On the morning of March 17th, a 75-year-old Chinese American grandmother was waiting at a stoplight to cross the street in San Francisco. A man punched her. She fought back with a wooden board – and her alleged assailant, a 39-year-old white man, ended up on a stretcher, looking stunned and with blood trickling out of his mouth.
This startling story of an elder defending herself by walloping her attacker captured our attention – in large part because it runs contrary to the stereotype of Asian women as silent and submissive. But it shouldn’t be such a surprise. As I discovered during the research for my latest book, there is a long history of California’s Asian American women fighting to defend themselves and their communities. Some, like this grandma, fought back physically. Others waged their battles in courtrooms and through community organizing.
One such woman was Ah Toy, a famous prostitute and later brothel-keeper in nineteenth century San Francisco, who repeatedly fought for her rights through the judicial system. She sued clients who tried to cheat her and also “to protest the control of Chinese prostitutes through taxation by certain Chinatown leaders,” wrote the late historian Judy Yung.
By one account, Ah Toy appeared in court at least fifty times during her first three years in San Francisco. She faced down public insults and death threats. The abuse she suffered took a toll on her mental health and, at one point, she attempted to take her own life. Yet, she also encouraged civic engagement. According to Yung, she is said to have urged her fellow Chinese to take part in a celebration of California joining the union.
Another fighter was Tien Fuh Wu. Sold by her father as a child to pay his gambling debts, Wu ended up working as a child servant in a brothel in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Abused by her owners, she was brought in the 1890s to the Presbyterian Mission House in San Francisco, now known as Cameron House.
Wu gained an education through the home and herself joined the battle to protect vulnerable Asian girls and women for more than four decades in the first half of the twentieth century. She was involved in rescuing trafficked women, translating for them in court and immigration hearings, and travelling with them to assure their safety. In the course of her work, Wu was threatened and insulted repeatedly. She fought to protect Asian girls and women.
We know Ah Toy and Tien Fuh Wu’s stories because of the work of historians who, in recent decades, have begun to examine the lives of Asian women who struggled against the system. Others also fought back, but for the most part, their stories remain untold.
Why? In part, because of the difficulty of reconstructing the lives of women who often did not leave large public records behind. It took me years to research Tien Fuh Wu’s life, and I was able to do that, in part, through the tireless work of San Francisco’s late Him Mark Lai, a self-trained historian. It was his 1971 recording of an interview with Wu that helped bring her back to life for me.
Other women warriors have become visible to us through court records. A Japanese American woman born in Sacramento who fought for her rights was the Japanese American Mitsuye Endo. She lost her job and was interred in camps at Tule Lake and then Topaz Utah before deciding to file a lawsuit to test the constitutionality of the U.S. government’s “relocation” policy. Her case, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in December of 1944, helped force the government to close the camps.
Asian women have also waged battle by digging through archives. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who was a high school student in Los Angeles when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, spent much of the war years at the Manzanar camp. By the 1990s, she’d become an activist who began looking into internment records at the National Archives. Her archival research helped secure reparations for survivors, exonerations for three resisters, and a presidential apology.
A contemporary fighter that I met through my book is Helen Zia. Born in New Jersey and a longtime Bay Area resident, Zia helped lead a campaign for justice and against anti-Asian violence following the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Again, through the legal system, she helped bring federal civil rights charges against Chin’s killers and has also been an activist for LGBTQ rights.
The Chinese grandmother who fought back, Xiao Zhen Xie, is just one story in a wave of rising anti-Asian violence. Part of the incident was captured on video and a shocking photo of her with two bruised black eyes was posted by her grandson, John Chen, on a Gofundme site. As of this morning, the site has raised $964,755 – more than nineteen times its initial goal of $50,000.
The history of Asian American women fighting back remains largely unknown, even now. Maybe that’s why the story of this feisty grandma captured our imaginations so vividly – and encouraged an outpouring of financial support as well as a heated, online discussion of racism and violence. Her grandson wrote “I am amazed by her bravery.”
But in an update on March 19, Chen wrote that he was worried about his grandmother’s mental health, “During our visit she constantly repeated the phrase “I’m so scared, I’m so scared” in Cantonese. A day later, it was a group of Asian American women helped organize a rally and art happening in San Francisco’s historic Portsmouth Square to protest anti-Asian violence. Hundreds attended.
The fight continues –led by a new generation of women warriors.
Julia Flynn Siler is a New York Times bestselling author of three nonfiction books. Her most recent is The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Julia and Helen recently discussed anti-Asian violence at an event hosted by the California State Library Foundation.