Vincent Chin’s murder 35 years ago galvanized a pan-Asian movement

Vincent Chin rally in Detroit, 1983 (Photo by Victor Yang, China Times)

On the night of June 19, 1982, 27-year-old Vincent Chin was celebrating his bachelor’s party with friends in a Detroit strip club. He got into an altercation with two white men, and both groups were thrown out. The two men tracked down Chin with the help of a third man and brutally beat him with a baseball bat.

Their reason? They blamed the downturn of the Detroit auto industry on Japanese cars, which were at the time overtaking American models in popularity. They thought Chin was Japanese. He was Chinese American.

Vincent Chin was left in a coma and died four days later, on June 23 — a few days before his scheduled wedding. The two men from the club (one of them was the killer while the other held Chin) were charged with second-degree murder but the charge was reduced to manslaughter and neither served any jail time. They were ordered to three years probation and to pay $3,000 in fines.

A young Asian American journalist, Helen Zia reported on the murder, then led the efforts to bring federal civil rights charges against the men. In the end, the accused murderers settled a civil suit out of court. Ronald Ebens, the man who beat Chin, was ordered to pay $1.5 million, but Chin’s estate has never received any payment.

It was national news when it happened, but it’s faded from memory for most people.
Continue reading

Don’t give up on civil discussions on social media

One of the great benefits of today’s social media – and why I urge everyone, young and old, to at least be on Facebook – is that it can connect you to people you know, people you don’t know, and maybe most surprisingly, to people you used to know.

When baby boomers starting logging into Facebook about a decade ago, I was happy to reconnect with former co-workers and friends from the past, and to people from my school days, both college and high school.

I’m Facebook friends with a host of classmates and friends from two high schools. I attended 8th-10th grade in northern Virginia before my family moved to Colorado and I finished school in a Denver suburb.

But Facebook can have its downside (besides being a time-suck that can take over your life). Sometimes, old friends may have traveled in different directions from my own path.

Such is the case with John, who was my schoolmate in Virginia, and now lives in Washington, DC. We weren’t close friends, but knew each other. He was one of the popular kids and I was a nerdy school photographer. He and I became Facebook friends about a year and a half ago, right in time for the Donald Trump presidential campaign.

Anyone who follows me on social media knows I share a lot of stories about race, identity, racism, politics and pop culture, often Asian and Asian American pop culture. Oh, and food. Lots of food pictures.

I’m pretty liberal, though I wouldn’t say radical. John is conservative, and a Trump supporter, though I wouldn’t say alt-right. For months now, John has been commenting on my posts and chiding me for being left-wing, and citing a lot of Fox News and Breitbart rhetoric.
Continue reading

Haircut and history


NOTE: I just heard today that Mas Nonaka, a member of the local Japanese American community who has cut hair at several iterations of his barbershop, Nonaka’s, in and around Sakura Square since before the block was called Sakura Square, passed away.

Nonaka’s was where I first got my hair cut when my family moved to Denver from northern Virginia in 1972, and his shop at the time was on 20th Street across from the Buddhist Temple. Mas and his wife Yasuko (who styled women’s hair in the shop) were familiar figures whenever my family and I went to Sakura Square.

In recent years, I would see Mas and Yasuko at many Japanese American community events. He was always upbeat and very warm, even though I could see the years had cloaked themselves around him. He always called me “Gilbert” because that’s how he knew me, from my dad. It was when I went to college, everyone started calling my Gil. I never minded him calling me by my full name.

He had moved his shop to the ground level of Sakura Square for some years, and I know he wanted to sell the business, but it seemed younger barbers weren’t interested in small, family-owned barbershops. They would rather work for a chain, or maybe save money to buy a chain’s franchise. The past couple of years, Mas had relocated his shop to the mezzanine level of Sakura Square but it was rarely open when I walked past it.

I’m sad on hearing about his passing because Mas was the subject of the second-ever “Nikkei View” column I wrote way back in 1998, when the Rocky Mountain Jiho newspaper, now long-gone, asked me to write weekly columns for them.

I’m “repurposing” that second column today in his honor. Rest in peace, Mas…
Continue reading

Quick culture check-in: Disposable chopsticks’ ends

Here’s a query from Facebook, where someone shared a story about how the blocky end tips of disposable chopsticks are meant to be snapped off and used as chopstick holders on your table (image to the right).

I responded with this comment and posted some photos I took:

I’ve seen this post, or one like it, before. I can honestly say that although you might be able to do this with the tab, here’s why I think this is a bogus theory:

1) The block is pretty small, and would not serve as a very good chopstick holder.

2) Japanese (most of the disposable chopsticks with this block at the end are manufactured for Japanese consumers, made from stripping bamboo rainforests all through SE Asia) are sticklers for packaging and usability, and if these pieces were meant to be snapped off, there would be a notch to make it easy to break off.
Continue reading

My New Year column written for the JACL’s Pacific Citizen newspaper

I’m the chair of the editorial board of Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of the JACL. Below is my column in the New Year’s issue of the PC. I wanted to post it here and also add even more current concerns given President Trump’s rocky first three weeks, his eyebrow-raising relationships with world leaders (including Japan’s Shinzo Abe, which merits a separate blog post), the currently on-hold Muslim travel ban, and the wild ride of national security issues climaxing — with possibly more climaxes to come — in the resignation of Trump’s National Security Adviser. On top of all the political insanity in a dangerous and shifting world, racism and prejudice still loom large, not just against African Americans, Latinos, Muslims and Jews but also against Asians in America.

The photos at the top are mirror images of anti-Asian ignorance. The first is from a news story today about racist graffiti on the Minneapolis home of a Hmong American family; the other is a very similar message on a Japanese American family’s home 75 years ago. This year we mark the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. We need to think about that document’s impact on America, and hope we don’t make the same mistake today.

Here’s my column:
Continue reading