Grieving Vincent Chin, 39 Years Later
‘There are no words that can describe the abuse and erasure we have faced.’
On June 19, 2018, I stood at Vincent Chin’s grave. I read the words engraved on the headstone: “Forever in our hearts. Beloved Son. Vincent J. Chin. May 18, 1955–June 23, 1982.” It was an overcast day in Detroit, the dark clouds matching the solemn gray granite slab.
This day marked the 36th anniversary of when Ronald Ebens beat Chin to death with a baseball bat. I was in Detroit conducting research for a nonfiction book on his life that I had just sold to Norton Young Readers, the children’s book imprint of W.W. Norton & Co. I had hired a freelance photographer to accompany me on my trip to understand, and honor, the final days of his life.
Our first stop was Chin’s grave, so we could pay our respects.
During our moment of silence, the photographer’s phone rang. He immediately recognized the caller’s number. “It’s my mom,” he said.
The photographer working with me was Jarod Lew. His mom? Vikki Wong. Chin’s fiancé.
Earlier that year, another photographer had introduced me to Lew. His name was Corky Lee. He was known as the “unofficial Asian American photographer laureate,” whose photojournalism had captured some of the most iconic moments in the past 50 years of Asian American history: protests against the Vietnam War, calls for justice for Chin in the 1980s, and scenes of joy — a colorful celebration in 2014 of the direct descendants of Chinese immigrant railroad laborers reclaiming history at the Promontory Summit.
Lee praised Lew as a talented young photographer, adding that he was “related” to Chin.
When I called Lew, I learned exactly how he was related. “My mom was engaged to Vincent Chin,” he told me.
But Lew himself wasn’t even aware of his mother’s connection to Chin until 2012, the 30th anniversary of his wrongful death. On that day, his cousin had warned him not to mention “that guy” to his mother.
“What guy?” Lew said.
“You don’t know about Vincent Chin?” his cousin asked, shocked.
At the time, Lew was 25 years old. He googled “Vincent Chin,” and the first thing he saw was a local newspaper article from 1982 featuring the headline, “Slaying Ends Couple’s Dream,” with a photograph of Chin with his fiancé, Vikki Wong, who he immediately recognized as a younger version of his mother.
As I bowed my head in prayer at Chin’s modest grave marker — a flat tablet almost hidden by the overgrown grass — I could hear Lew talking to his mom on the phone. She was just checking in, wanting to know how his day was going and if he wanted to stop by the house to pick up any dinner leftovers to stock up in his refrigerator.
On that day, Wong had no idea Lew was with me at Chin’s grave. Lew, not wanting to trigger his mom, had simply told her he was spending the day doing a “freelance photography assignment.” It was difficult for Lew to talk to her about Chin. In fact, it took him four years to work up the courage to ask about her connection to Chin’s watershed moment in Asian American history. After all, she had been engaged to the man who was at the heart of the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American, The United States v. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz.
On June 19, 1982, Chin, 27, along with his friends Gary Koivu, Robert Siroskey, and Jimmy Choi, went to the Fancy Pants Club to celebrate his bachelor party. At the club, Ronald Ebens, 42, a foreman at Chrysler, and his stepson, Michael Nitz, 23, a recently laid-off autoworker, got into a fight with Chin. Ebens and Nitz were white. Chin was Chinese American. According to Racine Colwell, a 24-year-old professional dancer at the club, Ebens had allegedly shouted, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work.”
The men were kicked out of the club. The fight continued in the parking lot, leading to another altercation at a nearby McDonald’s down the street, where Ebens beat Chin with a baseball bat. According to witnesses and court testimony, Chin’s last words were, “It’s not fair.”
Chin remained in a coma for four days at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. His mother and his fiancé never left his side. On June 23, 1982, at 9:50 p.m., Chin died. On June 29, one day after their wedding had been scheduled, Chin’s bride-to-be and guests attended his funeral instead.
Chin’s death took place during the height of anti-Japanese sentiment in the American auto industry in the 1980s due to increased competition from Japanese import cars and mass layoffs across the country, especially in Michigan, home to the Big Three — Ford, Chrysler, and GM.
Ebens and Nitz pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Because Detroit’s court system was so overburdened, the prosecutor’s office did not have anyone available to attend the hearing, which was not unusual at the time. Judge Charles Kaufman sentenced both men to a fine of $3,000 plus court costs and three years probation each. Given the limited evidence he had been presented, the judge ruled that Ebens and Nitz “were not the kind of people you send to prison because neither had been in trouble with the law before and because of their stable family and work backgrounds.”
“I just don’t think putting them in prison would do any good for them or society,” Kaufman declared. “You don’t make the punishment fit the crime. You make the punishment fit the criminal.”
This shockingly lenient sentence angered Chin’s 62-year-old mother, Lily Chin, and the Asian American community. (Chin’s father had passed away in 1981 from kidney disease.)
Their anger led to activism as a grassroots organization called American Citizens for Justice (ACJ), established by Helen Zia, Kin Yee, Roland Hwang, James Shimoura, and others, joined forces with Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the country to fight for Chin’s justice. Churches, synagogues, Black activist organizations, and other diverse advocacy groups also showed support and solidarity for the cause. Many prominent politicians, including U.S. Reps. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Norman Mineta (D-California) and then-presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson, condemned the killing.
“The Asian American experience cannot be expressed with words sometimes. We cannot always speak out because there are no words that can describe the abuse and erasure we have faced.” — Jarod Lew
On May 9, 1983, the ACJ held a protest rally in Detroit. It’s estimated that between 500 to 1,000 Asian American and Pacific Islanders showed up with picket signs to demand justice for Chin. This inspired similar protests across the country.
As a result, these national protests led to an investigation by the Department of Justice and the FBI. In November 1983, a federal grand jury indicted Ebens and Nitz on two counts of conspiracy and interfering with Chin’s civil right to be in a place of public accommodation on account of his race.
On June 5, 1984, there was one question at the heart of The United States v. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz: Was this a racially motivated killing, or was this a drunken brawl gone tragically, fatally wrong? Ebens and Nitz insisted they were not racist and that this was a case of too much alcohol and toxic masculinity gone awry.
But the first trial resulted in a guilty conviction for Ebens violating Chin’s right to be in a place of public accommodation on account of his race. Nitz was cleared of both charges. Ebens was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Ebens, however, never spent a day in jail because that 1984 conviction was appealed due to allegations of witness coaching in the first trial. A second trial was held in April 1987, this time in Cincinnati, Ohio. On May 1, 1987, a jury overturned Ebens’ guilty conviction. The final verdict? Not guilty.
“This controversy just goes on, and I don’t want to say any more about it,” a heartbroken Wong said in one of her last interviews in 1983. “It still hurts me very much.”
Since then, Wong has not spoken publicly about the death of her fiancé.
Wong moved on with her life, eventually getting married and having two sons — the eldest being Lew.
In 2018, I wrote to Wong, asking if she would speak on the record about Chin for my book. For a brief moment, she considered talking to me. But she ultimately declined because the past brought back too much pain and anger.
“She was about to give an interview but decided not to,” Lew told me. “I asked her why, and her response was, ‘Jarod, I really would like to do this for you, but I really had a hard time sleeping last night and have so much anxiety that I don’t think I can do this. I’m sorry.’”
“It still hurts me very much.” — Vikki Wong
Lew paused. “It was the first time I’ve ever heard this sort of tone come from my mom,” he said. “The cheerful voice that my mom has was gone in that response to me. I felt this pain in her voice that was so searing that I haven’t been able to talk to her about it since. This made me confront how the Asian American experience cannot be expressed with words sometimes. We cannot always speak out because there are no words that can describe the abuse and erasure we have faced.”
On March 16, 2021, a white 21-year-old man named Robert Aaron Long shot and killed eight people at three spas in Atlanta, Georgia. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent. Long denied these killings were racially motivated. He told authorities that he was having “a really bad day” and these shootings were the result of his “sex addiction.”
But not everyone was convinced. Especially those in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. As of May 2021, Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition that tracks incidents of anti-Asian racism, reported that more than 6,300 incidents of anti-Asian racism had happened since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. In addition, sexism and misogyny directed at people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent (myself included as a Korean American woman) are often rooted in racism.
On March 19, 2021, the names of all eight victims were finally released: Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez. Paul Andre Michels. Xiaojie Tan. Daoyou Feng. Hyun Jung Grant. Suncha Kim. Soon Chung Park. Yong Ae Yue. Another man, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, was wounded but survived.
To date, Long has been charged with eight counts of murder and one aggravated assault charge. As I write this, authorities are still investigating whether the killings were also hate crimes. In the meantime, viral hashtags such as #StopAAPIHate and #StopAsianHate flooded social media. Activists, experts, and politicians testified in late March to a House Judiciary subcommittee about the link between anti-Asian political rhetoric and the spike in anti-Asian racism and violence during the Covid-19 pandemic.
On April 22, 2021, the Senate passed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act by a vote of 94–1 to address the rise in ant-Asian hate crimes and violence. Pending House consideration, it is one step closer to President Joe Biden signing the bill into law.
And then Chin’s name resurfaced. Older generations remembered bits and pieces of his story. The younger generation had never heard his name before and angrily demanded why.
Amid this furor, I called Lew to ask if his mom had changed her mind. Would she talk to me now that Chin’s name was no longer hiding in the wings but out in the spotlight?
She said no.
I flashed back to that day almost three years ago when Wong had coincidentally called her son just to check in on him when we were standing at her fiancé’s grave for a moment of silence. I remembered Lew telling me how his mother’s “searing pain” still hurt and angered her as powerfully today as it did almost 40 years ago. And I mourned Corky Lee, the revered Chinese American photographer who had connected Lew and I together, who died at 73 of Covid-19 on January 27, 2021.
And in that moment, I realized Wong’s silence spoke volumes.
Because it is now our turn. We must speak out for Vikki Wong and Vincent Chin, not just to preserve their story but to make sure history stops repeating itself.