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Firstly, we would like to wish everyone a happy Lunar New Year. But we are aware, as most of our community is, of the rapid increase in hate crimes against our most vulnerable. It’s important we support each other and make our loved ones feel safe and secure in any way we can. It’s important we understand the context of these crimes and the systemic issues that come from our country’s response to this virus, and the complex dynamic between Asian and Black people in America and elsewhere. This also is in no way a solely Black-Asian issue, as we saw many discriminatory and verbal abuses towards Asian individuals by non-Black people especially in the beginning of the pandemic, which we are sure have not stopped, though media coverage has. We should not be silent. We should be unified, understanding and compassionate as much as we can. To us, whatever we can do to try to break this cycle of hurt is the most we can do.

Many have reached out for guidance on organizations and people to donate or support, so we have created an extension of our last summer’s anti-racism resource document – to focus specifically on the triangulation of Asian Americans in the racial conversation, and to offer resources for our community and our allies who want to learn more. A few friends have also started gofundme campaign to provide safety kits to the elderly in lieu of the recent increase in violence and hate crimes towards our most vulnerable population.

February 22, 2021 · Curated by Rachel Wang, Justin Wong and Dayun Ryu

Footage of an unidentified person assaulting a 84-year-old Thai man has been extensively shared on social media platforms in recent weeks. Unfortunately, this is just one of countless racially motivated incidents that have occurred since the outbreak of COVID-19; it is imperative to reflect on the spread of anti-Asian discrimination as a component of this public health crisis. Starting with East Asia’s wet markets and their contentious role in the initial spread of the virus, we examine how animality and speciesism have further bolstered xenophobia against Asians.

COVID-19 & Wet Markets: Leaking and Sprawling…

At the onset of COVID-19 early last year, theories spreading anti-Asian sentiment quickly circulated the English-speaking Internet. A particularly notable viral video of two Asian women eating a bat dish sensationalized the hypothesis about the food-borne zoonotic (transmission of a disease from animals to humans) origins of the virus. While any link between these videos to the virus has been debunked, the rapid spread of the video — and other unassociated depictions of Asian people eating bat dishes — led to a violent proliferation of prejudice against Asian people and food culture. 

Media coverage of the coronavirus was also deluged with the now-discredited belief that the initial spread occurred at a wet market in Wuhan, China. Whether in Wuhan or not, images of wet markets became a visual substitute for the virus itself and the apparent group of people responsible for the virus. Especially in the United States, media outlets were quick to generalize the condition and function of wet markets as unsanitary and unethical, failing to recognize the diverse forms of wet markets and the intimate and critical role they hold within local communities. More importantly, the careless conflation of open-air markets, live animal markets, and wildlife markets under the term “wet markets” operates toward a misguided conception of Asian food and culture.

Last spring, PETA made a series of tweets, like this anagram of “coronavirus” and “carnivorous," claiming COVID-19 wouldn’t exist in a vegan world. In open letters [1] [2] to the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organization for Animal Health, and the U.N., U.S. lawmakers and animal welfare groups called for the permanent ban of all wet markets and the use of wildlife in traditional medicine.

Zoonotic disease transmissions are indeed heightened by the increased proximity between humans and wildlife, but many of these calls rely on the idea that correlation implies causation. Lacking nuance, they fail to address the connection between the increasing frequency of zoonotic pandemics to larger systemic causes, and rather, ground their arguments on culturally-biased condemnations of Asian eating habits and hygiene, further painting xenophobic mythological narratives about Asians and their treatments of animals. 

The U.K.-based animal rights group Animal Equality’s petition is a clear example of how Orientalist rhetoric is simultaneously used to bolster wildlife conservation agendas and fuel hostility and racism towards Asians. Not only do these agendas claim to have “infiltrated” wet markets across China, Vietnam, and India, as if wet markets are a mysterious and furtive matter, they also rely on shock tactics and misleading claims, suggesting wet markets get their names from the “blood, guts, scales and water that soak the stalls’ floors.” The dehumanizing violence of these kinds of comments epitomize the inextricable relationship between racism and animalization. 

Historical Pandemics & Racialised Caricatures of Asians

Clockwise from top left: Uncle Sam’s Farm in Danger, The Wasp (March 1878); The Chinese, Many Handed but Soulless, The Wasp (November 1885); The Chinese Must Go!, The Wasp (May 1878); Advertisement by E.S. Wells Trade Company (1885); The Mongolian Octopus—Its Grip on Australia, The Bulletin (August 1886); The Japanese Brain and How it Plans to Attack, Simplicissimus (January 1935).

“I often identify with the Bats–not because I am a political or deceitful person, but because I am constantly negotiating among different values, as a learned survival strategy. … The anxiety of being Bats is not felt alone. We have a shared experience of perpetually living between different ways of life, different ideologies, different worlds. A question emerges: How to harvest the energy from such permanent existential untranslatability and transform it into something productive?”

—Xiaoyu Weng

In an essay published on e-flux in April of 2020, Xiaoyu Weng recounts her first-hand experience of COVID-19's impact when she went from celebrating lunar new year with her family in Shanghai to spending time in an eerily vacant New York. What caught our attention in this essay was Weng’s description of a hybrid creature — part-bat, part-octopus, and part-human. Donning the cover of the popular satirical magazine The Wasp’s November 1885 issue, the winged creature is captioned with: “The Chinese: Many Handed But Soulless.” 

Yellow Peril, or Yellow Terror, is a racist color metaphor that came into use in the 19th century. It represented East Asians as alien, as a threat to white man. While it was mobilized for a confluence of political, economic, cultural, and existential reasons by those who held political power and capital, Mel Chen also suggests in their book Animacies that Yellow Peril encouraged the purveying legacy of depicting non-white humans as animals. The many-handed octopus came into particular widespread association with the growing Chinese population in the States. With its multiple hands, the octopus has, as Weng puts it in her essay Angel Island, “the idiosyncratic ability to reach, grip and paralyze everything in every direction with its infinitely extendable arms. No one can escape and there is nowhere to escape."

Western media mimicked the widespread xenophobic sentiments of Yellow Peril by its animalized caricatures of Chinese immigrants as breeders of disease. The connections between disease, public health, and race has long existed in the medical scapegoatism of Chinese peoples in America. At the turn of the 19th century, diseases like smallpox, cholera, syphilis, and the bubonic plague pervaded San Francisco, especially Chinatown [1] [2]. Local health officials often blamed the outbreaks on the influx of Chinese immigrants in California and the “substandard” living conditions of Chinatown. Illustrations featured animals and mythical monsters to stoke a fear of the Other. Although the connection between race and animal is not necessarily proliferated by political cartoons anymore, has the octopus transfigured into the bat? “The winged devil”?

Entanglements of Animality, Speciesism, and Racism in Critical Theory

What becomes clear in tracing both the historic and current examples of epidemic Orientalism above, is how animalization and speciesism are situated at the core of anti-Asian racism. Whether it is the racist remarks that repeatedly use “animal” as a derogatory term, or the portrayal of Asians as evil, multi-armed, hybrid creatures, these xenophobic sentiments have all been deeply entangled with a particular understanding of the human-animal divide.

What is referred to as human and animal here is not simply a taxonomic distinction, but rather, a distinction of moral categories. “Animal” as a social category occupies the same space as the Other from the perspective of white supremacist humanism, which not only encompasses non-human beings, but also humans who are deemed less-than. Naming someone as animal is to socially construct them as exploitable and killable, deeming their life as unworthy. The social human-animal divide then, reflects the division of the world, as Judith Butler puts, into “grievable and ungrievable lives.”

The construction of sentience through a social human-animal divide, is what writer and vegan activist Aph Ko calls subspecies subjectivism — a term she articulates in her book, Aphro-ism. She explains how since the 15th century, animality and Otherness have been imbricated through the processes of imperial conquest, each taking shape through each other. The social definition of the “animal” is a colonial invention. As the human-animal divide is no longer bound to biological categories, its social definition is always convenient and changing. It is relational and only makes sense in relation to the white man, projecting a categorical inferiority to both human and non-human beings who fall outside its confines.

In their essay, “Blackness, Animality, and the Unsovereign,” Che Gossett traces numerous theorists and Black radical thinkers (such as Frantz Fanon, Frederick Douglass, and Achille Mbembe) who have interrogated the historical co-constitutive nature of racial and animal oppression in their visions for radical abolition. It is through this legacy of black radical imagination that we are able to critically examine the connection between the caging and mass killing of animal life, and the caging and mass killing of Black life. Mel Chen examines 19th century racist depictions of Chinese immigrants in Animacies, explaining how animalization is not exclusive to Asians but “arguably, [enslaved Africans] first bore the epistemological weight of animalization, when they were rendered as laboring beasts by slave owners and political theorists legitimizing slavery.” Claire Jean Kim elaborates in "Murder and Mattering in Harambe’s House": “blackness and animalness, then, form poles in a closed loop of meaning. Blackness is a species construct (meaning "in proximity to the animal") and animalness is a racial construct (meaning "in proximity to the black"), and the two are dynamically inter-constituted all the way down. In this sense, the anti-Black social order that props us the "human" is also a zoological order, or what we might call a zoologo-racial order.”
Comments on social media that suggest Asians behave “like animals” and hence “deserve” the death and illness brought on by the virus as karmic retribution are clear examples of how subspecies subjectivism, as a conceptual framework, underpin the unjust rationalizations for the dehumanizing violence towards Asians. The malleable conception of the social human-animal binary is deeply ingrained into neocolonial capitalist structures. It is what allows white supremacy, and racial capitalism to determine who counts as “human," and subsequently, who can be treated as disposable. When government officials say some people need to risk their lives to protect humanity, they abuse the social human-animal distinction to imply that some people are more human than others.

Theorizing at the intersection of critical Black theory and critical animal studies, Aph Ko illustrates the multitude ways in which mechanisms of non-human oppressions interact and overlap with human oppressions. Ko’s multifaceted approach situates liberation in what Sadiya Hartman calls “the position of the unthought.” She emphasizes the need to reassess and challenge the current standing social order, urging anti-racist activists to go through, not around, animals to actualize our own liberation (and vice versa). Animal rights activists should equally acknowledge that the “animal” has been subject to white supremacist violence, and thus a part of its grammar.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated anti-Asian xenophobia, these sentiments have been systematically embedded since the conception of the Other. The petitions and open letters calling for the ban of wet markets rely on a very narrow sense of “liberation” and do more to uphold existing oppressive regimes. The ugly legacies of anti-Asian xenophobia that proliferate today take hold in this colonial premise of the human/animal hierarchy. It is imperative to understand how the world is violently constructed through the racial-colonial grammar of animalization. Interrogating the social animal can help begin decolonizing our thoughts and biases — only then can we build a more nuanced framework for social justice and animal liberation.
Quote, Think, Read, Listen

Read: Xiaoyu Weng “An Informal and Incomplete Journey” - E-Flux Issue 108, April 2020

Upon experiencing the COVID-19 outbreak in both Shanghai and New York, Xiaoyu Weng traces the history of pandemic-induced racism, introducing a xenophobic cover illustration of the San Francisco-based satirical magazine The Wasp from 1885. Titled “The Chinese: Many Handed But Soulless,” the cover featured a multi-armed devil like creature, echoing the anti-Chinese sentiment at the time. Describing this figure as “a hybrid of a bat, an octopus, and a human,” Weng draws parallels with the recent wave of anti-Asian narratives, like the viral video featuring two Asian girls eating a bat dish, suggesting that this “hybrid creature” has returned.

Watch: Syl Ko’s lecture: Who is the ‘Human’ and Who is the ‘Animal’  Read: Aphro-ism (Book); Racism as Zoological Witchcraft (Book)

In this lecture, Aph Ko explains how racism is maintained by the human-animal binary, highlighting the distinction between its biological and social definitions. Ko argues that it is key to interrogate animality and its constructions in order to address oppression itself, as it affects both non-human animals, and those deemed “sub-human.” 

Additionally, Ko’s two books, Aphro-ism and Racism as Zoological Witchcraft uses this theoretical framework to analyse various pop culture references, presenting radical ways of understanding interconnected oppressions, and providing possible avenues for multifaceted liberation.

Read: The Art of Destroying an Artwork by David Xu Borgonjon - NY Times

During the 2017 Guggenheim exhibition "Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” animal-rights supporters protested for “cruelty-free” exhibits, leading to the subsequent removal of three artworks that involve animals. In the article, writer and curator Borgonjon expresses the need for more considered and creative engagement between the curators, viewers, and the controversial artworks.

Read:Reading Images Against Racism” by Su-Ying Ling (from Issue 147 of C Magazine)

“Responding to art world peers’ unscrupulous sharing of articles invoking dangerous ‘yellow peril’ tropes, Su-Ying Lee traces the connection between wet markets and the internet as gathering places, underscoring the importance of media literacy and embodied reading during this critical rallying for systemic change” (C Magazine).

Further Readings
  1. Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation by Sunaura Taylor
  2. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory by Carol J. Adams
  3. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect by Mel Y. Chen
  4. Blackness, Animality, and the Unsovereign by Che Gossett
  1. With the recent surge of violent assaults against the Asian community, how do we support each other? How do we spread "awareness" without falling into anti-Blackness? How can we contextualize these crimes? (Check out this resource list compiled by Gyopo!)

  2. How has the pandemic influenced the way you think about non-human actors? 

  3. When you see the distinction “human” and “animal,” what’s actually being referred to? What social/symbolic factors are at play beyond taxonomic classification?

  4. How can activism be better directed to support thinking with ecosystems rather than with sole individuals?

We are currently working to develop an online forum for discussion. In the meantime, we encourage you to share your responses to these questions, thoughts and feedback with We may request permission to post your response on social media.

A Little Joy

We have compiled a short list of films that explore the entanglements of animals and humans, spirits and living bodies, set against the backdrop of modernization and societal hierarchies:

The Cow (1969) dir. Dariush Mehrjui

Animal Appetites (1991) dir. Michael Cho


Princess Mononoke (2003) dir. Hayao Miyazaki


Tropical Malady (2004) dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Some Unexpected Events Sometimes Bring Momentary Happiness (2009) dir. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook

Okja (2017) dir. Bong Joon-Ho

About the curators of this newsletter

We are friends, artists, writers, and translators based in London, Chicago, and Busan. We want to thank Lulu and Ariana for allowing us to bring our overlapping interests to this newsletter series. Please feel free to contact us with any thoughts or comments! 

Justin WongRachel Wang and Diana Ryu

Curious octopus snaps a selfie to win first place in underwater photo contest
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