Asian American History: The Murder of Vincent Chin, 1982

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By Quentin Choy

May 27, 2021

Most times, I don’t think too much about heritage or history months, as I feel like an entire month dilutes celebration whereas a day could be set aside to commemorate something. Think Memorial Day versus a potential Memorial Month.

This is how I thought about Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It’s well-intentioned but easily forgotten. Then, a few days ago, I saw a video about a man named Vincent Chin, and this changed my mind significantly on the concept of heritage months, especially Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

I also recommend reading my piece about recent increases in Asian hate, its history, and what can be done.

I never understood why Asians and Pacific Islanders are grouped together, but I am mostly Asian and Pacific Islander in heritage. The story of Vincent Chin opened my eyes and showed a past I was unaware of.

Vincent Chin was a Chinese autoworker celebrating his bachelor’s party who was murdered by two white men in Detroit in 1982. His murderers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz believed that he was Japanese rather than Chinese, and blamed him for stealing the jobs of American auto workers, especially from workers in Detroit. This was during a time when Japanese automobile production was rapidly growing and competing with the American automobile market.

Vincent Chin, Chinese-American autoworker murdered in 1982. Courtesy of Colorlines.

Detroit is also known as Motown, a mix of the words “Motor Town,” describing Detroit’s automotive history, having headquartered General Motors, Stellantis North America, and Ford.

Michael Nitz and Ronald Ebens chased Vincent Chin and caught him after searching for several minutes. Nitz held Vincent Chin while Ebens continuously battered Chin’s head with a baseball bat, killing him after being in a coma for several days. Following Chin’s death, his mother Lily moved back to her hometown of Guangzhou in China since Detroit reminded her too much of the death of her son.

Vincent Chin’s mother, Lily Chin after the trial. Courtesy of History.com.

While Nitz and Ebens were charged with second-degree murder, they were able to bargain the charge down to manslaughter, to which they plead guilty and were ordered to pay $3,000 and serve three years of probation.

Historians and civil rights activists view the murder of Vincent Chin as one of the moments that forced Asian-Americans into the sphere of civil rights movements and activism.

Demonstrations after the trial of Nitz and Ebens, who received no jailtime for Vincent Chin’s murder. Courtesy of University of Michigan.

The murder of Vincent Chin shows that the rise of Asian hate in the United States is not a new aberration, but that it has historical roots in our history whether through the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 19th Century, Japanese internment in the 1940s, or anti-Asian sentiments following the Vietnam and Korean Wars.

I think it is important to learn about these stories and instances from the past to further ground our knowledge of history and to contextualize the seemingly modern issues that have actually been around for so long.

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