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Friday, Apr 03, 2020

Coronavirus: Wuhan natives in US unite to support their city during crisis

Students and others organise donations to send medical supplies: ‘everyone is highly concerned and hopes they can contribute something’. University students in New York also note a rise in xenophobic taunts and threats

The day after he avoided the Chinese government’s lockdown in Wuhan, Hubei province, Scott Liu was already planning on how he could support his hometown’s fight against the coronavirus from abroad.

Lucky enough to have boarded the last direct flight from Wuhan to New York on January 22 – just before travel bans were imposed to stop the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19 – Liu settled back into his home in Queens, New York, and began a 14-day period of self-quarantine.

In solitude, while reports of thousands of coronavirus cases began to overtake the news cycle, he started organising the overseas Wuhan-born community to donate to the city of 11 million, the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak.

“We just want to make a little effort for our hometown at this moment,” Liu said. “When a crisis so big we’ve never experienced before happened in Wuhan, everyone is highly concerned and hopes they can contribute something.”

Liu is one of thousands of Chinese in the US with attachments to Wuhan who have been jolted into action by the suffering of their friends and family back home.

Like many such Chinese, he is also alarmed by the treatment of his peers in the US who have become targets for xenophobic taunts and other threatening behaviour.


A hometown under siege

In this two-front battle, Liu and his allies have raised at least US$1 million to purchase and send medical gear to Wuhan, and have organised to offer support for those facing a backlash in America.

By last week, China’s Hubei province had seen roughly 62,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,900 deaths caused by the coronavirus, with Wuhan accounting for more than 44,000 cases and nearly 1,500 fatalities. The outbreak has galvanised a once-loose community of Wuhan natives in the US to show solidarity with their hometown.

Living in the United States since 1996, Liu, 56, now works as a textile importer. He is also the president of the Yellow Crane Club and the vice-president of the Hubei-American Association, two organisations that connect people from Hubei in New York.

Liu’s mother, in her 90s, is under lockdown in Wuhan; he calls her every day to make sure she is OK. While none of Liu’s immediate family or friends is infected, Liu said that the sister of one of his Yellow Crane colleagues has died of Covid-19.

On January 23, the Yellow Crane Club began a campaign to buy medical supplies for Wuhan hospitals, amassing US$100,000 in just two hours.

Still, all donations and supplies must go through the Wuhan branch of the state-controlled Red Cross Society of China, which had been heavily criticised for ineptitude and corruption.

So the Yellow Crane Club chose another path: through their connections in Hubei, club members quickly applied the donation to face masks, surgical protective overalls and thermometers – all from local suppliers.

Similarly, Allen Xiao, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had graduated in 2007 from the Wuhan Foreign Languages School (WFLS), which has a significant alumni presence overseas. In 2014, Xiao established an unofficial alumni association in the US.

Xiao took his winter holiday at home in Wuhan, but when he returned to the United States on January 25, it was already too hard for him to buy supplies to ship back home because they were either out of stock or unreasonably priced.

Still hoping to contribute, Xiao contacted WFLS alumni in other countries and found one in Germany who works with suppliers of medical gear.



He connected the suppliers with WFLS alumni willing to donate and the Wuhan University’s alumni association chapter in Europe, a well-established organisation that could bring in more donations. The first shipment of goods they purchased arrived at the hospitals in early February.

“As someone who came from Wuhan, I personally feel a strong Wuhan identity has emerged. This has never happened before,” said Xiao.

Wuhan, a key transport hub in Central China, has never enjoyed the kind of cultural cachet as some other Chinese cities such as Hangzhou, with its famous West Lake and rolling tea plantation hills, or Chengdu, known for its laid-back cafes and spicy Sichuan cuisine.


A unifying event

The outbreak has become a rare event to unite all the graduates. In a WeChat group of 500 members, WFLS alumni who graduated from 1989 to 2018 before scattering around the world assembled to share information, like which Wuhan hospitals could admit more patients or what supplies were available for people stuck at home.

An academic in social science, Xiao said that voluntary associations like the Wuhan alumni group can react faster than the government at the time of a major crisis.

“When the national system is not as efficient, we need civic groups,” he said. “This civic structure was not in place during the 2003 SARS outbreak.”

In response to the Covid-19 crisis, alumni associations are proving efficient at amassing resources and delivering support.

According to their announcement, the Wuhan University Alumni Association’s Greater New York chapter raised more than US$1.3 million in donations by February 13, while the Beijing chapter had collected 24 million yuan, about US$3.4 million.

It’s not just Chinese from Wuhan who are acting. Graduates of the Beijing Foreign Studies University, one of the largest language teaching institutions in China, have also joined in.

With help from the university, Wang Rui, president of the alumni association’s North America chapter, said they have collected over 500,000 yuan and established a relationship with Amazon to guarantee supplies.

With help from the university, Wang Rui, president of the alumni association’s North America chapter, said they have collected over 500,000 yuan and established a relationship with Amazon to guarantee supplies.

Wang, a Beijing native living in New York, felt the call to act on behalf of her fellow countrymen despite having little connection to Wuhan. Because she is organising her chapter’s response, she has set aside her job as a property agent and her domestic responsibilities.

“My children are eating take-out everyday now because there’s no food at home,” she said of her two daughters, both in high school.

“One of them had a fever the other day and I took her from school to go to the doctor. Right at that moment, we got in contact with a large supplier, so I had to leave my child waiting and start working.”


Another coronavirus symptom: racism

However, with Covid-19, donations are not the only thing connecting overseas Chinese – so is racism. People of Chinese descent worldwide have started experiencing coronavirus-inspired discrimination.

Stephanie Yao, 25, a New York University graduate student, said she was crossing the street near Washington Square Park on February 5 when a young man walking in the opposite direction started to approach her, making threatening gestures. Still wearing her earphones, she could not hear exactly what he was saying but made out some key words, including “virus” and “bitch”.

Yao said she was shocked and froze for a moment. When she saw the man started to throw a fist at her, she ran to three fellow NYU students. The man didn’t follow and walked off.

On the subway ride home, she was worried if someone else would attack her. Before then, Yao said, she had heard about violence towards Chinese people wearing face masks, so she chose not to do so. Still, the incident in Washington Square Park terrified her.

She is from Xinyang, a city in Henan province near the border with Hubei – so close that she grew up eating Wuhan’s signature “hot dry noodles”.

She said that she felt a deep bond with the city and that many of her friends were still trapped there. The grandmother of one friend lives close to the wet market where it is suspected the coronavirus first emerged and became infected – Yao doesn’t ask her friend too much about it, fearing it would upset her.

Yao was angered and saddened that in China, Wuhan people were being discriminated against for fleeing the city – while outside China, she had become a target just for being Chinese.

“Everyone is in this together. If the discrimination happens to you today, it will happen to me tomorrow,” she said.



At Columbia University, also in Manhattan, two incidents emerged suggesting discrimination stirred by and directed towards the coronavirus outbreak.

At the Butler Library, the Chinese words “Wuhan virus isolation area” along with “KEEP OUT!” in English were written on a blackboard in a public space. At the Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW), across the street from the university’s main campus, a cleaning notice in a restroom was marked with graffiti that read, in part, “Chinazi” and directed a profanity at “Chinese”.

Columbia University officials declined to discuss whether these incidents were being investigated.

But on February 4, the social work school sent out an email to its student body, saying that the administration had examined the restroom immediately and found the note had already been removed: “Our staff has been working with the Office of University Life and Columbia Public Safety to investigate the issue.”

Aubrey Duan, a first-year Chinese graduate student at the school, said that she had not seen the graffiti and did not understand the email until friends in China asked if she was OK.

“I was really disheartened,” she said. “The School of Social Work is supposed to be a very idealistic environment, where everyone is talking about freedom and equality.”

In a note she sent to school administrators, Duan wrote, “Social work school should be the last place [for this to happen]. I guess it’s just easier for some students to talk about racism and xenophobia than actually fight it.”

Several Columbia student groups organised activities in mid-February to denounce discrimination and promote understanding. Some are planning long-term recovery projects.

“In a couple of months, the virus will not be the issue, but the virus in our minds and our impressions will be more lasting and potentially more hurtful,” said Ivy Yang, an EMBA student at Columbia Business School.

Yang was born in Wuhan but moved to California when she was nine. She came to New York for college and soon joined the Hubei-American Association.

“I don’t want to call it racism. I think it’s casual racism and there’s a key differentiation,” said Yang, describing casual racism as based more on ignorance than on malicious intent. “But these casual comments and casual acts of ignorance are hurtful to Wuhanese and the Chinese community at large.”

To address the issue, Yang is starting an international campaign called the Reboot Project: she and a dozen friends from Hubei aim to educate others about Wuhan’s cultural traditions through social media.

Yang believes that by confronting Covid-19 and its impact together, Hubei natives abroad have a rare opportunity to unite.

“Look at Wuhan now. Everyone is committed to self-quarantine at home. This itself is unbelievable,” she said. “We need to harness the solidarity power in the right way.”

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