Echoes of Vincent Chin.
Jon Moy is a freelance writer based in Portland (yes, you read that right). He’s written about a lot of things, but mostly about fashion. He’s just happy to be here. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @moybien1212.
My entire life has been lived in close proximity to Vincent Chin. Ethnically, temporally, and geographically, his life and legacy have always been right at the edge of mine. Peripheral, but close enough to be in razor-sharp focus. I was born two months before Vincent was murdered and grew up a short drive from the McDonald’s parking lot where he was killed. I attended high school just a few miles north of the site of a murder that has become a tragic touchpoint for every Asian American. Vincent’s family is from the same area of China that my family immigrated from. He was born the same year as my dad, and they lived startlingly similar lives: working in Chinese restaurants while going to school and eventually transitioning to white-collar office work in Detroit. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought more and more about how incredibly parallel their paths were. On that June night in 1982, my dad and Vincent, two 27-year-old Chinese Americans, were celebrating joyous milestones. My dad, the second month with his firstborn child. Vincent, his marriage that was to take place the next day. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for my father to hold his Chinese son in the days following the murder of a Chinese man who was the same age as him, who lived in the same city as him and moved in circles like his.
A year prior to Vincent’s murder, Ford had shuttered its Michigan Casting Center, which was at the time the company’s single largest investment. And just three years after Chin was murdered - ostensibly for stealing white people’s jobs - Mazda built a new factory on the site of the former Ford plant. I grew up five miles away, in an area that at the time was almost exclusively employed by the auto industry.
My dad has always made a point of only buying American-made cars. He insisted on this far more vehemently than any other purchasing decision our family ever made. I was probably ten years old when I badgered him into submission and he finally shared with me why our family would never buy a Mazda. He told the story of Vincent Chin. How after a scuffle in a bar with two autoworkers, a recently laid off father and his step-son hunted Vincent down, even going so far as paying another man to help them find him. How one held him down while the other swung a bat at his head over and over. And how they were only fined and given probation after confessing to the murder. It wasn’t that my dad didn’t want to buy a Mazda, it was that he couldn’t. It was just too dangerous to drive a foreign car as a Chinese man in America.
The murder of Vincent Chin shocked me as a child, and the details still haunt me as an adult. But I was never all that surprised. Being born in the ‘80s meant being around two generations of Americans who fought wars waged against Asian people. I’ll never forget the day when a random white man approached my father, sister, and me in a bulk candy store and said that killing people who looked like us was the best job he’d ever had. I was only 5 or 6 years old.
Threats of violence felt omnipresent. I grew up in a town that was overwhelmingly white, and the unease the community had with the Mazda plant was palpable. I eventually grew up and left that town. But Vincent has always stayed with me, in the back of my mind and in the background of the landscapes I move through.
It felt like [a] passing a rumor between ourselves, something small and insignificant that only mattered to Asian Americans like us.
Lately, I find myself thinking more and more about Vincent. About the horrific symbolism of being killed in the parking lot of a McDonald’s with a Louisville Slugger. I think about how his dying words, “It’s not fair” became a rallying cry for Asian Americans across the country. I think about the two off-duty police officers at the McDonald’s that night and how they watched as the two men murdered Vincent. I think about the fact that the journalist who brought national attention to the murder, Judith Cummings, was a Black woman. I think about how in an interview with Michael Moore just 5 years after he beat a man to death, Ronald Ebens - one of the murderers - had said, “If he hadn’t started it, he’d still be alive. They were looking for trouble and they got it.” I think about the coda of Moore’s piece that describes how, just a day after his interview with Ebens, members of Congress smashed a Toshiba radio with sledgehammers and posed with something they called “The Golden Rope Award” which was in actuality a noose.
I wonder if this kind of violence might be one of the only universal traits of whatever it means to be Asian American today. I am still struck a year later by how the Atlanta shooter blamed the victims for their own murders. I do not know how to situate the violence we are witnessing firsthand, but I’m glad that I do not have access to the video of Vincent’s murder in the way the current spate of attacks are replayed across the internet. I am dismayed at their proliferation and worry that they only serve to traumatize the victims, their families, and Asian Americans at large. I am also not convinced that videos of this kind have any effect on the white moderate. The videos serve no purpose for me because I need no reminders of the precariousness of being Asian in America. I live with echoes of Vincent all around me. I see him in my father and my uncles. He walked and drove the same streets I did and spoke the same languages that I do.
Vincent would be 67 years old today - the same age my dad is as he cherishes his first grandchild, my niece. I think of the family and future that was stolen from him that night. Vincent Chin is buried in the same Chinese section of a cemetery in Detroit as my ancestors, and I will have him and his family on my mind the next time I burn money and ask for blessings at my grandfather’s grave.