A Toronto creative tackles anti-Asian racism

Lionel Wong was walking near his home at King and Bathurst streets in downtown Toronto not too long ago, when a woman got in his face and told him to go back where he came from. Then there was that time in a grocery store when a woman deliberately coughed on him.

Oh, and then there was the time a man passing him on the street loudly remarked, “This must be what Shanghai looks like.” And then there was the time… well, let’s just say there have been a lot of times Wong has been a target of anti-Asian racism, dating all the way back to his childhood.

And it has only worsened over the past year, with Asian people across North America enduring not only verbal abuse, but also beatings and stabbings—and even being set on fire—by bigots who blame them for the pandemic.

Last week, that hatred exploded into the national news following a mass shooting in Atlanta in which eight people (including six Asian women) were killed in what is being widely described as a racially motivated attack.

“When I go outside now I’m always on alert, I’m always looking around and checking out my surroundings,” said Wong. “In the last four or five months there have been weeks where I haven’t gone outside. It’s so exhausting, so draining to always be on alert.”

According to a recent report from the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, there were 1,150 racist attacks reported on the platforms CovidRacism.ca and Elimin8Hate.org between March 10, 2020 and Feb. 28, 2021. “The severity and pervasiveness of anti-Asian racism requires immediate attention from all levels of government,” says the report in its recommendations.

In an analysis of 643 complaints submitted between March 10 and Dec. 31, the report found that verbal harassment accounted for the majority of incidents (73.4%), but more than 10% involved some form of physical aggression, and another 10% involved Asians being coughed at or spat on. In 1.2% of cases, Asian-Canadians were denied service.

Wong had spoken out on his social channels, even made donations to Asian groups, but the feeling he could do more nagged at him. A few weeks ago, he decided to put his skills as a creative director to use, creating a more tangible manifestation of the casual racism he and his fellow Asian-Canadians contend with on a daily basis.

“I was feeling angry and sad, because that could be my family,” he said of the attacks he read about or saw on social media. “I was disgusted at the cowardice, and felt kind of helpless. It’s not really an option for me to go out there and patrol the streets, so what can I do?”

The result is a series of powerful and unapologetically blunt visual assets dealing with some of the slurs that have been directed towards Asians, both during COVID and for decades prior. “Asians all know karate” reads one, followed by the retort “We don’t need karate to deal with a bunch of cowards.” Another reads “Asians all look the same,” above the response “Yet somehow you still manage to target the defenceless ones.”

“Once I started thinking about what I could create, I went back to all of these stereotypes and slurs we heard growing up: Asians are nerds; their food smells; they have slanty eyes; they all look the same,” said Wong. “These are things we’ve all just brushed aside, [reasoning that] it’s just the way it is, and you kind of just roll with it.

“Because there was no client here and I was just making them for me, I just wanted to be very authentic,” he said. “This is how it makes me feel.”

Wong created a total of nine posts, each using only copy but featuring a combination of brightly coloured backgrounds, texture and graphical treatment of the text and quotation marks, accompanied by the hashtag #StopAsianHate. “I wanted all nine of them to look unique, but still part of a set,” he said.

“I didn’t want them to be too designed, because the focus is on the words,” he added. “But I wanted them to be deliberately bright and colourful, with a visual hierarchy.”

Each background colour has a specific meaning in Chinese culture, with red representing good fortune and joy, yellow representing power and prosperity, and blue green representing health, prosperity and harmony. The idea is to juxtapose those colours with hateful words, said Wong, to show how racism is destroying the joy, health and harmony of Asian people and culture.

The goal of the posters, he said, is for people to see the slur first, but then feel empowered by the strongly worded retort. Wong has created a dedicated website where people can download and share the posters.

“I wanted to create something to express what I’m feeling, I wanted to start conversations, and I wanted to make sure I could give people resources to find out more,” said Wong. “I just wanted to do something that was impactful and give Asians a voice.”

Chris Powell