and someone actually shouted at me and told me to stay away from him. And you know that was a very overt case of racism. I’ve had someone spit at me on the bus as well during the pandemic,” she said. “We could all sense that hate crimes were going to happen inevitably. The history of anti-ESEA racism in the U.K. is not a new one; you can’t say that the first time that ESEA people have been abused is in the pandemic. It is historical. It is just not talked about.”
Because of escalating racism towards ESEA people, Phung and her other co-founders created a petition in July to ask the media to stop using ESEA faces in COVID reporting, catching the attention of Sarah Owen, the MP for Luton North. She took the petition to the government, which led to the first parliamentary debate—fighting anti-ESEA racism. “It was a very seminal one because it was the first one ever,” Phung smiled. “It was able to give voice to our causes, and to get people to recognise that racism does in fact impact people of colour, of ESEA origin.”
From that point on, Phung’s campaign really started snowballing. They advocated for more people to write to their MPs, supporting Sarah Owen in that debate; made a podcast where guests can talk about their experiences; and they host talks and workshops for various institutions, helping people to gain advocacy skills to be able to use their voice. Phung went on to say: “We’re going to do a workshop about finding [our] collective voice, and that is for the U.K.-based charity China Exchange in Chinatown. We also have another ongoing project where we are hoping to hold active bystander training workshops, which is showing people how they can be a good active bystander if they see a hate incident happening, and what they can do to help the victim and to deescalate.”
In addition to organising a non-profit charity, Phung is also an artist whose artworks echo her anti-ESEA racism sentiment, as well as her heritage. She uses her art to tell her personal relationship with ESEA food and to celebrate it. “My art has come from feeling more galvanised in recent months campaigning anti-ESEA racism to express my heritage and to educate on my experience as someone who is British-born Chinese,” she said. “I found that ESEA food was often seen as unhealthy or unhygienic, consequently causing many chefs to culturally appropriate our cuisines and ‘elevate’ them by using language such as ‘clean’ and ‘MSG-free’ in order to paint ESEA food as unhealthy.”
“When we understand that historically and in current-day attitudes, ESEA people have been painted as dirty and ‘virus-carriers,’ we can understand why it can lead to anti-ESEA racism and harassment.”
When I asked Phung if she thinks her campaigns do help change systemic racism towards ESEA people, she answered with a firm “yes.” But, not because institutional racism is lightly embedded into the fabric of this country, nor does she think it will disappear in her lifetime—but she does have hope that things will change one step at a time.
“I can’t look in the future and say racism will be indefinitely eradicated. But without hope there is no fight. How can we serve future generations if we don’t speak out against racism? So, I think it’s important to understand that we still have to do it because historically they have been activists and we need to take their wisdom and continue that work forward.”
Besea.n is now planning a nationwide movement to establish the U.K.’s first ESEA heritage month. They want to get the government to recognise it as a national observance because there is Black History Month, South Asian History Month, and so on, but not an ESEA Heritage Month.
“Even if they don’t, we will still be holding it because the power is in our hands,” she stated. “We aren’t just facilitating it and we want people in the community to feel like they can take it into their own hands to set something up within the month of September to celebrate our history, to encourage education around us. This is really a community project.”
Indeed, people are so much more connected these days. In the long-term, Phung and her team aim to form coalitions with many social and environmental injustices and campaigns. They want to not only support BLM but also to fight against Islamophobia, transphobia, and so on. “I don’t think we can do this on our own. We have to understand the struggles of the many different communities and find a way of working together,” she said.
Ultimately, according to Phung: “We’re all fighting towards the same thing, which is dismantling the white superiority complex. It can be upheld by white people. It can be upheld by people of color and we all need to work together.”