'Who Killed Vincent Chin?' Brutal 1982 murder of Chinese-American man revisited as anti-Asian hate continues to grow

·5 min read
Many of Detroit's 33,000 Asian-Americans still are outraged by the killing last year of Vincent Chin. The community attributes the killing to racism. Chin died three days after being battered to the pavement with baseball bat. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

As we approach the end of Asian Heritage Month, Reel Asian is providing the rare opportunity to see the Oscar-nominated 1987 documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?, the story of a Chinese-American man who was brutally beaten to death on the eve of his wedding.

“We had been thinking about screening it all year, even before these particularly violent incidents happened in the last couple of months,” Deanna Wong, executive director of Reel Asian told Yahoo Canada.

“We think that the younger generation of people don't know about this incident and think of these incidents as something maybe new, but this indicates that it's actually quite a long-standing thing... I think it's important that people have that context as they move forward and [try] to address these issues raised.”

The general background of the documentary takes us back to Detroit, Michigan in 1982. Chin was at a bar and was brutally murdered in a racially motivated, xenophobic attack by Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz. This seemingly stemmed from tensions around the American auto industry targeting Japan in the 1982 depression. While that’s the general concept, the film expertly dives deep into this case, how the investigation was conducted, hearing from the attackers directly, showing the impact on Chin’s family and other Asian-Americans.

“It's a film that I watched at a very young age and it held strong for me, and I think the framework for us to look at it now is very important, to look back at an incident that I think speaks to contemporary problems we're having,” Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang (Wuhan Wuhan, Up the Yangtze) told Yahoo Canada.  

“It's a cliche and we wish it wasn't but history is sort of cyclical in a way and it repeats itself, and this is something that, I think, speaks to a modern generation.”

The free screening will also include a panel discussion, moderated by Chang, with the film’s co-director Renee Tajima-Peña and Chin’s cousin and activist/educator Annie Tan. Tan actually found out she was related to Chin, her great-aunt’s son, as a teen.

“I think the beauty of the feature documentary format is that you get to sit for an hour plus with a film that goes beyond just a news article," Chang said. "A film like this looks at the root of problems and the systemic problem that exists, and goes back into kind of using the microcosm of this murder, and looks at the big picture issues behind it.”

(Original Caption) Lillie Chin, mother of Vincent chin who was clubbed to death by two white men in a scuffle in June 1982, breaks down as a relative (L), helps her walk while leaving Detroit's City County Building. Mrs. Chin along with the American Citizens for Justice are asking Judge Charles Kaufman, who heard the case and passed sentence, to resentence the two involved in the slayings. Kaufman sentenced the men to 3 years probation after plea bargaining agreements. Mrs. Chin, along with the A.C.J. are asking for the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
(Original Caption) Lillie Chin, mother of Vincent chin who was clubbed to death by two white men in a scuffle in June 1982, breaks down as a relative (L), helps her walk while leaving Detroit's City County Building. Mrs. Chin along with the American Citizens for Justice are asking Judge Charles Kaufman, who heard the case and passed sentence, to resentence the two involved in the slayings. Kaufman sentenced the men to 3 years probation after plea bargaining agreements. Mrs. Chin, along with the A.C.J. are asking for the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

'It's just so dehumanizing'

Who Killed Vincent Chin? also raises questions about what Chang described as a "model minority," something that also brings into question how Asian characters in fictional films are portrayed on screen.

“When I look back in my time growing up, my references were very limited," Chang said. "I think specifically of one of my favourite films, unfortunately, was Breakfast at Tiffany's, and there's this horrible scene with Mickey Rooney playing an Asian man, and it's just so dehumanizing.”

Wong added that it was “cringe worthy” to see Asian characters in movies, particularly when she was growing up.

“Every time someone Asian appears on screen as a kid you're thinking, please don't do anything embarrassing, please don't say anything that's stereotypical,” she said.

Both Wong and Chang do believe that progress has been made, particularly in the last couple of years, to have real-life portrayals Asian individuals on screen, but there is still extensive work that has to continue to be done.

“There seems to be more recognition that it's not just Asian people that are watching these films like this, Crazy Rich Asians opened that door and then there have been a lot of things [coming] after that, Kim's Convenience is wonderful, too,” Wong said. “We have so much to undo in the public's mind and if all people are seeing are these images, [it somewhat] makes it easy to hate and stereotype.”

Chang said it was films like Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Mina Shum’s Double Happiness that really stuck with him, being representative in a way that he could relate to.

“The answer is activating our community and those outside our community to make change happen,” Chang said.

While this screening may be “preaching to the converted,” as Wong described it, hopefully the power of this film can activate people to take action against anti-Asian racism.

“I think the power of a documentary film like this is that it can activate people to do something,...whatever that may be,” Chang said. “It can flip a switch in terms of how we can think about storytelling and how we can use storytelling...to make change.”

“It's always going to kind of be this film of cult status in a way that people are going to refer to and go back to, and that we can share that with the new generation is very important.”

The Who Killed Vincent Chin? screening and panel discussion is available on Reel Asian to watch on May 26 and May 27