Silence gives way to defiance after hate crime

By ZHAO XU in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2022-06-30 10:20
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Vincent Chin, who was 27 at the time of his killing, was looking forward to getting married. Photo provided to CHINA DAILY

Auto industry downfall

The late 1970s and early 80s witnessed the downfall of the auto industry in the country's "motor city". Faced with plummeting car sales and significant layoffs, the manufacturers, politicians and union leaders joined in on a chorus of blame directed at the Japanese car industry, whose fuel-efficient models rode the wave of a new oil crisis to land on US shores, trampling the domestically produced gas-guzzlers.

What followed was fervent Japan-bashing: frustrated workers attended organized events to smash Japanese cars, swinging their sledgehammers with a gusto that would have put Ebens to shame.

A few days after the sentencing, Hwang and Shimoura met with others at the Golden Star Restaurant in Ferndale, Michigan, where Chin, an industrial draftsman at an auto supplier, worked weekends as a waiter. Both Shimoura's and Chin's fathers joined the US Army during World War II. Through his military service, the latter, who died months before his son's killing, earned the right to bring a Chinese bride (Lily Chin) into the US. After Lily suffered a miscarriage and was unable to have children, the couple adopted 6-yearold Vincent from China.

Also present at the group meeting was Zia, a former student activist from Princeton University who had quit medical school and traveled to Detroit to "learn what it meant to be an American in America's heartland". Having worked at a Chrysler stamping plant, Zia was out of a job "along with some 300,000 other autoworkers" by the end of the 1970s.

All three, who were behind an event called the Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance and Rededication, were the co-founders of the American Citizens for Justice, or ACJ, in 1983. The first explicitly pan-Asian grassroots community advocacy effort with a national scope, the group set as its goal a federal civil rights investigation into Chin's slaying, after Judge Kaufman refused to consider resentencing.

But one crucial question remained: were Asian Americans eligible for civil rights protection? The answer from the well-respected constitutional law expert Robert A. Sedler was a definite "No". The Civil Rights Law Act, passed in 1964 to prohibit "discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin", applied only to African Americans, the professor told Liza Chan, his student from Wayne State University Law School who led the group's legal effort, supported by other young Asian-American attorneys that included Shimoura and Hwang.

Fresh from university, Chan, a Hong Kong resident who was still in the country on a visa, decided to "push that proverbial envelope", to use the words from her 2017 autobiography My Impossible Life.

One of the witnesses Chan interviewed was Racine Colwell, a dancer from the club where the brawl took place. Colwell had previously told the press that Ebens yelled to Chin: "It's because of you mother******* that we're out of work". It was something Colwell "steadfastly maintained that… she heard" when Chan talked to her both at the club and at her home.

That discovery confirmed the long-held belief among Asian Americans that Chin was a victim of racial hatred. The fact that Ebens referred directly to the Japanese auto industry before he started his hunt to "get the Chinese" drove home another point.

"Your ethnic background doesn't protect you-you are Asian, you are yellow, you are a target," Shimoura said.

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