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The life of Yao Pan Ma, who died of an attack prosecutors say was racially motivated

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Yao Pan Ma was collecting cans in East Harlem this past spring when someone approached from behind, struck him, and then, while he lay on the ground, kicked him in the head. Another man, Jarrod Powell, was arrested and charged with attempted murder and two hate crime assault charges. Ma spent more than eight months in the hospital. He died this past New Year's Eve. He was 61. And the New York Police Department is now investigating his death as a homicide. Well, Karlin Chan is a spokesperson for Ma's family. He joins us now.

Mr. Chan, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KARLIN CHAN: Thank you.

KELLY: Before we get to his death, would you tell us just a little bit about Yao Pan Ma's life, how he ended up in New York collecting cans that night?

CHAN: Mr. Ma was a dim sum pastry chef in China, in the Toisan section - region of China, which is located in Guangdong province. He and his wife emigrated to the United States in October of 2018. In 2019, he worked as a kitchen helper/cook. But the place was - went out of business when the city went into lockdown in March of 2020. The business never reopened, so he had to resort to collecting cans along with his wife. His wife also lost work at the time.

KELLY: I mentioned that among the charges that prosecutors have brought are hate crimes charges, for which they need to show the victim was targeted because of his race. I know police have said they've got surveillance camera footage suggesting that Ma and his attacker had not interacted before the assault which has led them to believe he may have been targeted because of his race. I wonder if you can speak to just how what happened to Mr. Ma fits in among other crimes that have been documented against Asian Americans in New York City.

CHAN: I'm sure the police, during the course of the investigation, has some evidence that may not be disclosed yet which, you know, led them to add the hate crime charge. But Mr. Ma had no interaction with Mr. Powell. And he was just minding his own business. He never even saw Powell come up behind him. Mr. Ma was attacked from behind. He was shoved to the ground and then repeatedly stomped against the sidewalk.

KELLY: Remind us of the background here. Hate crimes against Asian Americans have been way up during the pandemic.

CHAN: Hate crimes against Asians, against Chinese is nothing new to me. I'm in my mid-60s, and I grew up in New York City on the Lower East Side here in the '60s, '70s. There has always been resentment and bias against the Chinese in this country. But like I said, people did not bother reporting them at the time. For instance, I've walked down the street before, and somebody may come by and make a derogatory remark at me, and I would just shrug it off. Or if they pursued it, you know, we would have an argument. But then we'd go our separate ways. I would not think about going into the precinct to report it. But now in light of this big increase and also because of the media coverage of some of these horrific attacks, people are reporting. So we're getting a more accurate picture of how many incidents against Asians are in this city and in the country.

KELLY: You're a longtime activist and advocate for Chinese immigrants in New York. What has the reaction been to what happened to Mr. Ma?

CHAN: Well, you - of course, you have the empathy. You have the outrage. But at the end of the day, none of that brings him back. What we can hope for is something positive to come out of this. As a result of any tragedy, you try to make something good come out of it. I mean, nothing we can do will ever bring him back.

KELLY: That is Karlin Chan, spokesperson for the family of the late Yao Pan Ma.

Thank you very much, Mr. Chan.

CHAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.