In 1982, a Chinese American engineer named Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit by two white autoworkers. Japan’s dominance over the auto industry had spurred virulent anti-Asian racism in the U.S., and the men, mistaking Chin to be Japanese, blamed him for stealing their jobs.
“It’s because of you little motherf------ that we’re out of work,” they reportedly told him before bashing his skull with a baseball bat. Chin, 27, was buried a day after what should have been his wedding day.
The killing became the most infamous hate crime in Asian American history. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were initially charged with second-degree murder but eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Their punishment — probation and a $3,000 fine — sparked protests across the country and united people from different ethnic groups, catalyzing what became the contemporary Asian American movement. The ensuing trial marked the first time federal hate crime laws were used in a case involving a victim of Asian descent.
In the four decades since, Chin’s name has drifted in and out of mainstream consciousness, often resurfacing following a wave of anti-Asian violence. Now, he’s the subject of a forthcoming young adult nonfiction book by TV writer, author and former journalist Paula Yoo.
“From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement,” which will be published April 20, dives deep into the event that changed how a generation of Asian Americans saw themselves and their place in a country that treated them like second-class citizens. Over the past two years, Yoo interviewed Chin’s surviving family members and friends, the activists who worked on his case, the police officer who witnessed his death, defense attorneys and one of the men who killed him. She examined 2,500 pages of court documents and protest relics, including flyers from the 1983 rallies that propelled the Department of Justice to take on the case.
Yoo spoke with NBC Asian America about the enduring legacy of Chin’s death and its relevance today in yet another era defined by anti-Asian hate. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NBC Asian America: When did you first hear about Vincent Chin, and what made you want to write a book about him?
Paula Yoo: The first time I heard about him was seven or eight years after he died, when I watched “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” the Academy Award-nominated documentary by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña. I was in college then, and he’s been with me ever since.
Eventually, I moved to L.A. and became a TV and book writer. I’ve been pitching Vincent Chin as a movie for about the past 15 years. I remember everybody telling me, “Paula, that’s a great idea, but it’s a very niche-oriented story. We don’t really think a lot of people are going to see it.” (The only people who knew him were Asian American college students and activists.) I got busy with my other book and my TV job. So it was always a passion project in the back of my mind.
Then in 2016, after Donald Trump became president, there was a rise in anti-Asian racism, especially on social media. That’s when Vincent Chin’s name started popping up again. So in 2018, I dusted off my half-finished screenplay and showed it to my book agent, who said it should be a YA nonfiction book. So I wrote a book proposal, and that started the whole journey.
The book starts from the perspective of Jarod Lew, the son of Vickie Wong, Chin’s fiancée. Why make him the central character of a story that happened years before he was born?
Yoo: My book is told in two different timelines: the Vincent Chin timeline and the present-day timeline. I met Lew, who’s an accomplished photojournalist, through the late Corky Lee, the “unofficial Asian American photographer laureate.” He’s the emotional spine of the book, which opens with him finding out that his mom was engaged to Vincent Chin. That was in 2012, when he was 25. The book is about his journey to unearth this secret family history and finally trying to gather up the courage to talk to his mom about one of the worst things that happened in her life — all the while knowing that he would not be alive today if Vincent Chin were alive.
When we drove by Vincent Chin’s original childhood home [in Detroit], Jarod flipped out. He said that after college, he rented the house just down the street. When we went to the restaurant Vincent used to work at, Jarod flipped out again and said he had his birthday there. It was almost if Vincent was reaching out to us. It was haunting and made us very solemnly aware of the responsibility we had in telling this story.
Your book is being published at a time when public awareness of this story is at the highest it’s ever been — due largely to the rise in anti-Asian violence. A new podcast, film and TV show are in development. How has this buzz affected the reception of your book?
Yoo: When the book was in the copy-editing stage in May of 2020, my editor called and suggested that I write an afterword about how Vincent Chin’s case has relevance to today. Anti-Asian sentiment in the 1980s — over Japanese import cars competing against the American auto industry — is happening again with the Covid-19 pandemic.
People were talking about Vincent Chin during the whole “China virus” controversy, but after Atlanta, the lid blew off. I’ve gotten about four hours of sleep a night since March 16. Suddenly, hundreds of people are following me on Twitter. I've been doing interviews all the time. Although I’m honored by the attention this book is getting, and the importance of Vincent Chin’s story getting heard, I’m also devastated and heartbroken that it had to take eight people getting killed — and the more than 3,800 hate incidents recorded — for this to happen.
Do you see any parallels between what happened then to what’s happening now?
Yoo: In 1983, Judge Charles Kaufman sentenced Ebens and Nitz to three years' probation with a $3,000 fine. He famously declared, “These weren't the kind of men you send to jail.” Back then nobody knew about the microaggressions, the jokes in poor taste, that can add up to a lifetime of trauma. A lot of Americans, especially white Americans, thought you could only be racist if you had a KKK robe.
Last month in Atlanta, when an authority figure said the killer was just having “a bad day,” all I can think about was Judge Kaufman’s words. To hear another officer of law saying this, almost 40 years later, made me so angry. The family members, friends, lawyers and almost everyone else I interviewed cried [when they spoke to me]. Not only have they had a lifetime of trauma to deal with, they now also have to deal with the fact that we don’t count in the discussion of racism, even when we’re killed. That breaks my heart.
Vincent’s killing was sort of this watershed moment for the AAPI community. What’s the lasting cultural and legal legacy of his death?
Yoo: This book isn’t just about racism and brutal crime. It’s also about positive contributions and how the Asian American movement really started taking off. Vincent Chin’s death inspired a brand-new generation of Asian American activists, lawyers, journalists, politicians and writers — people who wanted to make sure that we weren’t erased from American history.
In the 1980s, Asians were defined by the country of their heritage. The term “Asian American” only existed on college campuses and for activists. When the Vincent Chin sentencing happened, the Koreans, the Japanese, the Chinese — everybody got together under one roof and said, “This is wrong. We have to band together and fight back.” People started identifying it as a political identity. A lot of Asian American activist groups formed and still exist today. Vincent Chin is the reason “Asian American” became a mainstream term.
In addition to his symbolic legacy against hate, Chin also had a tangible effect on the law. He’s the reason that, at manslaughter hearings in Michigan, victims' families can now deliver victim impact statements to the judge.
What surprised you while writing this book?
Yoo: The fact that everyone still cried talking to me. People like Helen Zia, Roland Hwang and Jim Shimoura — the baby boomer activists who founded the civil rights group American Citizens for Justice after Chin’s murder — were reliving something that happened 40 years ago as if it had happened yesterday. It made me realize the heaviness of the responsibility I had to make sure their voices were heard.
As a journalist, one of the hardest things I had to do was compartmentalize my feelings and my theories about this case to be fair to both sides. I have a chapter in my book about the defense attorneys. I met Ebens in his house for an off-the-record interview that I can’t talk about. I cried in my car afterward because it was a very disturbing, profound and emotional event for me.
Do I feel compassion for both sides after meeting him? Of course I do. Everyone’s life was ruined. Do I feel that Ebens and Nitz should have gone to jail? Of course I do. I can have compassion and also believe they got away with something they shouldn’t have. We have to always remember that Vincent Chin was dead, and he shouldn’t be.
Why market this book to young adults?
Yoo: We don’t teach Asian American history in depth for children and high school students. Growing up, I wasn’t taught anything. In my 20s, I would go to that tiny Asian bookshelf at Barnes and Noble and read every book there. I had to teach myself about our history. That’s a huge issue in itself that leads to ignorance and racism. One in 4 Asian American teens have reported being verbally or physically bullied because of the pandemic. I wrote this book for everyone, but I’m especially grateful that it can be taught in schools. This should be part of a social studies class.
America has an “Asian American amnesia” problem. We’ve always been fighting back, but no one’s listening because our history has been erased. No one knows about our contributions to this country. What’s changing is social media and the fact that people can record stuff on their phones. I think we’re seeing another seminal moment in AAPI history happening right now.