SEAL BEACH, Calif. — Police are investigating a hate crime after an Asian American widow living in a retirement community received a letter celebrating her husband’s recent death.
Seal Beach Police Department officials confirmed Tuesday that an investigation into the letter is ongoing. The missive was reported Monday by a daughter of the elderly couple, who live in Leisure World, a large retirement community of people ages 55 and older.
The letter, sent from a Los Angeles post office, was postmarked on the day of Byong Choi’s funeral, according to The Washington Post. Choi, 83, died Feb. 24 of tuberculosis in his bone marrow, but his family had to hold off burying him until March 19 due to restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yong Choi, 82, received the handwritten letter on Monday at her home.
“Now that Byong is gone makes it one less Asian to put up with in Leisure World,” the author wrote in a jittery-looking scrawl on yellow notebook paper. “You fricken Asians are taking over our American community!”
The author wrote that it was “not resting well” with residents of the community. The letter then goes from disheartening to alarming.
“Watch out! Pack your bags and go back to your county where you belong,” it states.
Anti-Asian sentiment has seen an uptick since the start of the pandemic, when phrases such as “China virus” and “kung flu” arose to describe the coronavirus. The virus is believed to have made the leap from animals to humans in Wuhan, China.
The letter was sent days after a white gunman killed eight people — including six Asian women — at three spas in and around Atlanta.
Authorities are treating the letter as a serious threat to the Choi family’s safety. Seal Beach police Chief Philip Gonshak said investigators are working to identify the sender of the letter through fingerprints and DNA analysis.
“Hate directed toward any member of our community is disgusting and will not be tolerated,” Gonshak said in a statement. “Across the country, we are seeing more and more violence committed against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“We will not allow this to happen in Seal Beach.”
Lt. Nick Nicholas, a spokesperson for the department, said the Choi family was disturbed by the letter.
“The real essence of this is that the family felt scared,” Nicholas told KTLA in Los Angeles. “And if they feel scared, then it meets some of the elements for criminal threats.”
Claudia Choi, one of Byong and Yong Choi’s four daughters, said her parents were married for nearly 57 years. Byong Choi, who was born in Busan, Korea, was working for the Korean Ministry of Finance when he earned an academic scholarship in the U.S. and moved his young family to Ohio.
He later became a naturalized American citizen.
Watch Claudia Choi talk about the letter sent to her mother below, courtesy of Fox 11 in Los Angeles.
The couple raised their daughters in Indiana, where Byong Choi worked primarily as an accountant. Both parents worked multiple jobs, selling tofu to restaurants and running several successful businesses.
They owned a Chinese restaurant that Claudia Choi described as having a piano bar — and a very diverse staff.
“My dad loved to sing,” Choi told the Post. “I grew up in a Chinese restaurant with Peruvian cooks and a gay bar.”
Choi recalled the bigotry she faced growing up in Indiana, where the taunts of classmates were eerily similar to the anti-Asian rhetoric heard today, including that in the letter sent to her mother.
“We’ve heard ‘go back to your country’ before,” Choi said. “Every racist thinks it’s their most clever insult.”
Byong and Yong Choi moved in 1996 to Scottsdale, Arizona, where they ran an ice cream shop and became active members of the Korean community. They moved to California, and Leisure World, upon their retirement.
For the most part, both have felt very welcome at Leisure World, where they’ve lived for nearly a decade, their daughter said. Byong Choi was a well-liked member of the Holy Family Church’s choir and several of the community’s clubs, playing golf, singing karaoke and line dancing.
“He loved his neighbors, and many of them have reached out to me saying how much they loved him too,” Claudia Choi told KTLA.
“To have somebody rejoice (over) his death, threaten my mother, tell us to go back home — this is our home,” she told KTLA. “They’ve lived here longer than they’ve lived anywhere else.”
A statement posted on Leisure World’s website derided the act of hatred.
“As a community, we must be committed that acts of hate, racism, and intolerance against Asian American and Pacific Islanders will not be tolerated,” the statement read. “Through community unity, we must join together and ensure that the unspeakable act by a single individual, yet unknown, will never happen again. Uniting together, as a community of fellow shareholders, neighbors and friends, we can show the world we can live as one.”
A $5,000 reward has been established for information leading to the letter writer’s arrest. An anonymous tip line has also been set up at email@example.com.
Choi said she and her sisters have not told their mother, who is in poor health and reeling from her husband’s death, about the letter. They decided to speak publicly about it, however, as a way to honor their father and his values.
“My dad was a big figure and big personality,” she told the Post. “This kind of awareness about the general discrimination that Asians face, he’s been part of the conversations even in death. I think it would’ve pleased him to no end.”