Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

Q&A with Frank Wu

Monday, June 19th 2017

This week marks the 35th anniversary of Vincent Chin’s tragic beating and subsequent death. Asian Americans Advancing Justice commemorates this anniversary by sharing conversations with people who were involved with or were affected by Vincent Chin’s case.

Today’s conversation is with Frank H. Wu, a Distinguished Professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law and Chair of the Committee of 100. He is writing a book about the Vincent Chin case.


What does the Vincent Chin case mean to you?

I’m from Detroit. I grew up there. I was a teenager when Vincent Chin was killed. I didn't know him, I didn't know his family, but I know the city, I know the era. I grew up not more than a dozen miles from where it happened. I feel that this changed my life. This case explained everything. When I was a kid I was no different than other kids; I yearned to be normal, I wanted to be accepted. But, when you’re the only “Oriental” family around the block -- that term was still used then connoting exotic that were more appropriate for rugs than people -- you knew you were different. You’re subject to the daily humiliation of knowing you do not fit in.

As when you're a kid, you sort of figure that it’s your fault or your parents’ fault. There's something wrong and you don't realize that it's not your parents to blame, it's not you. Despite the American dream and its power and ideals that we have, there's just bigotry.

When the Chin case occurred, it all came together. I realized, whoa, geez you know, I'm not imagining this, I'm not making this up, it’s not in my head, it's not my parents' fault, it's not me. There’s something going on here! And it’s wrong. And I wasn't the only one who realized that.

The death of a man as a birth of a movement. My parents wanted me to study hard, work hard, try to fit in. The last thing they would have wanted was for me to march and protest and write letters to the editor. But after the Vincent Chin case, that's what made me want to do it. We all saw -- here at last -- this was explained: the model minority myth, the perpetual foreigner syndrome, being punished for virtues not vices.

What was 1980s Detroit like?

It’s no accident the Vincent Chin case happened in Detroit when it did. I grew up there because my dad worked at Ford Motor Company -- and it's all about cars. You have to understand the recession, which was worse that the recession we had just gone through because it was not [affecting] the whole world. The "Land of the Rising Sun" was doing fantastically well. It wasn't just America, it was the rust belt and [places] like Detroit were hit even worse than most places. There was this sense of “rise of the east,” “decline of the west,” it's an “economic pearl harbor,” it's a trade war -- people used all those terms then. Detroit was one of the hardest places in that time period to have an Asian face because people looked at you and said, "which side are you on?"

The 1980s was a time when there were virtually no images of Asians or Asian Americans on television or in the movies unless you were breaking cinder blocks with your head. And so Bruce Lee, who was a heroic, masculine figure, became a caricature instantly. Bruce Lee did something no one else did: he wrote, produced, and directed his show -- that's to be applauded. Yet, after the Sunday matinee Bruce Lee show on TV, the next day you’d go to school, and if you were Asian American, everyone would challenge you to kung fu fight.

This case is not over; justice was not actually ever done. The themes that the case raises, they are all still with us. All of the same ques they recur. There’s still a sense of resentment, a sense of "whose side are you on?” Are you really loyal to China? How come Asians are winning all the scholarships to top colleges, we're the real Americans and so-on. Buy American is back with a vengeance.

What are lessons to learn from the Vincent Chin case? Are there any specific lessons that you think are especially relevant now, at this particular moment in time?

The most important lesson is to stand up and speak out. Before the Vincent Chin case, people had not seen Asian Americans angry, marching, giving speeches, holding rallies, or forming nonprofit organizations. No other issue involving a single, individual Asian American has really resonated and captured the attention of Asian Americans not just in Detroit but around the nation. This represents a few big themes.

One, the model minority myth. You Asians are doing well while we, real Americans, are not. That's what motivates them. We are way too successful and somehow to blame when others feel the pinch of economic anxiety.

The second theme is the perpetual foreigner. One of the defense lawyers made the argument that Chin was sort of white like his attackers. They think that excuses things. It doesn't. He was like his attackers except for the color of his skin, the texture of hair, and shape of eyes. So the irony here is they killed someone who was like them! He felt the same economic reality like them, the same recession. He was a blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth, working class kind of guy just like them.

The last theme that the Chin case captures is “you all look alike” -- the case of mistaken identity. This is a case of mistaken identity twice over. Chinese mistaken for Japanese, American mistaken for a foreigner. It shows the futility of what we were always told: you must assimilate. Chin did assimilate! This is someone who speaks fluent English, this is someone who hangs out at strip clubs for his bachelor's party! How much more red-blooded, American male can you be? And yet even that doesn't immunize, doesn't protect him. At end of day, he’s just a little m---f--.

This case must be remembered. For many Americans, even for many Asian immigrants, when you say the name Vincent Chin, they have no idea who this is. So it's so important to commemorate not just his death, but his life. Everything that he stood for. He didn’t set out to be a martyr, he was just an ordinary guy. And that's what makes the case so powerful -- that he was a guy. Just like you or I or anyone else in our family could just be a guy and have this happen.



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