(Photos courtesy of Chinese For Black Lives)

On Sunday, 17 young Chinese people divided into eight teams and walked through the Chinatowns of Manhattan and Flushing, Queens. They visited Chinese vendors, inquired about their businesses in the midst of the pandemic and protests, and encouraged them to display Chinese For Black Lives posters in their storefronts. 

The Chinese For Black Lives initiative started as the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota triggered national and international protests. It also came less than a week after racist group messages from the NYU chapter of the Lambda Phi Epsilon–a self-described Asian-interest fraternity– leaked online and incited heated backlash. The international students, scholars, and, most notably, feminist activists comprising Chinese For Black Lives aim to make New York’s Chinese communities aware of Black Lives Matter, amplify voices of support, and foster solidarity across racial lines.

As soon as word spread in Chinese social media groups, people from across the United States responded with interest and enthusiasm. People in New York signed up for community outreach, and those who weren’t in New York contributed by designing posters and plotting outreach strategies. 

Xiaowen Liang, a feminist activist and organizer of the initiative, explained that despite the existence of racist sentiment in Chinese communities, many Chinese people support black empowerment. “We want to counter the anti-blackness stereotype people have about Chinese people,” she said in Mandarin. “If we can present the supportive voices and make them the social norms of Chinese immigrant communities, then the opposition voices will definitely be changed.”

Reactions from Chinese vendors varied, according to Marina Yang, a Chinese art history student who participated in the Manhattan Chinatown walk-through. Some demonstrated support and put up red and white signs that read “Asians for Blacks,”, with an image of two upward-thrusting fists in the middle. The image, according to Cyaline Choi, organizer of the walk-through, took inspiration from the fist logo of Black Lives Matter and symbolizes Asians standing beside the black community. The organizers of the initiative later confirmed that although their ideals align with that of Asians for Black Lives, they’ve decided to ground themselves in Chinese communities.

The owner of My Food House, on Eldridge Street, said that she understands the struggles black people have, because she, a Chinese immigrant, also experiences discrimination and prejudice. “They like my Cajun seafood a lot,” she laughed. “I always make sure to serve them with smiles,” she said in Mandarin. “Because the way you treat other people is the way they’ll treat you.”

Yet not every Chinese vendor welcomed Yang’s group. Out of the 20 stores they visited in Manhattan Chinatown, nine agreed to put up the signs. The rest either needed more time to consider or became agitated once they learned the group’s intention. Yang told Bedford + Bowery that a business owner said that only voting could change things, that their efforts would be useless. Another refused to show support, claiming his business had been looted by black people. 

Despite some pushbacks, Liang remains hopeful that their actions can bring a change in the long term. She noted that the language and expressions of the Black Lives Matter movement are grounded in an American tradition of social justice activism that is unfamiliar to many Chinese immigrants because they grew up in China. Therefore, the volunteers, all of whom have education backgrounds in both China and the US, decided to approach Chinese small business owners in ways they are more comfortable with. They also created a WeChat group to continue the dialogue, hoping to bring out the voices of support and expose Chinese immigrants to more social justice issues.

“We want to show them that such social issues are closely linked to our lives,” she said. “Even though at first many of them may not accept that supporting black lives is supporting our own, I think, through long-term actions on our part, they will become familiar with the discourse and begin to think more about the issues.”

After an afternoon’s canvassing, 40 vendors opted to participate in the initiative. Volunteers left flyers and signs. Among them, a Chinese explainer with the header “supporting Black people is supporting Asians” addresses topics like the origin of the Black Lives Matter movement, causes for violent protests, and the relevance of the movement to Chinese immigrants. 

“As black people, Chinese immigrants are also victims of racism. From Yellow Peril, Chinese Exclusion Act, to the anti-Chinese violence due to the coronavirus a short while ago, they are all caused by racism,” the flyer reads. “The essence of Black Lives Matter is to oppose racism in all forms. So supporting [the Black Lives Matter] movement is also supporting and guaranteeing our own rights.”

In a section titled “What can I do,” the flyer encourages Chinese vendors to avoid discriminatory language in daily operations, post signs on their storefront to support Black Lives Matter, not refrain from showing support to the movement when interacting with business partners, colleagues, and customers, and attach flyers to delivery and takeout packages.

The chineseforblacklives Instagram account, created on June 6, has attracted close to 450 followers. Besides photos from the Sunday walk-through, it shows pictures of Chinese individuals, and in one post, a cat, behind signs that read “#黑人同命” (“#Hei Ren Tong Ming”), a Chinese-translated version of “#blacklivesmatter.” Underneath the hashtags, some also read, in either English and Mandarin, “The only way to stop perpetuating racism is to speak out and fight,” and “We need to fight Chinese anti-Blackness. Defund NYPD and invest in community services!”

Last night, the Chinese For Black Lives group called for a meeting to reflect and discuss future plans. Around 30 young Chinese people attended the two-hour meeting, and spoke of their hopes and goals. Ziyi Li, a queer and equal rights activist who is an organizer of the initiative, said that one of the immediate next steps is to carry on the canvassing actions and reach out to Chinese vendors outside of Chinatown, in the East Village, Brooklyn, and nearby Columbia University. 

Even though the first actions took place in New York, the group’s vision lies beyond state and even national borders. They have connected with Chinese students in other US cities and around the world, and aspire to bring the idea of the movement to China where discrimination against black people has often been swept under the rug. 

Li recognized that it would take time to achieve all of their goals, but she seemed thrilled. “The world is our stage. We want to expand this to an international black movement.”