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Buddhist temple attacks rise as COVID-19 amplifies anti-Asian American bias

Incidents have included vandalism of temples and Buddhist statues outside private homes, as well as verbal harassment of Asian Americans at their houses of worship. 

(RNS) — A few weeks after Thai Viet Phan was elected the first Vietnamese American City Council member in Santa Ana, a town south of Los Angeles, she discovered that the Huong Tich Temple, in the city’s Little Saigon neighborhood, had been vandalized. As a child she had spent her weekends at the Buddhist temple, learning prayers, traditional dances and how to read and write in Vietnamese.

Last month, 15 of the temple’s Buddha and bodhisattva statues had been spray-painted. The word “Jesus” in black letters had been emblazoned down one statue’s back.

“Throughout COVID, I know that there has been an increase in anti-Asian Pacific Islander sentiment and hate crimes, and I see that on social media, but I personally haven’t experienced it,” Phan said.

When she found out what happened at Huong Tich Temple, she said, “I was shocked that anyone would do that. … It was really abhorrent.”

Phan reached out to other local elected officials and discovered that Huong Tich wasn’t alone: Five other Buddhist temples in Little Saigon had been defaced in November.

“This is a hate crime, not just vandalism,” she said.

Diedre Thu-Ha Nguyen, a City Council member in Garden Grove, a neighboring city that serves as home to parts of Little Saigon, said the attacks, coming when worshippers typically visit temples often to pray for prosperity in the new year, have increased anxiety in the Vietnamese American Buddhist community

The attacks also come as the pandemic — especially President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about COVID-19’s origin in China — has unleashed a wave of anti-Asian hate and xenophobia in the U.S.

Smashed Buddha statues at Wat Lao Santitham, a temple in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Photos courtesy of Richard Saisomorn

This year there have been 17 reports of hate incidents at Asian American Buddhist sites,  according to Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University.

Jeung, who runs the group Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, a self-reporting center that’s been tracking cases of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia in the U.S. since March, said the incidents included vandalism of temples and Buddhist statues outside private homes, as well as verbal harassment of Asian Americans at their houses of worship. 

Funie Hsu, an assistant professor of American studies at San Jose State University, said this year’s attacks were “not a surprise.” Asian Americans have historically been perceived as foreign or unable to assimilate. Religion, said Hsu, has been considered a barrier to their acceptance since the Chinese immigrants who first came to the U.S. in the 19th century were called “heathen Chinese.”

Temple vandalism is a common expression of hate toward Asian Americans in general. In Massachusetts in 1984, three Vietnam War veterans burned down a Tibetan Buddhist temple after expressing dissatisfaction with the services they received through Veterans Affairs.

But vandalism against Buddha statues, she said, is common since many consider them an affront to Christianity. “A lot of times they serve as a punching bag for any form of animosity people are feeling against Asians,” Hsu said, which is why so many attacks have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vandalized Buddha statues at Wat Lao Santitham, a temple in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Richard Saisomorn

No hate incidents at Asian American churches were reported this year, Jeung said.

In April at Wat Lao Santitham, a temple in Fort Smith, Arkansas, a man walked onto the grounds with a hammer and smashed three statues of the Buddha, causing $20,000 damage. The police were called, and as they arrested the suspect, according to body camera footage, he told them, “It’s a false idol, it’s a false monument.”

Richard Saisomorn, a board member for Wat Lao Santitham, said the damage goes far beyond the attack. Until the statues are replaced, the mostly Southeast Asian immigrants and second- and third-generation Americans who attend the temple are without a place where they can pray for their ancestors.

Despite the installation of cameras and other security measures, the temple’s community now fears for the safety of the monks who live inside the building.

“Everybody feels very sad — it’s something that should not happen,” Saisomorn said. “We’ve already survived a very tough time from COVID-19, which is hard enough.”