Too many people don’t know who Vincent Chin was. He’s the young Chinese American man who was brutally killed in 1982 in a hate crime by out-of-work Detroit autoworkers who blamed the Japanese auto industry for their woes. After getting into a fight with Chin, who was celebrating his upcoming wedding, in a strip club, two men beat him with a baseball bat on June 15. He died four days later of his injuries. His last words before slipping into a coma were, “It’s not fair.”
That sad and terrible attack in a very real sense was the spark that led to the modern Asian American Pacific Islander movement.
The original “Yellow Power” movement followed in the steps of the late-civil rights-era “Black Power” movement of the late ’60s, and focused on ending the Vietnam war, establishing Asian studies programs in schools across the country, and fighting for reparations for Japanese American internment. But the activism had faded some by the 1980s. Vincent Chin’s murder galvanized Asians and Asian Americans across the country not at a college student level, but at the community level.
Chin’s death — and later the light sentence of three years’ probation and $3,000 fine — outraged freshly inspired activists. The pioneering Asian American journalist Helen Zia pursued the story and was able to have both attackers charged for violating Chin’s civil rights. The crime and subsequent trials brought together a pan-Asian and Asian American coalition of community and ethnic organizations that still fight for social justice today. In many ways, the proliferation of Asian American bloggers like me can be traced back to the need to find our individual and combined voices that welled up in the wake of Chin’s murder.
A film, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” was made a few years later in 1988 but is rarely seen today.
A couple of years ago, Curtis Chin (no relation, though his family is from Detroit and he recalls the emotions of the era) of Asian Pacific Americans for Progress wrote and produced a new documentary, which was directed by Tony Lam, to remind us all — and especially to educate young Asian American Pacific Islanders who were not yet born — who Vincent Chin was, and why his death is important.
To mark the 29th anniversary of Chin’s death, the 2009 documentary will be available to view for free in eight parts posted to YouTube through July. Watch them all here on the “Vincent Who?” website.
It’s a powerful film, and a reminder of how much work we still have before us, to fight hate crimes and prejudice for the future while remembering the lessons of the past.