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Christina Yuna Lee’s killing ‘hits so close to home’ for Asian American women in NYC

People hold signs and pictures of Christina Yuna Lee during a rally in Chinatown on Feb. 14. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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NEW YORK CITY — On Monday afternoon, Yul Lee walked past crime scene tape on Chrystie Street, just outside the Grand Street subway station, as she rushed to meet her husband. Despite a family emergency of her own to attend to, she took a moment to look at the entrance of the building where 35-year-old Christina Yuna Lee was slain over the weekend.

“It’s just scary,” said Yul Lee, who is 31, and, like Christina Yuna Lee, is also Korean American (but not related). Unlike some of the passersby, she had already read news reports with details of the killing. And she was acutely aware of the similarities in their demographics.

She works around the corner, so she regularly walks by the apartment building in Manhattan’s Chinatown where Christina Yuna Lee, a senior creative producer at the digital music platform Splice, was killed in her own apartment.

Just before 4:30 a.m. Sunday, a man followed Lee into her building after she arrived home in a taxi, according to surveillance video published by the New York Post. The man, identified by police as Assamad Nash, 25, followed her up six flights of stairs to her apartment, the video shows.

Woman killed by man who followed her into NYC apartment

Neighbors heard screams for help, they said, and called the police. When police entered Lee’s apartment, they found her fatally wounded, and she was pronounced dead at the scene. The suspected killer was taken into custody.

On Monday afternoon, Nash was arraigned on first-degree charges of murder, burglary and sexually motivated burglary and is being held without bail. He is facing other charges of criminal mischief and unlawful escape, and was on supervised release at the time of Lee’s killing, according to the New York Times.

Authorities have not determined whether Lee’s killing was a hate crime. But amid a rise in crimes targeting people of Asian descent since the coronavirus pandemic began, her brutal killing in her own home has escalated concerns among New York’s Asian American communities. The attack follows that of 40-year-old Michelle Alyssa Go, who was fatally shoved into the path of an oncoming train at the Times Square station on Jan. 15. It comes nearly a year after the Atlanta-area spa shootings, in which six Asian women were killed — targeted because of their race and gender, prosecutors have argued.

Many Asian American and Asian women with ties to Chinatown felt on edge, and out of answers, on Monday.

Earlier that day, Asian organizers and residents held a rally at nearby Sara D. Roosevelt Park, calling attention to the increase in violence. A carefully arranged constellation of flowers — mostly white, which symbolizes mourning in Korean culture and is used at funerals — lay at the base of a tree in front of the building in tribute.

For many, Michelle Go’s NYC subway death highlights failures in public safety for women

Yuh-Line Niou, the Taiwanese American member of the New York State Assembly whose district includes Chinatown, had organized a news conference on Sunday after the killing. The state legislator, who is 38, noted that her proximity in age and neighborhood made Lee’s death more poignant.

Niou said that she heard about Lee’s death at 8 a.m. on Sunday, and that some of her staff and friends had known Lee. “When they found out it was her, it was a lot, you know? She’s somebody in the community,” Niou said.

“That’s exactly why it hurts so much, and also hits so close to home,” she continued. “The community is feeling a lot of the same things. There’s so many people who have just told me: They’re so afraid. They’re afraid for their sisters, they’re afraid for their grandparents, they’re afraid for their daughters.”

For Niou, the legacy of racism is clear in the recent violence. “We have a history in America of perpetuating this notion that Asian Americans do not belong here,” she said, pointing to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese internment during World War II. At the same time, she added, the model minority myth has further othered Asian Americans.

The long, ugly history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the U.S.

“We don’t get resources, we don’t get help. Instead, people think, almost like, we deserve it,” Niou said. “The community feels all these things at once, there’s the layers of it, the history of it, and then the exhaustion of constantly having to beg for our own existence.”

Niou’s feelings were echoed by other women who saw themselves reflected in Lee’s story, realizing that the world would see them similarly: college-educated, professional women who are potentially targets of violence because of their age, gender and race.

Alice Wong, 37, was born and raised in Chinatown and now works for a nonprofit nearby in Lower Manhattan; she has worked in advocacy for the Asian American and Pacific Islander or, AAPI, community for over 15 years. She said she is feeling “heartbroken and angry.”

“What I keep thinking about is that Christina took a cab home to be safe. She did what she was supposed to do, and she was brutally murdered,” Wong said. “It feels like everyone cares for a short while, and then they don’t anymore. And my community is still here trying to pick up the pieces from every attack.”

The continuous cycles of concern among Asian American communities are grating on Wong, who wants others to care about her community “for longer than a week,” noting that she has been giving interviews about this cycle of anti-Asian violence for two years.

Marilla Li, deputy director of Queens Community Services for the Chinese-American Planning Council, said she and her friends are struggling under a similar blanket of exhaustion and “a genuine sorrow on both the part of fellow millennial Asian American women and the circumstances that led to this guy doing what he did — those things mixed together.”

As the New York Times points out, Lee’s killing fits a pattern that has become common during the pandemic in New York City: “a seemingly unprovoked attack in which the person charged is a homeless man.”

With her advocacy work, Li, 33, said she is trying to create structural changes that would prevent someone who may be mentally ill or homeless from attacking people who look like her, she said. (Nash’s last known residence was a nearby homeless shelter.)

“I feel really compelled to educate my fellow Chinese or Asian community members on how to really find some compassion in this moment, for all parties involved,” she said.

At the same time, she said, “I have to find a little bit of time to also figure out how to process and allow myself to be really, really sad about it.”

For Niou, Lee’s killing must move the city government to action. She said Asian American communities need more funding, especially for mental health services, including basic wellness checks for folks. She also believes the city needs a better solution for the homeless population. But, she added, the Asian American community cannot do it alone.

“Everybody’s kind of on pause because this has been so horrific, and on top of that, everybody wants us to have a solution,” Niou said. “Our Asian American community has many ideas. But why is it that everybody’s always asking us to find a solution? We need everybody’s help — it’s not our fault.”