By Suzi Nash
PHILADELPHIA — For most of us, the pandemic has been a drag. It has threatened our health, our livelihoods, our communities, our sanity and our waistlines, but for members of the Asian community, the disease has turned deadly, though not from a bacterial or viral cause.
Thanks in great part to the rhetoric of President Donald Trump, who continues to fan the flames of hatred, Asian people are under attack in numbers that haven’t been seen in quite some time.
According to an analysis of official preliminary police data by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, Anti-Asian hate crime in 16 of America’s largest cities increased 149% in 2020 with the first spike occurring in March and April amidst a rise in COVID cases and negative stereotyping of Asians relating to the pandemic.
For many queer Asian folks, that new concern is piled on top of the everyday fear of homophobia we all face in our day to day lives. Philadelphia Asian & Queer (PAQ) has been a safe haven to talk about what’s going on, how to combat anti-Asian hate or just a place to virtually hang out, have fun and forget the outside world.
Started as a small social club, it has now morphed into a premiere organization for the queer Asian Pacific Islander (API) community. We took a moment to speak to one of the founders, the charismatic Matthew Wong.
Q: So, let’s get it rolling, are you a Philly person?
A: As proud as I am to be in Philly now, unfortunately not. I’m originally from the Columbus, Ohio area. I grew up in the Midwest, 1st generation, well 2nd, depending on who you talk to, right? My parents immigrated from the Philippines and Malaysia but I am ethnically Taiwanese/Chinese. So as you can imagine I had kind of a pan-identity growing up in the middle of white America. It was quite interesting. For me, Philadelphia was a fresh breath, a relief and a joy to be around more POC, especially being able to find other Asian and Pacific Islanders like myself here. As much as I miss some aspects of the midwest, I’m very glad to be on the East coast.
Q: Describe the area where you grew up.
A: Very suburbia, even though we didn’t actually have a white picket fence, that’s the image that’s conjured in my mind. I was one of the very few Asian kids in our neighborhood, actually one of the few POC’s of any kind in our neighborhood. It seemed unique at the time, but since moving away, I’ve found many people in the same situation that I was. We were farm adjacent, even though we were in the suburbs. It was just me and my sister and parents and my mom’s mom. Very small compared to the family that lives in Asia. They’re very close knit and all live in a five mile radius.
Q: I have a lot of extended family in North Jersey. My paternal grandmother had 8 kids, so I have lots of cousins and they’re all within a few miles of each other as well.
A: I’m jealous that they’re so nearby! My father had 11 siblings, so I have a lot of cousins too, but they’re mostly in the Malaysia area. It’s nice when I go back home. It’s the family support group.
Q: What did the folks do?
A: My dad’s a civil engineer and my mom opened up an Asian bakery, one of the first in Ohio. My parents met at college. The story is that they met at the library. That was at Ohio State University and they’ve been in Ohio ever since. The bakery is a year older than me, I’m 27 and she’s had it for 28 years. [Laughing] She always reminds me that it’s her first baby. I was raised with the Asian baked goods all around me and it’s definitely the way to my heart!
Q: I love a good Danish for breakfast.
A: Yes! I ate a creampuff almost every day for breakfast. It’s amazing my parents didn’t give me diabetes.
Q: Have you ever been to the Columbus Zoo?
A: For sure! We were about a 3 minute drive from the zoo, and one of my favorite things was going there at Christmas. They have this amazing interactive set up and it’s magical, one of the most serene moments you’ll experience. The Columbus Zoo is one of the best around and one of the few reasons to go back to Ohio! That and my family…
Q: What brought you to Philly?
A: I stayed in the Midwest and went to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Not the most LGBTQ friendly, but not overly antigay, but after that, as you can imagine, I was hungry for a city that would be very progressive and pro-LGBTQ. Philly came up on my radar because of a college friend of mine from Cherry Hill who recommended Philly. I had all these assumptions and stereotypes about Philly, but they were erased as soon as I got to visit and experience the city myself.
Q: What were some of the assumptions?
A: Well, I heard that Philly hates Santa, I looked it up and thought, wow, they really pelted Santa with snowballs? And my only other introduction to Philly was “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” which had a very crass type of humor and was kind of a horrible or maybe a great representation of Philly depending on your perspective. But that’s the image I had. Very gritty, which it is in many ways, but not as rude as I had feared. It’s also progressive and diverse and I love it.
Q: Did I read that you were a biology major?
A: I was. Encompassing that API story, l wanted to become a doctor without knowing why, and two years into it I quickly realized that it was not my thing, but I stuck with it to complete the degree. I didn’t want to have to spend another year in college. I ended up in the healthcare consulting business. About a month ago, I quit my job and have decided to pivot away from that field. We’ll see what the future holds.
Q: So when did you start figuring things out in terms of sexuality?
A: Ha, that’s always a big question when I’m in a gathering of gay men, “When did you first know, and when did you know, know?” I think I first had clues when I was about 8. What’s funny is that the advent for me was watching WWE wrestlers! My parents were flipping through the channels and when it landed there I was weirdly struck in a way that I thought was wrong, at least not the way straight boys were enjoying it. But I didn’t know know until college. At Notre Dame I was fortunate to be surrounded by friends who were very progressive and other queer API individuals. I officially came out my sophomore year, thanks to my best friend from school. He came out to me and a week later I was like, “Um, I think I am too.”
Q: You’ve come a long way because you’re now one of the founders of Philadelphia Asian & Queer. How did that come about?
A: When I moved here from Indiana I was hungry for API camaraderie and LGBTQ community, and I wasn’t really seeing much around me. I was volunteering at William Way as a peer counselor and met another API LGBTQ individual, Po Chang, who felt the same as me. We both were getting calls asking for API resources and we didn’t really have any to give. So we decided to create something and that’s how PAQ was born, right in the Peer Counseling office at WWCC. We worked on our logo and mission and all the things we’d need to launch the organization. Since then the group has grown a huge amount and we have a great group of people directly involved like our mutual friend Quynh-Mai Nguyen, who has been a marketing and communications guru. Noel Ramirez is another person who has been doing an amazing job. He comes from a clinical perspective and helps with creating safe spaces. He’s also starting an API therapy and counseling center. There are so many I’d love to name, I could go on all day. So many members of our steering committees are doing great work both in and out of our organization, participating in all sorts of activism and volunteerism. I’m proud of the people that I’ve met through this organization.
Q: Give me a taste of what you do?
A: In general we’re a social organization. We provide a safe space for people who identify as API and LGBTQ. They can join and talk about the topic of the day, from coming out in API families, or for example this month it was the Atlanta shootings. Sometimes it’s just a check-in to see how people are feeling, what people want to do about what’s going on. Outside of the activism, we just like to let our hair down and socialize. Some of our most popular events (prior to Covid) were our API food tours where we’d have dinner at a local API restaurant and share a meal together and our drag nights at what used to be Boxers. Currently, we’ve been hosting a number of virtual events, movie watching nights, game nights, and some virtual hangouts.
Q: Yes, I saw that you’re going to be watching Minari tomorrow, April 3rd, I think I’ll try to participate.
A: Please do! I think it’s posted on our instagram but I’ll send you the link.
Q: So I would imagine things are a little heightened right now with the recent resurgence of anti-Asian violence. I suppose it’s not something new, just spiking again because of the current climate.
A: Exactly. As you said, this has been an issue since the advent of this country, but you’re right, especially with the rhetoric and language used by the previous president regarding Covid-19, things are definitely worse than they have been for some time. A huge spike. I tell my family back in Ohio to please be careful, even though it’s a close knit community you never know what could happen in a red state like that. At PAQ, we’re trying to create safe spaces for those who feel unsafe because of what’s happening, and we’ve been partnering with and supporting other civil rights groups by sharing their information or attending rallies, from Black Lives Matter to #StoptheAsianHate groups. But it’s really tough. I just saw the footage of the 65 year old Filipino woman being attacked in New York. It’s crazy and I’m still processing it. Trying to figure out how I feel beyond the shock and terror and disgust.
Q: What’s the worst case in Philadelphia that you’re aware of?
A: Apparently there’s a hashtag going around “#PunchanAsian.” The idea was to film yourself punching an Asian person.
Q: Oh sheesh!
A: Yes, and there were a few people accosted in the subway here, but from what I’ve heard, Philadelphia hasn’t had anything like the incidents they’ve seen in NY, Atlanta and California. And I believe that Twitter and Facebook took down the hashtags.
Q: For those who want to support the API community, any suggestions?
A: Yes, we have another wonderful committee member who compiled an amazing list of resources which I’ll share with you. It has organizations you can follow, places to donate, things to repost and re-share, all sorts of information.
For more information on Philadelphia Asian & Queer, visit their Facebook page.