'We belong here' — Hundreds march against Asian discrimination in Auckland

"Stop Asian hate, we belong here,” hundreds chanted today, as they marched their way down Auckland’s Queen Street in a peaceful protest against Asian discrimination and racism.

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1 NEWS' Nicole Bremner caught up with those who turned out to share their own hurtful experiences. Source: 1 NEWS

It echoed Asian Americans’ grief and anger after last week’s shootings in three Atlanta massage parlours that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent. 

The suspect was not immediately charged with hate crimes, with US law enforcement officials saying they were still investigating his motive. This infuriated many in the Asian American community and sparked "Stop Asian hate" rallies across the country.

Auckland march protests against Asian discrimination. Source: 1 NEWS/Irra Lee

Sophyia Hilario, who is part of the team organising the march in Auckland, said while the march was sparked by the shootings, discrimination against Asians was an issue in many parts of the world.

“One of the main reasons for the march is to educate people and it’s also to stand with people affected by the shooting,” she told 1 NEWS. 

“It’s also our way of saying enough is enough and challenging this Asian norm that we should keep our problems to ourselves and we should lay our heads low and not bother anyone with our struggles.”

"Stop Asian hate" mask at the Auckland march against Asian discrimination. Source: 1 NEWS/Irra Lee

Growing up as a migrant in New Zealand, after having moved to the country as a young child from the Philippines, Hilario said discrimination against Asian communities wasn’t always “blatant”.

She said small actions against Asian communities, like their accents or food being made fun of, added up.

“Our racism has been so normalised and we’ve let it slip for so long. I think this was the breaking point because the people that were killed in the Atlanta shootings, they reminded us of our mums, our aunties, our sisters,” she said.

“Why do we have to wait until something worse happens for us to say something? I think our parents, when they told us not to rock the boat, they were trying to protect us. 

“Although that belief has served us in so many ways, and it has made us successful in so many ways, the cost of that is we’ve given ourselves up for racism and our culture is appropriated. And it hurts.” 

Sophyia Hilario, part of the organising team of the march against Asian discrimination. Source: 1 NEWS/Irra Lee

Hilario said while the US seemed far away, New Zealand shouldn’t separate itself from the issue, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic had highlighted discrimination against Asian communities here.

“I can remember even a year ago receiving verbal abuse from people related to Covid. And I remember thinking, ‘I wish someone would stand up for me’,” she said. 

“We have a lot of the world and our population is so diverse. How are we supposed to ignore something that affects a big chunk of our population?”

April Lin said today was the first time she had joined a march, but wanted to come along because "it was the right thing".

She said she was fortunate she hadn't experienced racism herself, but wanted to show support to others who had. 

"I've read the news, and some people have suffered from those terrible things."

Jennifer Daruwalla at the Auckland march against Asian discrimination. Source: 1 NEWS/Irra Lee

Also among the crowd today was Labour MP Naisi Chen, National MP Melissa Lee and Auckland Councillor Paul Young.

“I think we as an ethnic minority, or as a community of migrants, we really do need to raise our voices better, especially on a political platform, which is not really always part of our culture. We’ve been silent victims for a very long time, especially on issues like racism," Chen said.

She urged the crowd to also "open yourselves up to those around you" and engage with their Kiwi home.

Lee said the time to start talking about and tackling discrimination was now.

“We need to start seeing and we need to start accepting New Zealand was built on the sweat and hard work of migrants. The first Chinese actually arrived here in 1842,” she said.

“How long does it take for all us Asian people and all migrants from all different ethnicities to start being accepted as being part of New Zealand?”

A small counter-protest against the Chinese Communist Party followed the crowd down Queen Street, saying the group should be protesting the discrimination and human rights abuses toward minority groups in China like the Uyghurs and Tibetans.

In New Zealand, a June 2020 Massey University study that examined people’s prejudice and beliefs when it came to Covid-19 found the country had lower levels of racism directed at Asians when compared to other parts of the world.

March organiser Steph Tan speaks about her experiences of discrimination growing up in New Zealand. Source: 1 NEWS/Irra Lee

Still, the Human Rights Commission at the time reported seeing a spike in reports of discrimination and racism during the start of the pandemic. Last month, research by the Commission found 40 per cent of Chinese reported they experienced discrimination related to Covid-19.

Instances of discrimination against Asians in New Zealand has roots in history, dating back to the mid-1800s when Chinese labourers mined gold, then faced racism, immigration restrictions and poll taxes as work dwindled.

In the US, there has been a marked increase of reports racist verbal and physical attacks toward Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic, further fuelled by rhetoric of the “China virus”. Discrimination in the US against the community, too, dates back to the late 1800s.