A new film about the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin aims to preserve the memory of the tragedy to a new generation of APIs. The film, “Vincent Who?”, commemorates a murder that galvanized the API civil rights movement, but as its title suggests, inquires into the case’s lack of awareness within the community.
In June 1982, Chin was murdered in Detroit by two Caucasian auto workers who were angered by their recent lay-off, blaming the increasing market shares held by Japanese automakers. According to reports, the two men, Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz, beat the, in fact, Chinese American Chin with a baseball bat while one of the assailants yelled, “It’s because of you little mother** that we’re out of work!”
Chin died from his injuries. A judge fined Ebens and Nitz a mere three thousand dollars and three years probation — a markedly lenient sentence.
The killing and subsequent sentencing became a rallying point for Asian Pacific Islanders nationwide and triggered the beginnings of a pan-ethnic API movement. Many API community activists gathered to publicly condemn the hate crime and bring the murderers to justice. As a result of their efforts, Ebens and Nitz were indeed convicted in a 1987 civil suit for the unlawful death of Chin which settled out of court. The men were ordered to make payments to the Chin family, but the bulk of Ebens’ and Nitz’s settlement has yet to be fully paid. To the outrage of many APIs, the punishment still did not fit the crime.
Thirty years later, the killing still has a legacy within the API community. Producer Curtis Chin has brought Vincent Chin’s story back to life to a new generation of APIs who may not have heard of Chin’s murder. In the trailer to the documentary, filmmaker Tony Lam asks API college students whether they have heard of Vincent Chin only to get a response that echoes the title of the film – “Vincent Who?”
Curtis Chin explains the reason for this collective amnesia.
“The majority of Asian Americans [in this generation] were not born during this period. There’s a disconnect to them, and I think that’s why it’s our responsibility to remember it.”
The inspiration for the film stemmed from not only a desire to convey Vincent Chin’s story to younger APIs but also to remember a past that has some personal relevance for producer Curtis Chin. “Vincent Chin was really a friend of my family’s when I was back home in Michigan. I actually remembered this case. ”
To his surprise, Curtis Chin did not encounter any overwhelming difficulties putting the documentary project together. Though Chin did not tell his agent he would be working on the film (perhaps anticipating the latter’s advice not to go through with the project), Chin found unexpected support nationwide from community activists who got wind of the film once production began.
“When word came out about the film so many people asked to help out,” said Chin. “A lot of people knew about it themselves and when they heard I was working on it, they offered support, stories, financial assistance, names and contact information ‑ so I really had an easy time of things. . . It’s been an honor.”
The relatively effortless production process belies the thorny politics that surround Vincent’s death and subsequent aftermath. The murder was motivated by resentment for the growing success of Japan’s automotive industry, which many people mistakenly assumed was the cause of layoffs in Detroit car plants. However, as some experts note, the decline of the auto industry in Detroit had nothing to do with the success of Japanese automakers. Rather, the layoffs occurred because many American automakers began outsourcing their labor outside of the United States in order to reduce production costs. It seems, then, that Chin’s murder resulted from what motivates most hate crimes – blatant ignorance.
In the hopes of exposing this ignorance, the film documents the memories of both those who were personally involved in the case as well as APIs who were committed to raising awareness about Vincent Chin’s death. Through interviews with important players in the case, the film also explores the legacy of Chin’s death within the larger context of API history. The Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment during WWII, and the 1992 L.A. riots serve as continual reminders that America still struggles with living up to her ideals of racial equality.
Though initially many APIs of the younger generation will not recall Vincent Chin’s murder, after watching this film they will be better informed about the nature of hate crimes and their continuing presence in the backdrop of American history and politics. Regarding the impact this film will have on a new generation of APIs, Curtis Chin says, “The film will hopefully inspire young people not only to remember their history but to ask about how they can get involved in bettering the community and fighting social injustice.”
The official movie site can be accessed here: http://bit.ly/vincentwho.