The early ‘80s were a tough time for my hometown of Detroit. The once-mighty U.S. auto industry had fallen and couldn’t get up. The nation’s highest unemployment rate stood at 18% as most of the manufacturing plants were cutting shifts or closing down. Meanwhile, crime and crack were on the rise as ongoing tensions between the city’s Blacks and Whites continued to divide neighborhoods. The city needed help. Enter Ronald Reagan.
The Republican Party sought to capitalize on the city’s woes by hosting its 1980 National Convention in the Motor City. Reagan, a former actor and the party’s presidential nominee, espoused a platform that was decidedly conservative and “pro-American.” The nativist calls to “make America great again” appealed to many of the area’s blue-collar residents, especially the White ones, who were suddenly being feted as the newfangled “Reagan Democrats.”
As part of the city’s small Asian American community, Chinatown had no choice but to join this jingoism. At the time, we were already on edge. With Honda and Toyota surpassing U.S. automakers, the Rising Sun was constantly being bashed by politicians, business leaders, and the unions. Ads on TV showed Americans taking a sledgehammer to Japanese cars. Although we were not of Japanese descent, as fellow Asians, we still felt targeted. It’s not like the non-Asians could tell us apart.
Two years later, the summer before I began high school, our close family friend, Vincent Chin, had been attacked. Instead of attending his upcoming wedding, my parents were sending flowers to the hospital. For four long days, we continued working at our Chinese restaurant as other members of our community kept popping in with updates. When I finally heard the adults say the brain damage was too great and that Vincent’s family had decided to pull the plug on his life support, I remember feeling helpless and hopeless.
I didn’t understand why he was dead.
When it was revealed that the two killers had worked on the auto line, with one of them recently laid off, there was immediate concern in our community as to whether or not Vincent would get justice. After all, these killers fit the profile of one of the city’s most privileged groups: the White autoworker. I mean, these two men probably felt entitled to do whatever they wanted. That’s why they killed Vincent right on one of the city’s busiest streets, Woodward Avenue. They didn’t even feel the need to commit their crime in some dark hidden corner.
One day, while my siblings and I were watching the evening news in our back kitchen — most of the coverage was biased, but that’s another story — my parents pulled us aside for our version of “The Talk.” They told us we needed to be on our best behavior outside Chinatown because they feared for our safety and lacked confidence in local law enforcement to protect us. It was an odd conversation. We had grown up playing on the streets of Detroit, but suddenly, now, it was considered dangerous?
Soon I began to question our country’s justice system, especially how it treated, or mistreated, communities like ours. The textbooks in school offered little information on minorities, so I went to the Detroit Public Library to do research. While there still wasn’t much about Asian Americans, there were books on the ‘60s civil rights movement, in particular from the Black perspective. I read up on Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. While it wasn’t exactly my history, I could see the parallels between our different communities of color.
The Vincent Chin case was a turning point in my life. It first opened my eyes to the reality of being an Asian in America. It introduced me to such concepts as institutional racism, generational poverty, and intersectionality. It led me to being a community organizer and activist.
In college, I switched from being a Young Republican and joined the left-leaning University of Michigan Asian American Student Coalition. There, I met a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students who were similarly inspired by the case. Around this time, four to five years after the crime, the case was wending its way through the court system. When all of the legal avenues were exhausted, there were organized rallies on campus to demand justice.
Even after graduating, I continued turning to Vincent and his story. I moved to New York to pursue a writing career. Meeting other Asian American writers frustrated about the lack of attention to, and respect for, our voices, we worked to create an Asian-centered writing organization. Within months, we grew into the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Our very first public reading was a 10th anniversary tribute to Vincent Chin.
A few years later, I moved to Los Angeles. It was tough being a writer of color in Hollywood, but I eventually got my break. I even had enough credits to join the union. Then, my dad was killed in a car accident back in Detroit, and I left the Disney Channel show I was writing for to head back home. It was a difficult time for my family. With my dad gone, there was no way my mom could carry on with the business. It was left to me to help sell the home and restaurant.
So I moved back to Detroit for six months to wrap up all my dad’s business affairs. While I was there, I had time to reevaluate my life. Working in Hollywood was fun, but it didn’t give me the deep sense of personal satisfaction that I got from doing community work. So I switched careers. Drawing on my experiences working in television and my desire to reconnect with my community, I committed myself to documentary filmmaking.
In 2009, working with a team of other like-minded individuals, I made the film “Vincent Who?” to lift up the impact of Vincent’s murder as well as highlight the development of an Asian American political movement. Featuring many of the leading activists in our community, it asked “How far have we come since Vincent’s death?”
Clearly the topics of the film — Vincent’s death and the development of an Asian American political movement — resonated with people. Even before we completed production, I was inundated with invitations from colleges and nonprofit organizations from across the country to screen the film. Eventually, “Vincent Who?” would take me to over 500 venues around the world, including Amnesty International in London and the government of Norway in Oslo, as well as universities in Japan and Korea. With the recent rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, the film has gained renewed interest; I have screened the film for another 30 venues this past year.
What has been most impressive are all the people who have told me that Vincent’s story, and the film, have changed their lives. It’s changed my life, too. The success of “Vincent Who?” is a testament to the lasting legacy of Vincent’s story, one that may be grounded in tragedy but which the community has transformed into a movement for empowerment.
We must continue to remember, connect, and move forward. As the film urges us all, just keep telling Vincent’s story.
Curtis Chin has received awards from ABC/Disney Television, New York Foundation for the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts and more. A former Visiting Scholar at New York University, Chin co-founded the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. His memoir, “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant,” about growing up in Detroit in the ‘80s and coming out, is being published by Little, Brown and Company in 2023. He can be reached at curtisfromdetroit.com.