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JustUs for Vincent

Remembering Vincent: The unsilenced

Asian American writers pay tribute to Vincent Chin on the 40th anniversary of his death

Isip Xin for The Emancipator

I remember when Vincent Chin was murdered in the summer of 1982. I was horrified that two White men had beaten Vincent to death in public in front of witnesses. It showed me the kind of power White men had in America. They could kill a Chinese man with impunity.

I remember my mother saying, “Oh, he shouldn’t have been in that strip club.”

“So what?” I replied. “What does it matter where he was? They don’t have the right to kill him!”

“He shouldn’t have gone to that kind of place,” my mother insisted. “It’s not safe!” And that was all she’d say about it.


Maybe what she meant was that he was an Asian man in a place known for sexual gawking (at the very least), and such sexual gawking was reserved for White men in America. Men of color were not meant to gawk sexually at White women. Think Emmett Till. (Only Emmett Till wasn’t accused of gawking but whistling. And Vincent Chin wasn’t just gawking at women sexually, he was accused of stealing White men’s jobs.) My mother’s reaction reflects her upbringing as someone raised by her White supremacist and misogynistic and heteronormative parents to see the world through a White lens. According to this lens, it is up to the person of color to avoid any activities that might offend a White straight man.


By the time Vincent Chin was murdered, I was used to my mother ignoring the violence that had afflicted our family since moving to a predominantly White rural community in South Dakota. We’d moved from the New York City metropolitan area in the fall of 1979, back when my parents thought they’d enjoy what they’d assumed would be a slower pace of life. My father had accepted an academic position as vice president of academic affairs at the University of South Dakota. He was the first Chinese American vice president of a public university in the 48 contiguous states. He’d been interviewed in the Chinese newspapers. It was a big deal.

It was also a shock to the White people of our community. Shocking to see a Chinese man in a position of power at the university ... and married to a White woman, a blonde, with two mixed-race children.


In South Dakota, one of my public school teachers routinely said in class, “I’m going to kill that Boy George if I ever see him. I hate that homosexual.” I was a big fan of Culture Club, which had just burst onto the pop scene in 1981. It pained me to hear my favorite singer threatened with death by one of my least favorite teachers. I tried to stop my teacher from threatening Boy George, but other students — boys — would egg the teacher on, and my voice was silenced.

Soon the AIDS crisis would unfold across America and the Reagan administration’s callous disregard for the largely gay victims of AIDS propped up killer homophobia across America, across the “heartland.”


Killing people or threatening to kill people because of who they loved felt shocking to me when I was a teen and the White men and boys in my community drove by our house on weekends, shooting, despite the “No Hunting” signs we’d nailed prominently on our property. Sometimes people drove by in the middle of the night, when hunting was illegal, and still they shot at our house. When my mother called the sheriff, he said, “What do you want me to do about it?” After we started finding our dogs shot dead in our driveway, my mother always bought a new dog. I wished she wouldn’t. My brother and I took to estimating the months the puppy would live before it, too, was shot.


When Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two White men in Detroit, I was 15 years old. I remember reading newspaper accounts. The White men used baseball bats to smash his skull into the pavement at a McDonald’s. They’d tried to fight him in the strip club, where he was having a bachelor party because he was going to be married soon. But he fought both of the men and won and escaped. They couldn’t pin him down. So they followed Vincent Chin after he left the club, found him at a nearby McDonald’s, chased him, and one man held him in a bear hug while the other man smashed his skull in with a baseball bat.

A witness later reported that he’d heard one man say, “It’s because of you little motherf—s that we’re out of work.” The men, autoworkers, blamed Vincent Chin for job losses that they attributed to the rise in popularity of Japanese-made cars. It doesn’t matter that one man was a Chrysler plant supervisor and had not, in fact, lost his job, or that Vincent Chin was not a Japanese automobile company executive or that it’s technically illegal to beat anyone to death because you don’t like their Asian ethnicity. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, the murderers, spent exactly zero nights in jail. Even after they were convicted of manslaughter in 1983 and fined $3,000 apiece, they were not sentenced to any time in prison, merely three years’ probation.


No White boys were ever charged with the beating of my brother on school property during wrestling practice. To my knowledge, my mother never demanded an apology or an explanation as to why this act of racist violence was allowed to be perpetrated against my brother on school property during what should have been a supervised, school-sanctioned team sport practice.


My father was asked to resign from his academic position within nine months of our moving to South Dakota. He was blacklisted for nine years and unable to get another comparable academic position. He asked a friend to pretend to be a member of a search committee and called about my father once. His former colleagues told the friend that my father was “a Communist” and “not a team player.” The friend said, “You’re never going to get another job so long as they’re there.”

My father’s sins against White supremacy had been many: He’d advocated for Indigenous students to attend the main campus of the university in Vermillion rather than on a segregated satellite campus on a reservation that would have cut students off from resources that White students used, including but not limited to classroom instruction, the library, gymnasium, extracurricular clubs and activities, etc. He vocally promoted “globalizing the curriculum” and gave interviews in the local papers about increasing study abroad programs and international exchange programs for the faculty. He supported the idea of a union. He was outspoken, not the quiet man the administrators had assumed any Asian would be. Then there was our family. When my father had interviewed for the job, he’d mentioned his wife and kids, but no one expected my mother to be a White woman.


During this time in our lives, my parents could not talk about race or racism. I assume it was because it was too painful. My mother told my brother and me that we should laugh when our classmates called us racist names. “Show them you can take a joke.”

When my brother continued to be attacked on school property by White boys, even when they had weapons, she said, “Fight back.” But one person fighting against a mob is never great odds. I could not understand why my mother felt it was my brother’s responsibility to defend himself and not the school’s responsibility to put a stop to the violent attacks. Boys of color in my high school were always under attack.


I was called racist names by grown White women and their daughters, who mocked my small breasts and round face and straight dark hair and the low bridge to my nose. I had not realized there were so many things about my appearance that could be considered abnormal to White Americans until I heard about it from their mouths.


My mother grew up in an abusive family. Her White alcoholic father beat her mother. When my grandmother called the police or the sheriff’s department when my grandfather was drunk and threatening to kill her, they did not come. But when my grandfather got into drunken brawls in bars or the VFW, the police or sheriff’s deputies would bring him home and admonish Grandma, “You should keep a better eye on your husband, ma’am.”


My mother was taught at a young age that White supremacy and patriarchy are the most important laws of the land in the United States. Their primacy was written on her body as bruises, as a broken tooth, as blood. After decades of her parents’ violence, she was dissociative, prone to panic attacks, unable to control her own fear.

By the time our family was attacked, she had no reserves of strength to help us fight back.


As soon as I left home at age 18, I wanted to fight back.

In college, I formed an Asian American student group. We went through the paperback directory of students and looked for Asian surnames or even middle names and sent invitations by campus mail. We put on cultural activities, sponsored a symposium, formed mentoring groups for the children of Southeast Asian refugees who were being relocated into the state of Iowa by the federal government. I wrote an op-ed about the lack of a sign for the Black Student Center and then walked into a conversation where the head of public relations called me “a c— who’s trying to stir up trouble.” I ran an article in the student paper about the use of the Buddha as a mascot for the college swim team, and then White members of the team threatened to beat up some of the members of our Asian American student group who lived in their dorm. But we survived and prevailed and with our experience in organizing and writing and critical thinking, we moved out into the world, stronger for our activism and community building.


After college, I worked as a reporter for The Associated Press. I covered the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Asian gangs attacking their own communities, free language translation services, Hmong activists fighting to preserve their culture, skinheads attacking Japanese students, Vietnamese priests organizing across the nation, Cambodians establishing temples in the Midwest. White supremacy insists that Asians are not part of the U.S. or active participants in society. Writing stories that fought the dehumanizing stereotypes or the complete erasure of Asians from our own communities felt necessary and exciting. It felt like healing.


Now, nearly 40 years after Vincent Chin’s murder and his murderers’ escape from any real justice, we’ve seen a resurgence of overt White supremacist violence. Despite the constant onslaught of horrific and damaging policies from the White House during the four years of the Trump administration and the emboldened actions of White supremacists, I actually feel less overwhelmed than I did as a child. The gaslighting I experienced then cannot be repeated. Once upon a time I was told to stay silent, but I’m not silent anymore. More and more Americans are speaking up together against White supremacy, and that gives me hope.

The fight for justice is never easy, but I am no longer alone. Community makes all the difference.

May-lee Chai is the author of 11 books, including her 2022 short story collection, “Tomorrow in Shanghai and Other Stories”; “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” recipient of the American Book Award; and her family memoir, “The Girl from Purple Mountain.” She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at San Francisco State University.