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Rise in hate crimes is a disturbing backdrop to San Francisco's Lunar New Year

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today is the first day of the Lunar New Year. Gong hei fat choy (ph) - that's a Cantonese New Year greeting. The holiday is celebrated among Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and other Asian communities. But this year there's a disturbing backdrop to the festivities. NPR's John Ruwitch has this report from San Francisco.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE #1: Next.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE #1: Hi.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: It's lunchtime at Chase Luck Bakery.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE #1: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: Women behind the counter dish out steaming noodles, dumplings, fried rice and other tasty looking Chinese dishes to a line of customers that runs out the door. Business looks pretty good. But one worker says it was disrupted a few months ago.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE #2: An afternoon when we close the restaurant, and somebody just hitting the window. And we had camera outside also. And they just swap out the camera also. They break the window two times, three times - three times.

RUWITCH: The restaurant was attacked. And it wasn't the only one.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE #2: On this street, Ocean Avenue, so many stores just hit by something happen like that.

RUWITCH: San Francisco's district attorney charged a man this summer who they believe was behind the racially motivated vandalism spree. Police Chief Bill Scott said last week it's part of a troubling trend. The city saw a six-fold increase in Asian hate crimes in 2021.

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BILL SCOTT: We had eight in 2019. We had nine in 2020. And we had 60 in 2021. That is significant. That is concerning. And that is alarming.

RUWITCH: The problem, of course, isn't limited to San Francisco. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino collected data from a dozen major American cities. And it showed that anti-Asian hate crime increased more than 300% last year. The group Stop AAPI Hate records hate incidents ranging from racial slurs to assaults.

CYNTHIA CHOI: What we've established since the time that we started Stop AAPI Hate is that we're getting reports from all 50 states that there is a pattern. It's systemic. And it's pervasive.

RUWITCH: Cynthia Choi is one of the leaders of Stop AAPI Hate.

CHOI: We also know that there is generally underreporting from our community.

RUWITCH: A national survey last fall, she says, found that 1 in 5 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had experienced a hate incident in the prior year.

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RUWITCH: A few miles from Chase Luck Bakery, hundreds of people came out to stroll through a Lunar New Year street fair in Chinatown over the weekend. Some played games and ate food. There was even a lion dance troupe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUWITCH: And organizers said the police presence was beefed up this year in response to the surge in hate crimes. Victoria Chang (ph) was there. And she was holding something red and shiny that she'd just bought.

VICTORIA CHANG: This is kind of, like, an auspicious pinwheel, just kind of something fun and kind of some good-luck charm.

RUWITCH: She said she was all too aware of the risks that AAPI communities face these days. And she says she thought twice before coming out to the street fair.

CHANG: I guess that was something I was considering. Like, is it still safe to come out here where it's, like, a big group of Asians? Would we be targeted?

RUWITCH: And that, she said, is discouraging, especially around the Lunar New Year.

CHANG: Because it's supposed to be just a happy event. And having to think, like - oh, will I be safe going out here? - definitely makes it a lot sadder.

RUWITCH: John Ruwitch, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL COWLEY'S "JUST ABOVE IT ALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.