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Amid rash of assaults, Asian American elders practice self-defense with canes and fists

Seniors brandished canes as part of their self-defense class with martial arts instructor Mai Du (at center) in Fields Corner.
Seniors brandished canes as part of their self-defense class with martial arts instructor Mai Du (at center) in Fields Corner.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Minh Hoang is not afraid. Her stance is strong. Her punch is fierce. Cross her, and Hoang will do as her “sifu,” or teacher, says.

“I will strike them in the eyes,” the 64-year-old explains through an interpreter in Vietnamese, demonstrating with her index and middle fingers. “Or I will throw my fist at them and overpower them.”

Hoang is learning how to defend herself against a previously unthinkable threat: a rash of vicious assaults on older Asian Americans in many cities, including Boston, which has Hoang and other seniors on edge. So on Thursday mornings, they gather in the auditorium of VietAID’s community center in Fields Corner. Under the tutelage of kung fu master Mai Du, they practice wrapping their thumbs around their fists, steadying their legs, and winding up for a jab.

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“Our stances should be as tough as tree roots,” Du tells them in Vietnamese. “Our movements should be as fluid as water.”

The pupils sit on chairs in a semi-circle around Du, their attention rapt. Attendance has climbed since Du’s weekly classes began in mid-June, drawing more than three dozen elders, most in their 70s and 80s, for a recent session. Du, 45, commands her class with an assertive confidence, and her students respond with unabashed zeal. As they rehearse their horse stance (feet apart, knees bent), 80-year-old Ngoc Le, a petite man wearing khakis and a Cubs hat, throws a few playful punches in the direction of Du’s teenage son, Thomas Tran.

“Good job!” Du exclaims, and the seniors applaud one another before taking their seats to rest.

Linh Mat, 88, threw a punch during a demonstration on how to hit an attacker at VietAID's community center in Fields Corner, as instructor Mai Du (right) held the pad. Du is teaching seniors self-defense in response to a rash of assaults on older Asian Americans in many cities.
Linh Mat, 88, threw a punch during a demonstration on how to hit an attacker at VietAID's community center in Fields Corner, as instructor Mai Du (right) held the pad. Du is teaching seniors self-defense in response to a rash of assaults on older Asian Americans in many cities.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Over the past year and a half, Asian Americans — scapegoated for the coronavirus — have been shoved, kicked, spat on, and beaten in an unremitting parade of violence. Some of the most brutal and wrenching of these attacks have targeted Asian elders. In San Francisco, an 84-year-old Thai man died in January after being slammed onto the pavement during his morning walk. In New York, a 65-year-old Filipino woman was knocked onto the sidewalk and repeatedly kicked in the face on her way to church.

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Du started worrying about her own family’s safety a few months ago. Her parents were part of the Chinese diaspora in Vietnam and they immigrated to Boston in 1984, when Du was 8. Around Lunar New Year in February, her mother called and told her not to leave the house. Du, who has been practicing martial arts for more than 30 years, entreated her mother with a similar warning.

On March 16, Du’s father died of a long illness. That same day, six women of Asian descent were shot to death in a rampage at three Atlanta-area spas. The next morning, 75-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie was punched in the face by a random assailant in San Francisco. In that instance, Xie fought back. A viral video taken in the aftermath of the assault shows an anguished Xie, screaming in Taishanese and clutching a wooden board, while her bloody-faced attacker is carried away on a stretcher.

Du, as she put it, had hit “rock bottom.” But then she had an idea. What if she could teach the elders in her community to stand up for themselves, like Xie did, and fight back? Du, who owns Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy, had never taught senior self-defense before. In the absence of physical strength or mobility, they would need to learn how to be creative and resourceful.

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In class, Du gestures to the vulnerable parts of the body where they should strike an opponent: eyes, ears, throat, ribs, groin, shins, and knees. She reminds them to draw power from their core, to stay vigilant, listen for footsteps, walk in well-lit areas, grip their keys, scream.

Ton Do, 75, practiced throwing a punch during a class in self-defense at VietAID’s community center in Fields Corner.
Ton Do, 75, practiced throwing a punch during a class in self-defense at VietAID’s community center in Fields Corner.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“You can do this!” she encourages them in Vietnamese. “Even though they may be more able-bodied than you!”

The elders take turns walloping padded combat shields, snapping back their elbows and plunging their fists, just as Du has shown them. Their sensible sneakers and sandals squeak against the linoleum floor.

“When you punch,” Du says, searching for the right words in Vietnamese, “you have to have a certain state of mind.”

Confidence. Intensity. Survival. Du, who is more fluent in English and Cantonese than in Vietnamese, struggles to translate this sense of ferocious determination into her students’ first language.

In Vietnamese, Hoang suggests, “If you touch me, you’ll die!” The rest of the class claps and chuckles in approval.

Du developed the self-defense program with Lisette Le, executive director of the nonprofit VietAID, and Jean Wu, a retired Asian American studies professor at Tufts University. Le was concerned that the Vietnamese elders who relied on VietAID’s community center for fellowship before the pandemic were now feeling scared and isolated.

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Many had come to the United States as refugees, and shouldered the trauma of war. But many elderly Asian immigrants are reluctant to talk about their mental health, according to Wu, even within their family. In multigenerational households, their own children and grandchildren may have lost the language skills necessary to communicate with them.

Linh Mat, 88, was shown how to break loose from an assailant by Thomas Tran (center) and Nhan Truong at VietAID.
Linh Mat, 88, was shown how to break loose from an assailant by Thomas Tran (center) and Nhan Truong at VietAID.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Du and her collaborators hope these elders will eventually open up, and relieve some of their heartache. Du has already heard a handful of stories from her pupils. One woman revealed that Du’s class was the only place outside her home where she felt safe. Another told Du about the time she had come to blows with a would-be robber, leaving her thighs stippled with bruises from being dragged across the ground.

The program is funded through a $7,500 grant from the city of Boston’s Age Strong Commission with money that has been redirected from the Police Department’s overtime budget. Du used part of her funding to purchase solid wood walking canes for every student in her class. Near the end of the lesson, Du and her volunteers distribute the canes, each individually wrapped in plastic, to the participants, except for those who had arrived with a walking stick of their own. The seniors will get to take these canes home with them when the sessions conclude at the end of the month.

They had already practiced striking with tai chi poles. Now Du was demonstrating how to use the hook handles of their canes to ensnare an attacker’s neck, how to thrust in one swift motion, how to whack a perpetrator on the toes.

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When the session is over, several of Du’s students linger, including 88-year-old Linh Mat, of Ashmont. Mat teaches a popular exercise class for seniors at VietAID to help them build their strength and stamina. She sees Du’s class as a complement to hers.

“I pray that I will never have to use these practices,” Mat says in Vietnamese through an interpreter.

Her best friend, 95-year-old Thoi Phan, agrees. “But if it comes to it,” she adds in Vietnamese, “we will.”


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.