June 2022 marks the 40th anniversary of Vincent Chin’s murder, a hate crime that sparked the modern Asian American civil rights movement still seen today, and Detroit was its epicenter. It was June 19, 1982, when Chinese American Detroiter Vincent Chin was brutally beaten to death with a baseball bat outside of a nightclub in Highland Park.
The tragedy struck at a time when Detroit automakers were struggling economically due to the rise in sales of Japanese-imported cars, and was fueled by a rise in anti-Asian sentiment. While the two white men involved in Vincent Chin’s murder were auto workers, though ultimately they served no prison time. All this culminated in a wave of new Asian American civil rights groups across the country, demanding justice for Chin and equality for the Asian American population.
At that time, New York filmmakers Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña set out to tell the story of Vincent Chin’s murder and what unfolded after with Detroit Public TV’s Juanita Anderson, but making a documentary of that scope at a local PBS station was a gargantuan challenge. In 1988, the film was nominated for an Academy Award and, in 2021 it was inducted into the National Library of Congress’ Film Registry.
Nearly four decades after the film premiered, the filmmakers and Anderson come together once again with Detroit-area filmmaker Chien-An Yuan to talk about the making of the “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” documentary, the Asian American civil rights movement they covered in real-time, and the significance the film still holds nearly 40-years later.
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.
Ronald Ebens: Detroit— It’s got the reputation: murder capital of the world. And I didn’t even do it on purpose. You know, I didn’t walk up and shoot somebody.
Juanita Anderson, Executive Producer, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”: The murder happened in 1982, in June. It was big news in the city of Detroit. Particularly in light of the fact that Detroit was in a major recession at that time. The Japanese auto industry, particularly, was blamed for Detroit’s woes.
Shelley Czeizler, Reporter: The American auto industry and its army have targeted Japan as a major source of its problems.
Carl Levin, Former US Senator: We are being shot at, and shot up, by the Japanese, who have the most protectionist economy in the world. But some of those who hold up the specter of a trade war ignore is that we are already in the middle of such a war, but only the Japanese are shooting.
Juanita Anderson: Chrysler ultimately took a bailout during that period. So the auto industry itself, and Detroit economically, because so many people relied on the auto industry, was really in a bad time.
Shelley Czeizler: But many of the verbal bullets aimed at the Japanese government and carmakers have strayed off course and are hitting home instead.
Juanita Anderson: Vincent Chin’s death attracted a lot of press attention, particularly in light of the fact that he was Asian-American, and there were auto workers who were implicated in his killing.
Renee Tajima-Peña, Filmmaker, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”: I remember getting this mailing in snail mail. This young man named Vincent Chin had been, you know, beaten to death with a baseball bat by two autoworkers, Ron Ebens and Mike Nitz.
And, at this time, they had pleaded guilty in state court to manslaughter and they would serve no time in jail. And the local Asian-American community, particularly the Chinese-American community, was really up in arms. So they wanted people all over the country in different Asian-American communities to know about it
WXYZ-Detroit, May 9, 1983: The 11:30 rally began with a list of speakers nearly a page long waiting to add their personal support, and that of many organizations, to the cause of justice for Vincent Chin.
Speaker at May 9th Rally: We ask, that, all of you who have been so supportive on this struggle for justice…
Juanita Anderson: It really became clear that this was much bigger than a local story. I just felt that this was a national story that deserved to be developed.
Helen Zia, American Citizens for Justice: I think anybody who takes the time to go over the facts of this case and to read what people who are witnesses there… Anybody who takes the time to look at that, I think, can only conclude that there was racial motivation in this killing.
Juanita Anderson: As the attorney general’s office began to investigate, we realized that there was the potential of it being the first civil rights case involving Asian-Americans, which made it an even bigger national story.
Ronald Ebens: Nitz and Ebens were both charged with killing Vincent Chin. I spoke with some of his neighbors, asked for reaction.
Debbie Moore, Ebens’ Neighbor: They’re really good people and it could happen to anybody, you know.
Juanita Anderson: As there was this tremendous surge in news coverage, particularly in Detroit, but also nationally, there was very little effort to get the perspectives of the Asian-American community. Outside of press conferences or the protests that were covered.
Lily Chin: My father warned me, life in America is going to be hard. But you’re marrying a Chinese American, so you have to go with him.
Juanita Anderson: Nobody really attempted to talk to members of the Asian-American community or Vincent Chin’s family at all.
Lily Chin: My husband served with the U.S. Army in China. That was World War II. Then he brought me here.
Renee Tajima-Peña: So the Vincent Chen film was an idea until Detroit Public TV got involved. Bob Larson was the president of Detroit Public TV. Juanita shopped the idea to Bob, he wanted to, you know, take it on.
They were local in Detroit, they knew all about the case and they said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” You know, it was kind of like a dream come true.
Juanita Anderson: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting had a growing track record, I should say, of funding Black and Brown and Indigenous people for cultural affairs programs. But something that was a contemporary, what they considered a public affairs social issue, they had not really funded people of color and certainly not women.
So, what happened was our proposal was put aside to see if they could find us a mentor in a new minority mentorship program that they were developing.
Now, mind you, one of us had a degree in journalism from the University of Michigan. A second person had attended Harvard. A third had attended Columbia. All of us had done work before that had made it to national television in one way, shape or form. So, you know, sort of peculiar to us that our credentials were being questioned.
Christine Choy, Filmmaker, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”: So CPB assigned a story consultant, white boy from WGBH Boston, to supervise me. To quote “the objectivity.” Can you believe this?
Renee Tajima-Peña: And he was supposed to be kind of like our overseer. And Bob and Juanita said, “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of him. You guys just make the film.”
They just believe that, you know, if you have a vision for a film, a filmmaker has to be free to pursue that vision.
So we were a very small crew. There was Chris and I, Nancy Tong our associate producer. And, you know, a cameraperson, sometimes an assistant camera, but generally just a sound person, as well. And we just all worked as one unit. Nancy and I did all of the interviews.
Lily Chin: Vincent usually gets off work at nine, but that day he came back at 7 o’clock. I was doing the dishes and I asked him, “Why are you back so early?” He told me he might go out to a bar or club. I said, “Vincent, don’t stay out too late, you’re getting married. You shouldn’t go to these places anymore!” He told me, “OK mom, this is the last time.” I said, “Don’t say last time, it’s bad luck!”
Witness: Next thing I know while the other girls are dancing, we hear, “boom, boom, boom, boom,” you know. And we run to the stage to see what’s happening, and she’s coming off the stage. You know, we go, “What’s up,” and we look out and I see guys fighting out there in the car.
Ronald Ebens: What if we’d had an accident prior to it? What if we’d went to the ball game? And there were 10,000 what-ifs I’ve asked myself. And it’s just like this was preordained to be, I guess. It just, could just happen.
Juanita Anderson: One of the things about a documentary in general, and I think successful documentaries, is that the producers and directors have to build trust. Whoever is doing the interviewing has to build in a sense of trust and maintain that trust with their subject, whether they’re protagonists, antagonists, or what.
Gary Koivu, Friend of Vincent Chin: I was talking to Jimmy on my left, Vince, who was on my right…
Juanita Anderson: And Renee was really tremendous at doing that.
Gary Koivu: And that’s when I turned and saw who Vincent was talking to, the man I later found out was Ronald Ebens. And I put my hand on Vincent’s arm, to kind of calm him down.
Racine Colwell, Dancer: I came around the bar, and all I saw was that Mr. Ebens was yelling at Vincent Chin. And the next thing you know, Vince had got up, walked around and hit Mr. Ebens.
Ronald Ebens: And he comes around and sucker-punched me. And that was the start of it all, right there.
Juanita Anderson: She had a sense of integrity. She would ask the hard questions, but very calmly. I mean, it’s part of the demeanor. You’re eliciting these stories, but one of the techniques that she used that became very powerful was really, simply, listening. So you ask a question.
Juanita Ebens, Ronald Ebens’ Wife: Well, I often wondered who the A.C.J. was, because every time a different program came on, a different month of the year came up, there was a different president.
Juanita Anderson: It gets answered, and you wait, and see if there’s more. And sure enough, there’s more.
Juanita Ebens: Parading Mrs. Chin around the country, or whatever.
Ronald Ebens I personally think that a lot of them used it for their own vehicle just to get ahead. Secondly, they used it to, you know, promote the Asian-American and their alleged plight in this country, which I am not aware of, that they have a plight.
Cause I know very few Asians, very few. And the ones that I do know have always been really nice people. In fact, my daughter helped, we used to help an Asian kid at school.
Renee Tajima-Peña: Getting him on camera was so important. It was like, if you’re a journalist or a filmmaker, you know, you want to talk to people who are directly involved. But in this kind of case, I mean, Ron Ebens was like at the center of the story. Or one of the people at the center of the story. So I wanted to talk to him.
Ronald Ebens: And to be quite honest, I expected to go to jail. I pleaded guilty to manslaughter on that. I did just like anybody else, I went to take my licks. Because I thought, sure, I would go to jail.
Witness: And, you know, one guy, an older guy was checking a young guy’s head, you know, because blood was running down his face. And I went over to see if they need any help. They said they needed some help, and they was gonna offer me $20 to catch these Chinese guys that they got into it with. So, we got into their car.
Renee Tajima-Peña: Pretty quickly I thought it would be sort of like a Rashomon kind of story. It’s this idea that in Rashomon there was a rape in the forest and you have all these witnesses, but they all interpret what they saw in a different way.
And I thought in a hate crime, particularly in this case, if you listened to the different witnesses, it was very similar. They might have been in The Fancy Pants, or they might have been with Ron and Mike as they looked for Vincent. Or could have been with Vincent as he, you know, left The Fancy Pants.
People might have been witnesses at the McDonald’s when Vincent was being beaten to death by Ron and Mike. People had a different interpretation of what was going on inside the heads of Ron, and Mike, and Vincent, and specifically: Was it an act of racial animus? Was it a hate crime?
Ronald Ebens I never, I never even got a chance to stand up. Never seen it coming. And that’s the way the whole thing started.
Michael Gardenhire, Highland Park Police Officer: I identified myself as a police officer. I showed them a badge and an ID card. I had my weapon drawn. I asked him to drop the baseball bat.
Morris Cotton, Highland Park Police Officer: He hesitated, at which time he eventually dropped the baseball bat. But at that particular time, the damage had been done.
Gerald Thompson, Emergency Medical Technician: Well we pulled up, we found that it was an oriental gentleman. His skull was obviously fractured, there was brains laying on the street. And Chin was obviously in a fatal condition. He wasn’t dead yet; semi-conscious. But I know from my experience of being on the street for so long, the man was a goner.
Christine Choy: The structure of “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” is definitely nonlinear. It is, I would say, it is rather experimental.
I always say almost like experimental music. Like, Laurie Anderson, you know, like avant-garde. Why? You play a note. Then you play the same note, second time. Then you play the same note. Okay. It’s that kind of structure. Every time is adding new information after you’re repeating the old information.
Speaker 14: To change your image of Asian people, our image of passiveness. Able to sit, just do nothing. To accept whatever is coming to us. We decide it’s a time to stand up for our rights.
Christine Choy: I don’t think there is such a thing called objectivity. Journalism stress objectivity. But, emotion is not objective. There is subjective. What are the emotions? Sadness, happiness, you know, despair, terrified.
Film is composed of that emotion. Once you able to reach the emotion of a spectator, then logic would come through. It doesn’t go other way, not the logic first. Once you have logic, there is no emotion and it would not be very successful.
What I learned about Vincent Chin is every time I screened the film, I never seen anyone stood up or leaving the room. Because every single minute is emotional.
Unknown Speaker: It seems Mrs. Chin is having some difficulty speaking. I think what she had said at the beginning was. The court failed the first time. It seemed like the second time the court fails again to speak. Maybe we will field questions.
Renee Tajima-Peña: I would hope people use that footage as a historic document, and young filmmakers will take it and create something new. Because things have changed. History has changed.
I mean, I think that we can’t look at the Vincent Chin case through the same lens as the 1980s. We have to look at it through 2022 or, you know, in ten years in 2030. Like how things have changed.
Lily Chin: Please, I want everybody tell the government to not to drop this case. I want justice for Vincent.
Christine Choy: Wen Ho Lee case, was accused as a spy, and I made a short film about him. And I went to interview his lawyer. He thanked me, he said, “Because of your film, I became a criminal lawyer.” Yeah, that’s really satisfying to hear, you know, that good things actually come out of it.
Interviewer: Do you think this trial would have occurred had not your group, and other Asian Americans, gotten involved and brought pressure here and around the country?
Helen Zia: I don’t think any civil rights trial occurs unless there’s pressure.
Juanita Anderson: All of us, people of color, there are still issues with racial profiling. There are still issues of scapegoating. There are issues clearly of the justice system. And I think that we have a responsibility to each other. To know each other’s history.
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