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Asian American Women Take to Self-defense

REBEKAH ROBINSON, HOST: The New York Police Department says that hate crimes are up 76% in the city this year. And Asian American hate crimes quadrupled in 2021. That has some New Yorkers looking for ways to feel safer.

DAVID MARQUES, HOST: That has some New Yorkers looking for ways to feel safer. Recently, hundreds of women lined the streets of Chinatown to receive free cans of pepper spray from a local community group. Linnea Arden reports a team of Asian American women, who have taken their safety into their own hands

LINNEA ARDEN, BYLINE: When Sarinya Srisakul was a young woman, she applied to be a New York City Firefighter. This was after 9-11. She went on to become the first female firefighter of Asian descent in the city. Srisakul projects toughness. Tall. Muscular. But she says that after some high profile attacks on Asian women she started to think about helping other women feel safe.

SARINYA SRISAKUL: It started from the spa shooting in Atlanta and also from me being assaulted in the street and being able to fight my attacker before that happened.

ARDEN: Srisakul wanted to help other Asian women prevent attacks, the way she had been able to stop her own attack through self defense. She had the perfect idea. Give women the tools to protect themselves Now, You can’t buy pepper spray in NYC, but you can give it away. And Srisakul knew a way to make that happen. So she created a self defense kit that she began mailing out.

SRISAKUL: I just posted like on my personal Instagram, free kits to any like New York City, Asian Pacific Islander woman, and it just like went viral. And I was like, Oh my God, what do I do? This is like, I was gonna like mail out 20 Like, you know, and then I had a cap it at 500.

ARDEN: 500 kits cost her about 5000 dollars. But even after giving away 500, she was still getting requests. She started to collect donations. When it became too much work for one person she founded Angry Asian Womxn and enlisted other women to help her. So far, they have handed out over sixteen hundred kits this year.

On a recent Saturday Srisakul was at Yu and then Me Books – a cozy shelter from the rain in Chinatown, with fairy lights and dark wood shelves lined with Asian authors – handing out the kits with a bunch of supporters and one canine one.


ARDEN: The group had assembled pink and white paper bags with self defense keychains and tools like a kubotan (a pencil-looking metal stick)


ARDEN: There were some cute angry Hello Kitty Stickers too. But Srisakul says there are just too many women to give to every woman who wants one in New York. She receives hundreds of inquiries on her instagram. But her work is also closely tied to race - Michelle Go who was fatally pushed on the subway tracks in January was close in age to Srisakul.

Grace Xiang, an NYU student, was one of the 150 Asian women who received a kit that day.

GRACE XIANG: this is really nice. And I feel a lot better. Now. I have it.

ARDEN: Xiang wanted more protection after a friend recently had to use her pepper spray in a subway incident. And because she had recently had an experience herself:

XIANG: When I was a freshman here. It was never an issue. Like, I know, this wasn't something I was scared of. But I was walking to class and somebody pushed me down on the sidewalk and started cussing me out. And then my experience getting hit, hate crimed, on the sidewalk. And then I had to go to class right after. So then I was just like, in the back of class. And so I feel like that's something new.

ARDEN: The women I spoke to who had gotten the pepper spray say that it made them feel more confident in their own safety… but there are questions about whether giving weapons like pepper spray to someone without training is wise.

Henry Z is the founder of the Dragon Combat Club. It is a self-defense training program that combines martial arts with situational awareness. Z told me weapons like pepper spray are really a last resort, because it can drift and end up hurting people separate from the attacker. So the Club offered to help the Angry Asian Women by linking their give-a-ways with some of his classes to teach them how to use their weapons properly.

HENRY Z: We have actually taken data on a task across the United States, mainly in New York City in the Bay Area, and we found that 70% of those attacks are surprise attacks. How do you deal with a surprise attack? A lot of it comes from situational awareness


ARDEN: Outside in the rain, Joy Lau was passing out fliers to people walking by the bookstore.

Her friend had been attacked by the same man who’s accused of murdering Michelle Go shortly before the incident. She won’t use the subway now and is always on watch, which she says is no way to live in New York. She got involved because she was tired of being a grown woman who needed to be chaperoned home.

JOY LAU: I've only taken maybe six to seven classes, but I've been coming back because it gives me confidence. And it's not necessarily whether or not I can wield a weapon. If you walk out there with your shoulders squared, maybe I'm less of a target. That's what I'm hoping, that I'm a little bit less of a target now.

ARDEN: In the meantime, the Angry Asian Women team says they’ll keep making kits until the money runs out, or there’s no more need, whichever comes first.

Linnea Arden, Columbia Radio News


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