Subscribe

Rise in anti-Asian attacks causes reflection, deepens resolve for Petaluma’s Lance Lew

How to help

For more information about the Solidarity Fund to support Asian and Pacific Islanders, go to asianpacificfund.org.

If you have seen, or been the victim of an anti-Asian attack, you can report it at stopaapihate.org, the website for the nonprofit tracking these incidents.

Decades ago, while working at his father’s grocery store in downtown Petaluma, Lance Lew saw firsthand how his family reacted to racism.

Before Petaluma Grocery closed in the late 1970s, and well afterward in historical references to the store owned and operated for years by Chinese immigrants, residents called it “Chinaman’s Market.“

Then, as now, the statement was seen as derogatory, Lance says, but his family, happy to be in business, was loathe to speak up.

“Never would they correct our customers for their slur; but accept it with their heads lowered,” said Lew. “I understand how our parents felt – helpless to the actions of others who were putting food on the table for their family.”

Even if children, like Lew, who had better command of the English language, wanted to speak up, they couldn’t. It wasn’t their place.

In the decades since his family’s store closed, Lew, a Petaluma resident, has dedicated much of his life to lifting up the often silenced voices of Asian and Pacific Islanders. Amid a rise in racist attacks, spurred by misplaced blame for the COVID-19 pandemic, Lew says speaking out is more important than ever.

“When things are left unsaid, and people brush it away – if we don’t address it at the beginning – it will just fester,” Lew said.

During the pandemic, there have been nearly 4,000 hate-motivated attacks in the United States against Asians, who have been verbally harassed, shot, stabbed and beaten, according to the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate. In 2020, there was a 1,900% increase in these types of attacks compared to 2019, and the horrific trend appears to be accelerating, with recent, high-profile attacks in Atlanta, where six people of Asian descent were shot and killed in a targeted assault, and in the Bay Area, where four Asian seniors have been savagely beaten or killed in the past month.

For more than a quarter-century, Lew has endowed the “Growing up Asian in America” educational essay contest, distributing more than $250,000 in savings bond awards.

Today, he serves as the director of community marketing for NBC Bay Area and produces Asian Pacific America for the local NBC Bay Area station while also serving as an advisory board member for the Asian Pacific Fund, work that he says allows him to provide greater voice for diverse communities.

It has also put Lew in position to champion a new Solidarity Fund, a partnership of the Asian Pacific Fund, NBC Bay Area, Comcast and Telemundo 48 that aims to provide grants to nonprofit organizations working to combat persistent anti-Asian sentiment. Comcast seeded the fund with $100,000, and the project has taken off since.

Since mid-February, the fund has raised more than $720,000. And since last week’s uptick in anti-Asian violence, more than 1,500 donors worldwide have sent in $150,000 in contributions.

“What has been a tremendous source of hope and inspiration for me is witnessing the incredible outpouring of support we have seen since Tuesday evening,” Asian Pacific Fund Executive Director Audrey Yamamoto said in an email, referencing the March 16 attacks in Atlanta. “It’s been truly unbelievable.”

Grants will begin rolling out at the end of the month to nonprofits supporting the physical and mental health of survivors, ensuring the safety of seniors and advocating for racial justice across racial lines, according to a news release from the project.

Government entities far and wide have also rallied to condemn the rise in hate-centered violence. The League of California Cities and Asian Pacific Islander Caucus issued a joint statement decrying anti-Asian violence.

“The League of California Cities stands in solidarity with our API Caucus and all our Asian brothers and sisters who have been the targets of hate, racism, and violence during a year when the pandemic has already caused so much pain and suffering,” the group’s statement read, in part. “The dual pandemic of racism is more than any community should be forced to bear, and just as our communities have worked together to stop the spread of the coronavirus, we must band together to stop the spread of hate.”

Sonoma County leaders on Monday hosted a forum denouncing racism and acts of hate. There, Rohnert Park Vice Mayor Jackie Elward, herself a victim of a racist attack via an anonymous phone call last week, said it’s time for unity.

“It’s not about me, it’s about us,” Elward said of the assembled panel, according to The Press Democrat. “It’s time to put the fear and anger aside and come together as one because we are one.”

The show of support summons other, more positive memories of Petaluma for Lew, who remembers his family settling as an extended family group in the region for comfort and security, but also being embraced by other Petalumans.

“We made up the Chinese community, and were welcomed with open arms,” Lew said. “Accepted by large ranching families like the Dolcinis provided validation we would be woven into the fabric of the community.”

Petaluma Grocery opened in 1941, before Lance Lew’s dad, Norman Lew, would advance into an ownership role. But that era, when Japanese Americans were being interned in camps during World War II, is when the grocery store’s insidious nickname arose.

Lew said it’s unfortunate that our society must still have this conversation, and that the Solidarity Fund is even needed.

“The devastating impact of COVID-19 has taken its toll on all communities, but I feel Asian Americans have been hit the hardest…(it has) mutated into a virus of hate, harassment and violence,” Lew said.

But he’s also confident his hometown will show itself to be the welcoming place it often was in his youth.

“I think shining a light on this particular issue is a good thing,” Lew said. “I know that if something unjust were to happen in our community, I know people would rally around and help the organization correct what was not right.”

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the range of attacks Asians have faced in the United States since the start of the pandemic.

How to help

For more information about the Solidarity Fund to support Asian and Pacific Islanders, go to asianpacificfund.org.

If you have seen, or been the victim of an anti-Asian attack, you can report it at stopaapihate.org, the website for the nonprofit tracking these incidents.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette