When Joanne Wong woke up to the news that a 35-year-old Korean American woman was stabbed to death in her New York City apartment, her first thought was "Oh no. Not another one."
At first, Wong felt she didn't have the emotional capacity to grieve the woman, Christina Yuna Lee, who was killed Feb. 13 by a stranger who followed her into her sixth-floor walk-up apartment in Chinatown. Wong, 30, had just gotten over the death of Michelle Alyssa Go, a 40-year-old Asian American woman who was pushed in front of a Times Square subway train last month. Before Go, it was Yao Pan Ma, a 61-year-old Chinese immigrant who died Dec. 31 from injuries he sustained months earlier in a violent attack in East Harlem.
"It feels like we have been mourning and mourning," Wong, who is Chinese, Ecuadorian, and Malaysian, told BuzzFeed News. "We’re not really seeing a lot of change, and the reality is, for us as Asian Americans, we wake up and we are infiltrated with this news."
After days of wrestling with feelings of anger, anxiety, and hopelessness over Lee's killing amid a wave of anti-Asian violence that has swept the US during the pandemic, she and her fellow Run for Chinatown leaders decided to take matters into their own hands — or, in this case, their feet. On Monday, the running group led a 35-mile trek around a city block next to where Lee lived to raise awareness about her death, honor her life, and remind each other — and the community — that together they are more powerful than the hate and bigotry that has fueled so many of these attacks.
"It was a grieving process and it was also a place for joy to remember that we are all so much collectively stronger than everything that has been happening," said Liz Yan, one of the Run for Chinatown organizers.
Over the course of their roughly eight-hour trek, Yan and Wong said, around 200 friends, runners from other groups, and community members came out to join for a few laps or to simply cheer them on as they circled the park across the street from where Lee lived about 175 times.
"The park that we ran around is notoriously dangerous and unsafe, but for however long we were out there, collectively we made that place safe for a little bit of time," Yan said.
Lee was a graduate of Rutgers University and a digital producer at the online music platform Splice. According to her family, she was coming home from a night out with friends when she was killed. The suspect, identified by police as 25-year-old Assamad Nash, has been charged with murder and burglary. Police have not said whether they will consider the attack a hate crime, but the brutal killing has heightened fears about the rise in verbal and physical attacks against people of Asian descent partly due to racist scapegoating over the pandemic.
In New York City, attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders rose by 361% between 2020 and 2021, according to the police. A recent report from Stop AAPI Hate cited more than 10,000 hate incidents against AAPI people across the country between March 19, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021.
"Her death is part of an alarming pattern of unchecked, hateful violence against women, namely women of Asian descent and women of color that can no longer stand without consequence," Lee's family wrote in a GoFundMe to establish a memorial fund to support organizations she cared about.
Created in 2020, Run for Chinatown was born out of a desire to give back to the community and support local businesses in Manhattan's Chinatown during the pandemic, when foot traffic dwindled and hate crimes against the AAPI community began to spike. In addition to holding fundraisers, the group, which has grown to include more than 150 runners, hosts runs on Monday nights.
The group doesn't always center their weekly run around a specific cause other than to build and celebrate community — and challenge their physical and mental limits. But after struggling with Lee's death, another group leader called Yan and Wong on Friday with the idea to run 35 miles to honor Lee's 35 years of life.
Neither of them had ever run 35 miles, but they were determined to meet the challenge and, as the group often says, let their feet speak for them.
"There was no question in my mind that I could do 35 miles for Christina Yuna Lee and all the people who are affected by it, including ourselves, and all the people who have ever been scared to go home," Wong said.
By dedicating this week's run to Lee's life, Wong said, they wanted to help change the narrative that Asian women are "docile and fragile" and "easy targets" for violence and crime. "We wanted to show that Asian women are strong," she said.
Dressed in all white, a color of mourning in Chinese culture and also of protest, the two women led the group around the park. Their shirts were emblazoned with words "NOT YOUR MODEL MINORITY" and "STAY ANGRY." On their sleeves and arms they wrote the names of victims of anti-Asian attacks, along with other victims of violence, like Breonna Taylor, and surviving friends and family members.
On the back of her shirt, Yan said, she also wrote the name of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death in a racially motivated attack in Detroit in 1982.
"When we talk about AAPI hate being on the rise during COVID, sometimes I hear that and it infuriates me because it's always been on the rise," she said.
Yan referenced the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned immigration from China and prevented immigrants from gaining citizenship, and the incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during World War II as just two examples of how anti-Asian sentiments have been rooted in US history.
"This is not a new story just because COVID is happening," she said.
Yan, who is Chinese and Taiwanese, said she wants the general public to reckon with that past more directly and realize that the anti-Asian violence is not just connected to the pandemic. In the larger Asian American community, the recent attacks have forced many to grapple with a tradition of staying silent in the face of that violence.
For Yan, organizing the run for Lee felt like one way they could build on the work that previous generations have done to speak their truth.
"We are here to take space. We are here to be loud," Yan said. "People just aren't listening. I hope they do, though."
"I think they're starting to," Wong added.