It’s been nearly 40 years since the tragic death of Chinese American Vincent Chin put Detroit in the national headlines. At the time, Detroit had a thriving Chinatown district near Cass Avenue, but Detroit’s Asian American community was hit hard after hearing the news of Chin’s murder.
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While Detroit’s Chinatown eventually closed in 1996, more new activity will be seen there this week. Chinese American artist Anthony Lee has been commissioned by the American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) to paint a Vincent Chin mural commemorating the 40th anniversary of his death. The mural will be on display at the corner of Peterboro Street and Cass Avenue.
One Detroit’s Senior Producer Bill Kubota met up with Lee in his studio space to talk about the meaning behind his new Vincent Chin mural and the significance of its placement in Detroit’s former Chinatown. Plus, they discuss Lee’s other work around metro Detroit, including in numerous businesses like the Whistle Stop, and how he worked with legendary Detroit artist Gilda Snowden in his early years.
Then, Kubota heads over to a budding Asian American artist collective that’s forming on Detroit’s Southwest side. He talks with Shingo Brown, an artist and the curator of the Art Buddies collective, about the Asian American artistic community he’s working to form in Detroit.
Anthony Lee, Artist and Muralist: What I’m trying to do is build the layers. Right now, all these are under layers until all the food is really glistening and popping out and looking super juicy.
Bill Kubota, Senior Producer, One Detroit: Anthony Lee is finishing this piece of public art to be installed in what was Detroit’s Chinatown later this month.
Anthony Lee: When people even talk about Chinatown, a lot of people, especially Chinese people, kind of just like, what’s the point? Why even waste your time there? Like and I didn’t understand where that mentality came from until later on. I just realized there was a lot of trauma. And Vincent Chin, his case was one of the last straws that really added to that trauma. You know.
Bill Kubota: A tribute to Vincent Chin killed in 1982, a case of anti-Asian hate. 40 years later, a key piece of Asian-American history.
Anthony Lee: I’m an illustrator, signage painter, but I’m primarily a muralist. I like large-scale drawings- and getting things really big. But I also like working with businesses, local restaurants, cafes, nonprofits to kind of activate their spaces.
Bill Kubota: Lee’s work all around Metro Detroit, some with Asian themes, others not.
Anthony Lee: I spent like six years at the College of Creative Studies trying to find what was my thing. And my senior year senior thesis. They’re like, All right, what do you want to do? And I was like, I think I want a mural paint. And they’re they’re like, Great. Well, none of us teach that. So good luck. But it was cool. I had a professor named Gilda Snowden, and she’s a really famous artist in the Cass Corridor.
She just said, just keep making art until something happens. And then she knew that I was looking for something. Someone had given her a mural commissioned for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Detroit, and she passed it on to me. But she said, I like how we do things in Detroit, though, like if someone passing you a gig, you had to see it through.
Will you see it through? And I was nervous cause I had never painted large scale anything before. Growing up in Detroit area, there wasn’t a lot of Asian American artists. You know, I’ve always wanted to be a part of like a group or like not just a group, but just like, have, like a community that we could like support and reach out to each other kind of thing, just like the original cast to artists. And I was wondering why that was on there.
Bill Kubota: That Cass corridor or group goes back five or six decades. Now how about an Asian-American artist collaborative? Lee’s got some plans. Well, at a studio in southwest Detroit, some are starting to get together.
Shingo Brown, Curator and Artist, Art Buddies: I’m always trying to find other dope Asian artists anywhere.
Bill Kubota: Art curator Shingo Brown is running what he calls art buddies. They’re creators, all AAPIs.
Shingo Brown: For art buddies, its been an evolution right now. I invite an X amount of artists. It’s grown to about 25 artists. They all have the same size frame. There’s no theme. They come in and start and finish a piece within 2 hours.
Shingo Brown: Throughout the past couple of years, I’ve been able to speak with these people who are not sure. All they really need is some type of confirmation that they are objectively, technically skilled as an artist. They just need someone to be like, that’s really good. You should make more.
Bill Kubota: Art by Asian-Americans. So then, Asian-American art in the spotlight soon. Anthony Lee’s Vincent Chin tribute, part of the 40th-anniversary program in memory of Chin’s death.
Anthony Lee: In Chinese culture, especially Cantonese culture, which he was in. I am, whether you’re Buddhist or not, you’re growing up showing respect to your ancestors by doing these ancestor offerings. And when you do that, you take three incense, you put it in this little pot, and then you put two little offerings of gestures of love, you know.
Bill Kubota: This painted offering, commissioned by the American Citizens for Justice, the group still fighting. They demanded justice for Vincent Chin all those years ago.
Anthony Lee: The system had failed him horribly. And we need to know why it failed, too, so that we can have the context to protect people in the future.
Want to Know More About “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”
“Who Killed Vincent Chin?” will air on Detroit Public Television at 10 p.m. ET on June 20. Plus, four days of local and national events commemorating the 40th anniversary of Vincent Chin’s death will take place June 16-19. Check out One Detroit’s AAPI News & Stories coverage here.
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