The Many Afterlives of Vincent Chin

Helen Zia moved to Detroit in 1976. She was a twenty-four-year-old medical-school dropout who had spent the previous few years as an organizer in Boston, working to desegregate construction sites in the South End. She ended up in the Midwest because friends had told her to go to “the heartland” if she wanted to truly understand social change, and upon arriving she found work at an auto plant. These were difficult yet coveted jobs that often got passed through families, and the steady rise of the car industry in the United States meant that workers with little more than a high-school diploma could receive good benefits and healthy pensions—maybe even enough money for a vacation home, or an R.V. Detroit’s Asian American population was small and scattered, but this didn’t bother Zia as much as the lack of good Chinese food.

At the time, American automakers were starting to face grave troubles. Gas prices had abruptly spiked in 1974, owing to the oil crisis, and consumers had begun looking to imported, fuel-efficient cars from Germany and Japan. Detroit’s inability to adapt—dramatized by several high-profile failures, such as the Ford Pinto and the Chevrolet Vega—exposed systemic problems that had been easy to ignore during boom times. Struggling corporations blamed workers and their unions, and workers pointed to deteriorating factories that hadn’t been modernized in decades. Politicians paved the way for American jobs to be shipped overseas, but continued to point fingers at Middle Eastern oil suppliers and Japanese automakers. “I could just see the decay and despair everywhere,” Zia told me, from her home in the Bay Area. Today, she’s a prominent journalist, activist, and author. But in 1980, she was just another laid-off auto worker, trying to make ends meet. She stood in unemployment lines that wrapped around city blocks, even in the dead of winter. Homes were abandoned. If a car was left out for too long, it would be stripped down in no time. “This was the Motor City,” she said. “People know how to build cars, and they knew how to take them apart.”

She heard rumors of motorists getting shot at on the freeway for driving Japanese-made cars. A local radio d.j. offered frustrated Detroiters the chance to take their aggressions out on a Toyota with a sledgehammer. It wasn’t unusual for politicians or business leaders to reference Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima when talking about trade tensions with Japan. Foreign cars were prohibited from entering the parking lot of the United Auto Workers’ headquarters.

Zia was scanning the headlines on July 1, 1982, when she came across something she had never seen before in a Detroit newspaper: an Asian face. It was the tragic story of Vincent Chin, a twenty-seven-year-old draftsman who had been out at his bachelor party the previous weekend. He got into a “scuffle” at a strip club with a white man in his forties named Ronald Ebens and his twentysomething stepson Michael Nitz. Afterward, Ebens and Nitz chased Chin to a nearby McDonald’s parking lot, where Ebens beat him unconscious with a baseball bat. Chin died four days later. Among the two dozen witnesses to the attack were two off-duty cops. “We’re not sure exactly what happened,” a local detective said at the time.

Zia clipped the article. “There was nothing about his race,” she recalled, beyond mention that Chin worked part time at a Chinese restaurant. “But there was a picture of him.”

Ebens, a foreman at a Chrysler plant, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and Nitz, who was working at a furniture company, pleaded no contest. They claimed that Chin had started the brawl by punching Ebens. At the sentencing, there were no prosecutors present to speak for Chin. Judge Charles Kaufman, the presiding judge for Wayne County, ordered Ebens and Nitz to each pay a three-thousand-dollar fine along with court costs and serve three years’ probation. “We’re talking about a man here who’s held down a responsible job with the same company for 17 or 18 years and his son, who is employed and a part-time student,” Kaufman told reporters. “These men are not going to go out and harm somebody else.”

Many were appalled by the lenient sentence. Zia sought out leaders from Detroit’s Chinatown and local lawyers to support Lily, Chin’s grieving mother. “There was absolutely no national voice for Asian Americans back then,” Zia said, and Detroit’s Asian American population was fractured according to ethnicity and nationality. Zia and a group of community leaders—including Kin Yee, a Detroit Chinatown fixture, and Roland Hwang, a local attorney—formed American Citizens for Justice to pressure the federal government to investigate Chin’s killing as a civil-rights violation. Liza Chan, an attorney, represented A.C.J. Zia, who shortly thereafter got a job at a local magazine, worried that her advocacy would jeopardize her journalistic career. She wrote an article about the case under a pseudonym for a different publication, to stir up interest.

“There was a lot of hesitation about coming together initially,” Zia said, describing an early A.C.J. meeting of Detroit’s Asian American community at Ford’s world headquarters, where someone had access to a large dining room. Young professionals from the suburbs, elderly conservatives, and Marxist activists all came to learn about what could be done. A representative from the Department of Justice explained the burden of proof required for a civil-rights case: they would have to establish that the attack was in some way racially motivated. At the time, legal experts were skeptical that civil-rights law could apply to the beating of an Asian American.

After the D.O.J. representative left, the attendees debated their options. Everyone was already in agreement that the culprits had been let off easy because they were white. Ebens and Nitz had driven around for a half hour searching for Chin, at one point paying a third man to help find him, suggesting that this was more than a heat-of-the-moment dispute gone bad. Yet Judge Kaufman said that Ebens and Nitz “aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.” Some people at the meeting expressed wariness about bringing up racism, fearful that their community would now be branded as troublemakers. Zia recalled an older man, an engineer at General Motors originally from Hong Kong, who got up to speak. “I have worked at this company all my adult life,” Zia remembered him saying. “I have trained every supervisor I’ve ever had . . . all of these young white guys. I had to train them to be my boss. And I knew more than every one of them put together. They never once considered me. It hurt, but I never said a thing. This time, I have to speak up. This time, we all have to speak up, because this could be any one of us being killed.”

Forty years later, the killing of Vincent Chin remains a definitive turning point for Asian Americans. This month, A.C.J. hosted a four-day commemoration in Detroit, honoring Chin’s life and the movement that arose to seek justice for him. Even before the recent spate of incidents of anti-Asian violence, Chin was a versatile, iconic presence in virtually any discussion of Asian American history, meaningful across political and geographical divides. Asian American fraternities have restaged aspects of the attack on Chin as a way to forge brotherhood, and law students reënact the subsequent trial as a way of casting light on the blind spots of jurisprudence. In recent years, interest in Chin has surged, not just as context for the attacks on Asian Americans but as a ripped-from-the-headlines story that artists and content creators are eager to revisit. Multiple Chin-inspired scripts have floated around Hollywood. Last year, the producers for one of them, “Hold Still, Vincent,” faced controversy when they released a podcast version of their script without contacting Chin’s estate, which Zia now oversees. Chin has come to represent an origin story for Asian Americans, but also a kind of myth that gains resonance as it is shorn of details.

The filmmaker Christine Choy was reading a newspaper in New York’s Chinatown in 1983 when she learned of the campaign that emerged in protest of Kaufman’s verdict. Choy, an experienced documentarian inspired by leftist liberation movements, volunteered to make a short film for A.C.J.’s fund-raising efforts. Upon arriving in Detroit, though, she realized that the case was much more complex than she’d initially assumed. She secured funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to make a full-length documentary.

The Chin campaign had a galvanizing effect on Asian American communities throughout the eighties. Lily Chin travelled around the country, sharing her story. She had moved to Michigan after the Second World War, as the bride of C. W. Hing Chin, who had served in the U.S. Army. They worked in a small laundry together. Lily was unable to have children, so they adopted Vincent from a Chinese orphanage. When he was killed, she was still mourning the passing of her husband, who had died in 1981. She wasn’t a particularly political person prior to her son’s death, and was much more comfortable speaking Chinese than English. But those around her drew inspiration from her unrelenting, impassioned pleas for justice.

Preparation for the federal civil-rights suit revealed just how sloppy the initial investigation had been. The police had neglected to interview Angela (Starlene) Rudolph and Racine Colwell, two of the dancers who had been at the club that night. Rudolph, who is Black, recalled that the encounter had begun when Ebens referred to Chin as “boy.” (Later, Ebens would claim that he was defending Rudolph’s honor, and that Chin and his party were disrespecting her, possibly because of her race.) Colwell, who is white, alleged she had heard Ebens tell Chin and his friend Jimmy Choi that it was “because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work,” raising the possibility that they had been targeted for their race. There was evidence that Ebens had called Chin a “Chink” and a “Nip.”

In the 1984 federal trial, Ebens was sentenced to twenty-five years for violating Chin’s civil rights, and Nitz was acquitted of all charges. But, in 1986, Ebens’s conviction was overturned after an appeals court ruled that lawyers had improperly coached prosecution witnesses. Because of the local publicity around Chin’s case, the retrial was held in Cincinnati, where a jury cleared Ebens, in May, 1987. Choy approached Ebens with her camera as he left the courthouse. “I think he was a little shocked to see me,” Choy told me. “And he came down and he said, ‘Oh, you’re the one who keeps asking me to be filmed.’ ” She said that he invited her to a “celebration” he was having at a nearby bar.

Choy wasn’t allowed to film the victory party, but a few weeks later she went to Ebens’s house for a sitdown. After four years of waiting to speak with him, Choy felt “completely numb,” if a little anxious—her equipment began malfunctioning just as she hit Record. She found him arrogant and smug. “I felt like a real jerk, being in jail, knowing the next day was Father’s Day,” Ebens explains to her in the footage from that day.

For Lily Chin and A.C.J., the only legal recourse that remained, after Ebens had seemingly escaped harsh punishment in both local and federal criminal court, was a civil suit for wrongful death. Nitz reached a settlement in March, 1987, to pay Chin’s estate $65,600. In a separate settlement four months later, Ebens agreed to pay Lily Chin a total of $1.5 million, giving over a percentage of his monthly wages so long as he was employed. “It is my fervent wish,” Ebens told Michael Moore, in an article for the Detroit Free Press, “that I live long enough to pay off the entire amount.” At this point, Ebens hadn’t had a job in five years, and he hinted to Moore that he felt no motivation to find one. (“That’ll be when I’m 672 years old.”) He told Moore that he didn’t understand the supposed “plight” of Asian Americans, saying, “The only ones I had ever met are the ones in the Chinese restaurants, and they were always nice and I was always nice to them.”

For many, the “plight” faced by Asian Americans was just now coming into focus. The Chin campaign was the first national, cross-generational, pan-ethnic mobilization of Asian American identity, a category that had arisen only in the late sixties. There would be other victims of attacks that seemed racially motivated: Thong Hy Huynh, a seventeen-year-old high-school student in Davis, California, who was stabbed during a brawl with white students; Paul Wu, a thirty-nine-year-old Chinese American who was taunted and then stabbed to death after a dispute in San Francisco; the defacing of various Asian churches; the harassment of Vietnamese fishermen in the Bay Area, Monterey, and Texas; the 1989 Cleveland School shooting in Stockton, California, when a twenty-four-year-old white man, who resented Asian immigrants, opened fire on an elementary-school playground, killing five children, all Southeast Asian, and wounding many others. As a result of the movement that emerged after Chin, more people began wondering if these events were scattered and isolated, or part of a wave—a history unto itself.

Chin’s story became a source of inspiration for artists, writers, and activists. The pianist Jon Jang dedicated his 1984 album, “Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan?,” to Vincent and Lily Chin and “all Asian brothers and sisters who are struggling together to create a better world for all people.” The following year, “The Twilight Zone” featured an episode titled “Wong’s Lost and Found Emporium,” adapted from a short story by the writer William F. Wu, in which an embittered Chinese American character explores a mystical emporium in search of his lost “compassion.” He explains to a fellow-wanderer that it disappeared after he learned about Vincent Chin.

The case also made Asian American lives accessible to other communities. Jesse Jackson was an early supporter of the campaign, famously appearing alongside Lily at an event in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In 1987, David Dinkins, then the Manhattan borough president, and the civil-rights leader Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., each likened Chin’s killing to that of Michael Griffith, a twenty-three-year-old Black man who was beaten by a group of white youths in the Howard Beach section of Queens. Armed with tire irons and bats, the teen-agers chased Griffith onto the highway, where he was struck by a car and killed. But “people did not just magically come together,” Zia said. She recalled going on a popular Black radio talk show with Chan, the attorney, to share Chin’s story. “When we met with people in the Black community, we were asked a lot of valid questions, like, ‘Where were you when we were fighting for civil rights?’ ” She would point to histories of connection and solidarity between their communities. “Today, we don’t even have these conversations.”

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