Curtis Chin is a Motown-born, New York-bred, Los Angeles-based writer, producer and community activist. He’s proud to have co-founded the Asian American Writers Workshop and Asian Pacific Americans for Progress and for writing and producing the documentary looking back at the June 19, 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, Vincent Who? He’s less proud of having started the Young Republicans Club in high school. He’s currently working on a new website with a former ABC and HBO exec, widelantern.com, and developing a teen comedy with director Quentin Lee and producer Chris Lee. For the months of June and July, Vincent Who? will be available on-line for free by visiting the official website, Vincentwhomovie.com.
Childhood memories can be extremely selective. Why do we remember certain faces, places and sounds while forgetting others? And how do we organize these memories into convenient boxes that help us define who we are and how we perceive ourselves?
As an Asian American growing up in Detroit in the 70’s and 80’s, my life seemed to exist in two worlds, each with their own set of memories: school and work.
In school, where the majority of people were either black or white, my strongest memories are of being pulled out of class and being put in a remedial English class, even though my family spoke English at home and we had been in this country for several generations. At the same time, I was being placed in the advanced math classes even though I sucked at math. I sometimes think I became a writer as a big FU to these teachers.
Meanwhile, growing up at my family’s Chinese restaurant, the majority of people I saw were Asian. I remember roaming the streets of Chinatown with my cousins, searching for enough cans and bottles so we could go play Donkey Kong, excelling at mah jong, and attending the annual Lunar New Year festival and watching tinikling for hours, thinking it was Chinese.
When Vincent Chin was killed, these two distinct worlds collided.
Vincent was another Asian American in Detroit. Twenty-nine years ago on the night of June 19, 1982, he was out celebrating his upcoming wedding when two white autoworkers said, “it’s because of you motherf**ckers that we’re out of work.” After leaving the bar, the autoworkers drove through the city until they found Vincent sitting outside a McDonald’s. They took a baseball bat and bashed his head in, leaving their target in a coma. Vincent died four days later. The judge fined these two men $3,000 and neither ever served a single day in jail.
Vincent and I weren’t related, but it was a small community so word spread quickly. We were all shocked, sad and angered. Many in the community, who were expecting to go to Vincent’s wedding, were now going to his funeral instead. (Recently, my aunt told me that my uncle was actually in the wedding party.) This sent a chill throughout the community. There was a palpable fear about having an Asian face. We became more tentative around our customers and my parents now imposed a curfew on us. Meanwhile, in school, a couple of the teachers accidentally started calling me Vincent. The other students would ask if we were related or how I felt. I soon realized that these two worlds and identities, which I had managed to see as separate, were very much connected and co-dependent.
Ultimately, this helped shape my identity and my strong sense of community. When people say Asian Americans are not political, I say that’s not the experience I have. Perhaps having these early memories of direct action and heroic role models instilled in me this notion of always standing up and fighting for equal rights. For that I am forever thankful, even as it came at a horrible cost. (The other thing that spurred me was AIDS in the LGBT community when I moved to NYC in the 90’s.)
Flash forward 25 years later and I’m living in Los Angeles, writing for television and doing politics on the side, mainly by volunteering with Asian Pacific Americans for Progress (APAP), a national network of progressive Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and allies. Once again, my two worlds would collide. This time, it was my passions for film/television and community activism.
As the 25th anniversary of Vincent’s death approached and it seemed like Vincent’s memory had been largely forgotten, APAP embarked on a mission to keep Vincent’s name and memory alive, but more importantly, to ask how far Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have come since then. With the initial leadership of people like Vivian Hao, Preeti Kulkarni and Michael Lee and my husband, Jeff Kim, and the support of our national network of activists, we decided to organize a series of townhalls and to produce a new documentary from these events.
At forums held around the country, APAP and its local partners assembled the top civil rights leaders in our community to discuss Vincent Chin and to connect the murder to such important incidents as the murders of Joseph Ileto and Cha Vang, the L.A. riots, Japanese Internment and 9/11. We tried to connect different generations of activists in a shared space. From there, we assembled a film crew to produce the documentary, many of whom volunteered their time or worked at lower rates, to help us finish Vincent Who?
After completing a final version of the film, I have now traveled to more than 200 colleges, community centers and corporations in nearly 40 states to screen and engage participant’s in a wide-ranging discussion about the AAPI community. Every time I think I am done touring and ready to move on to my next writing project, another invitation comes along and I am packing my bags.
At each venue, I start off by asking people about their first memory of Vincent Chin. As with our initial forums in 2007, most people have not heard of Vincent Chin. But sometimes there’s a cool story behind a memory, like in Wisconsin where a friend of Vincent’s spoke about his personal memories of Vincent’s energy or in cities like Denver or Chicago where community organizers recounted their local organizing efforts on behalf of the family, back in the day. Or the student who grew up in Hong Kong whose parents shared the tragic story with him, long before any of them knew they would even be moving to America.
By creating a collective memory and identifying the gaps in our own understanding of our history, I hope we can strengthen our sense of identity and chart a new way forward for the community. As we say in the film, “just keep telling the story.”
(Read Curtis’ previous guest blog here)