Mayor Eric Adams has wasted little time flaunting his strong ties with New York City’s Asian community, which have been years in the making.

When given the opportunity, he has proudly worn a traditional mandarin-collared jacket and even remarked how good he looks in it. In a video of a recent bus ride tweeted by the mayor’s office, he says “gung hay fat choy,” the Cantonese Lunar New Year greeting that invokes prosperity, to a Chinese senior. John Liu, a state senator from Queens, has gone as far as to call Adams akin to “first Asian American mayor.”

But following Sunday’s fatal stabbing of Christina Yuna Lee, a young Asian woman in Manhattan’s Chinatown — the latest in a spate of violent attacks against Asians — Adams’ relationship with a fast growing electorate is being tested as the community grows increasingly fearful and seeks action from the city. Once largely defined by their concerns on education, Asians have in the wake of the pandemic become increasingly vocal about public safety as well as racial justice. Their demands join a broader cry among New Yorkers for the mayor to deliver on his main campaign promise of making the city safer while tackling systemic racism.

A troubling pattern

The latest killing comes less than one month after Michelle Go, a 40-year-old Asian New Yorker, was pushed to her death onto the subway tracks at Times Square. Last week, a South Korean diplomat was punched in the face. Both attacks were unprovoked, according to police.

For many New Yorkers, the death of Lee, a 35-year-old media producer, stood out. Surveillance video showed Lee being followed into her building by her alleged killer who police say she did not appear to know. The killing took place inside her apartment, where neighbors reported hearing screams. Police later found her dead in her bathtub with more than 40 stab wounds, according to multiple outlets. A suspect has been arrested and charged with her murder.

“I feel like it was like a horror movie,” said Jane Park, a 31-year-old Chinatown resident on Monday who attended a rally for Lee. “This whole incident kind of just confirmed my worst nightmare in terms of what can happen.”

Despite the chilling nature of the crime, Adams did not attend a press conference with public officials and Asian advocates on Sunday to address the incident, which police have not yet determined to be a hate crime. The mayor, a former police officer, has made a point of responding to the scenes of violent crimes, including the one that involved Go.

“Do I wish the mayor were there? Absolutely,” said Benjamin Wei, the founder of a nonprofit group called Asians Fighting Injustice who was at the press conference.

‘A three-line response’

Since taking office, Adams has kept a packed schedule. But his stated agenda on Sunday appeared light: he was set to attend a fashion show in the morning and host a Super Bowl party for first responders in the evening. The press conference in Chinatown was held at 3 p.m.

In lieu of personally appearing in Chinatown, Adams sent a representative from his office and released a statement in which he described the incident as “horrific” and said he stood with the Asian community.

“The mission of this administration is clear: We won’t let this violence go unchecked,” he said in the statement.

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, who represents the district where Lee was killed, called the mayor’s statement “inadequate.“

“It was a three-line response,” she said, adding that Adams had failed in the statement to sufficiently acknowledge the brutality of the killing and the fact that the community has been targeted since the start of the pandemic.

Her criticism of Adams comes after she and several other Asian lawmakers, including Queens Rep. Grace Meng, praised him for his swift and impassioned response to Go’s death. Immediately after the incident, Adams convened a group of Asian American elected officials and also spoke at Go’s vigil. Meng declined to be interviewed for this story.

Mayor Eric Adams at a vigil for Michelle Alyssa Go in Times Square.

Mayor Eric Adams at a vigil for Michelle Alyssa Go in Times Square.

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Mayor Eric Adams at a vigil for Michelle Alyssa Go in Times Square.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Asked to respond to Niou’s comments, the mayor’s office on Tuesday released a new statement to Gothamist reaffirming his commitment to combating crimes against Asians.

“Christina Yuna Lee’s murder is another example of why we need to work every day to make our city safer,” Adams said. “I and New Yorkers across the city mourn her death, but mourning is not enough. We stand with our Asian brothers and sisters against all attacks — motivated by hate or not — and will work every day to ensure this violence does not go unchecked.”

The mayor added that the NYPD and his office have multiple teams focused on hate crimes, and was now looking into forming an emergency task force to address the intersection of public safety, mental health and homelessness.

“We must have full coordination between city, state, and federal partners in an effort to keep our streets safe,” the mayor said.

Adams has vowed to invest in social services as well as deploy more police in subways and high-crime areas. As part of his budget request to the state, he has prioritized the city’s need for mental health funding, and called for an expansion in the number of hospital beds that serve the mentally ill.

But the rollout has not been fast enough for some Asians who feel an increasing sense of urgency.

On Monday, Wei said he was drafting a letter to the mayor imploring him to take “emergency action” to expand outreach for the homeless and mentally ill, a common thread among some of the assailants against Asians.

The New York Times recently reported that Martial Simon, the man who confessed to shoving Go, was hospitalized at least 20 times. Lee’s alleged attacker, Assamad Nash, had a history of misdemeanor arrests, but it is not clear if he suffered from mental illness.

Cultivating relationships

Some have credited Adams for forging strong relationships with Asians during his eight years as Brooklyn borough president. He has so far been more warmly embraced by Asians than his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, who had a strained relationship with the community. Adams has stayed in close contact with Xiu Yan Li, the mother of the slain NYPD detective Wenjian Liu, who was fatally shot in December 2014. The mayor, whose mother died last year, has said he considers Li his adopted mother.

Mayor Eric Adams is sworn in as the 110th Mayor of New York City in Times Square minutes after midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2022.

Mayor Eric Adams is sworn in as the 110th Mayor of New York City in Times Square minutes after midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2022.

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Mayor Eric Adams is sworn in as the 110th Mayor of New York City in Times Square minutes after midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2022.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

In an interview last week, state Senator Liu argued that a host of actions needs to occur at all levels of government to raise public awareness about racism against Asians.

“The onslaught of anti-Asian hate cannot be pinned on the mayor solely, whether it be de Blasio or Adams or anybody else,” he said. “The fact that he's prioritizing elevating the perception and reality of public safety on streets and in the subway system — that's a concrete step in the right direction.”

“This is a person who has a thorough understanding of the Asian American community,” he added. “And that's because he spent so much time in the community getting to know people, practicing customs and traditions.”

The work of building that political capital with Asians comes amid a surge in Asian residents, which helped drive the city’s growth in population in the 2020 census count. Queens and Brooklyn both experienced double-digit increases in the share of Asian residents.

Buoyed likely by the presence of mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, a record number of Asians also turned out to vote in last summer’s mayoral primary. According to an analysis by John Mollenkopf, the director of the Graduate Center for Urban Research at CUNY, the turnout rate among Chinese voters rose to 32% in the mayoral Democratic primary compared to 18% in the Democratic presidential primary the previous year.

Despite going up against Yang, Adams never conceded the Asian vote and some in the community appeared divided over the two candidates.

“I would like to believe we were crucial to him winning this election,” Wei said. “And he has publicly made promises to our community that we are waiting to be fulfilled.”

Education as the key priority

Adams has been a visible presence at Lunar New Year events, attending the annual public celebration in Chinatown and making an impromptu appearance at a senior center in Brooklyn. He also recently hosted a Lunar New Year party for the Asian-community press at Gracie Mansion. On Tuesday, he hosted a Lunar New Year breakfast at an undisclosed location that was closed to the press.

Although concerns around public safety have heightened during the pandemic, Liu and others say Adams needs to also show his commitment on education, which has been the overriding priority for Asians.

“This mayor has a very strong foundation in the Asian communities, but the house needs to get built,” Liu said. “The first floor of the house necessarily has to be on the education front.”

De Blasio’s unsuccessful effort at diversifying the city’s elite high schools by scrapping the exam — known as the specialized high schools admissions test (SHSAT) — left many Asian families, whose children make up a majority of those schools, embittered.

“I always say that the SHSAT is very much like the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah for the Asian-American community,” said John Albert, an Indian-American community activist and lobbyist in Queens.

Those sentiments were echoed at the Chinatown event earlier this month, where Colleen Mei, a Brooklyn resident, said she had voted for Adams in part because of his positions on education. During the campaign, he pledged to keep the test and to expand gifted and talented offerings.

“I’m hoping he keeps the SHSAT,” she said.

Other members of the community are holding Adams accountable to other campaign promises. As a candidate, Adams said he was opposed to the scale of a planned 295-foot, 29-story jail in Chinatown that is set to become one of four borough-based detention facilities intended to replace Rikers Island.

But as mayor, he has yet to comment on the plan, which is set to proceed soon with the demolition of an existing building on the site.

Asian communities in Chinatown and Flushing have also been among those who have vigorously opposed the city’s plan to build more homeless shelters.

Pressed with questions about when he plans to address the various problems engulfing the city, the new mayor has at times reminded reporters that he is still new to the job.

Assemblymember Niou, however, expressed little sympathy.

“I would just say that, well, you still have, three years, 10 months on the job,” she said. “So I hope that we will see more of you then.”