Joe Miao, one of the organizers of the Michigan Chinese American Coalition, stands with the face masks and hospital gowns that he’s donating on April 15, 2020. (Photo: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press)

April 17, 2020: Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press

Chinese Americans in Michigan have mobilized to donate hundreds of thousands of masks and other medical safety supplies to hospitals, police stations and nursing homes across the state.

Aware early on of the coronavirus spread in China, the community came together in January to form a group called the Michigan Chinese American Coalition to Fight COVID-19. Using their ties to supply chains in China, they were able to secure much-needed medical masks to help protect health care workers on the front lines.

They have raised about $240,000 and donated more than 200,000 masks, many of them N95s, to 55 hospitals in Michigan, as well as thousands of eye goggles, hand sanitizer containers and protective coveralls, according to Joe Miao of Troy, who helps lead the group.

Health care workers are “working to protect us,” Miao  said. “We really need to help them by providing PPE (personal protective equipment). You can’t have soldiers go in the battle without any armor. We’re glad we can help in this battle.”

Suppliers in China

Yanning Wu of Rochester Hills said she and others worked to find reliable suppliers.

“We spent many sleepless nights talking to the potential candidates and slowly sorting out qualified ones,” Wu said. “Fortunately, we found a few reliable suppliers.

“We decided we were not going to purchase from the domestic U.S. market to keep those much-needed resources available for the health care systems,” Wu said. “Due to our connections, we turned to China to search for supplies. Our top priority is to find quality masks. It was not easy to nail down a good supplier to ensure the safety of our first-line workers. With limited supplies and price gouging, there is really not many options left for us.”

Detroit Receiving Hospital and a Detroit-based Veterans Affairs medical center were the first two hospitals to receive donated masks and gowns from the group, Miao said.

The group then delivered masks and other supplies to the University of Michigan hospital system in Ann Arbor, Henry Ford Health System and Beaumont hospitals, as well as hospitals in Jackson, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Muskegon, among other areas, Miao said.

More than 2,000 Chinese Americans have taken part in the efforts to help, he said. The coalition consists of a diverse group of Chinese-American organizations that may have different political and social views, but are all united in combating the coronavirus in Michigan, he said.

“Our great advantage is we know the suppliers in Asia,” Miao said.

Joe Miao, one of the organizers of the Michigan Chinese American Coalition, stands with the face masks and hospital gowns that he’s donating on April 15, 2020.

Miao is the vice president of a French-Chinese joint venture that makes casting aluminum components. And so he’s familiar with supply chains from China, which helped them get supplies, he said.

Miao has spent months driving around the state to drop off masks at various hospitals and other places.

They also have given masks to police stations in Auburn Hills, Royal Oak and Rochester Hills, Wu said.

Wu said the effort she was involved with raised more than $30,000 from over 240 people within a week, purchasing 19,000 medical masks at level one, 20,700 medical surgical masks at level two, and 1,200 N95 masks.

Local hospitals have praised the community’s efforts.

“The outpouring of compassion from the Chinese American community in Metro Detroit during the COVID-19 pandemic has been extraordinary,” said Margaret Cooney Casey, president of the Beaumont Health Foundation, in a statement to the Free Press. “They were among the first to help our caregivers, and it is with a deep sense of gratitude that we thank them for acting to keep our frontline hospital staff members safe from this deadly virus with their donations of thousands of N95 masks and other needed medical equipment and supplies.”

Help amid the backlash

The effort comes amid concerns about anti-Asian racism tied to the coronavirus, which is reported to have started in a part of China. Civil rights leaders, state legislators and State Attorney General Dana Nessel have expressed concerns about any potential backlash and hate crimes against Asian Americans.

President Donald Trump stirred controversy last month when he repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.”

The Association of Chinese Americans, based in Madison Heights, released a statement criticizing Trump and others who use that phrase, saying “there is no reason to attach a racial or ethnic or country moniker on a virus pandemic.”

On Thursday, Trump again drew criticism, for conflating a Chinatown neighborhood in California with China when he tweeted: “Crazy Nancy Pelosi … wanted everyone to pack into Chinatown long after I closed the BORDER TO CHINA. Based on her statement, she is responsible for many deaths.”

In 1982 during an economic downturn in Michigan, Vincent Chin, of Chinese descent, was killed in a hate crime in Highland Park by auto workers upset at what they said were Japanese people taking away their jobs. There are some fears of a return of anti-Asian bigotry.

There are now about 61,000 Chinese Americans in Michigan, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, has helped out with the mask distribution.

“I’m proud to work with the Michigan Chinese American Coalition so we could send these face masks to those who are on the frontlines of COVID-19 and those who are working with our vulnerable community members,” Chang said. “Everyone deserves to have the proper protection to keep them safe.”

Lisa Shieh of Troy said: “We are just a group of ordinary Chinese Americans. When we saw the shortage of masks putting our doctors and nurses in danger, we stepped in to help bridge the gap. We felt it was our duty to help our community by donating masks to help protect people and save lives. We did it because we are part of the community; we have spent more than half of our lives here, and the U.S. is our country.

“We love it here and want to make here a better place.”

Shieh said she and others “coordinated with friends in China and directly ordered masks from the 3M factory production line, shipping them to the U.S. via express mail. As a result of the group’s dedication, we were able to donate 850 KN95 masks and over 2,100 surgical masks to local hospitals and police stations.”

‘All in this together’

Leon Zheng said he and his friends created a project on March 4th to deliver free masks to more than 300 local seniors and health care workers using Nextdoor.

Zheng donated 500 KN95 masks to Beaumont Hospital at Royal Oak, 500 KN95 and 300 medical surgical masks to the Veterans Affairs medical center at Detroit, 100 KN95 and 200 medical surgical masks to Henry Ford Health System.

Through his company, Zheng also donated $10,000 to the Association of Chinese Americans, which has been helping distribute medical supplies to fire and police departments, health care workers and nursing homes.

“At this moment of crisis for the whole world, we believe when we are united, we can” help fight the coronavirus, Wu said. “We are all in this together.”