ASIAN VOICES

‘Who Killed Vincent Chin?’ And How Media Depictions Of Asians Have Changed (Or Not)

Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña directed the Oscar-nominated 1989 film about Chin's murder, a turning point for Asian American civil rights activism.

On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin was 27 years old and celebrating his upcoming wedding in Detroit when he was brutally beaten by two white autoworkers. Angry about the decline of the U.S. auto industry and the rise in outsourcing and economic deregulation, the two men mistook Chin, who was Chinese American, as Japanese. Days later, Chin died from his injuries.

It was one of the most high-profile cases of anti-Asian violence in American history — until this week, when a white gunman in Georgia killed eight people during a shooting spree, including six women of Asian descent.

Both incidents are part of a deep history of racism against Asian Americans that began more than a century before Chin’s murder and continues today, with an alarming surge in anti-Asian racism catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After Chin’s murder, Asian American filmmakers Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña set out to document his story and its aftermath — particularly how it marked a turning point for Asian American civil rights and galvanized Asian Americans to work collectively to seek justice. Nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1989, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” became a landmark piece of Asian American cinema and is frequently screened in classrooms for students to understand Asian American history.

A relative, left, helps Lily Chin (center) leave Detroit's City-County Building after two white autoworkers beat her son, Vin
A relative, left, helps Lily Chin (center) leave Detroit's City-County Building after two white autoworkers beat her son, Vincent Chin, to death. Chin's death galvanized Asian Americans across the country, and the case and its aftermath were depicted in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" by filmmakers Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña.

Today, Choy and Tajima-Peña see instant parallels between past and present, from law enforcement officials who are still reluctant to classify racist incidents as hate crimes or thoroughly address cases of white supremacist violence to the way that Asian Americans are still rendered invisible. But they also believe there have been some clear, concrete changes. 

Choy noted that both incidents are grim reminders that Asian Americans are often painted as a nameless, faceless mass — a trope reinforced in history textbooks and pop culture images that have marginalized Asian Americans.

“Vincent Chin was mistaken as Japanese. We easily could be interchangeable,” Choy said in an interview. “For the gunman to kill these Asian women, I don’t think he had a clue who these people are.”

Choy, a pioneer in Asian American independent cinema and a film professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, said that until she joined the faculty in 1990, “there was no course in dealing with images of Asian Americans, period.”

“There is such a lack of knowledge about Asians and Asian Americans because we’ve been lumped together. Even though America engaged in long periods of war with Vietnam, you think any of America understood a thing about Vietnamese culture? Hell no!” Choy said, noting that major events like Japanese American incarceration during World War II and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which established decades of immigration restrictions against Asian Americans, usually get just “one sentence” in history textbooks. “There was never really a thorough analysis of the violence against Asians.”

Tajima-Peña, a veteran documentarian who was the lead producer and show-runner on last year’s landmark PBS docuseries “Asian Americans,” said it’s vital to frame Chin’s murder and the subsequent activism of Asian Americans as a movement toward justice. In the years following the documentary’s release, she often discovered that this point was lost in conversations about Chin’s legacy.

“I was really disturbed by the degree to which the Vincent Chin case was sort of trotted out as this example of Asian American grievance — like, ‘Yes, we’re victimized, too,’” she said. “There’s a big, big difference. I think grievance is: ‘We’re Asian. People are attacking us.’ And we have this sense of a kind of ethnocentrism to defend ourselves. But justice is something more meaningful and something much larger than that. Justice is the way to move forward. To me, grievance is the way to move backward.”

Director Renee Tajima-Pena.
Director Renee Tajima-Pena.

Some of that sense of grievance still exists, Tajima-Peña said, pointing to how, right now, some Asian Americans have chosen to focus on the fact that some of the suspects in recent incidents of anti-Asian racism were other people of color.

But she feels energized by the current groundswell of Asian Americans, from grassroots organizers to storytellers, who are doing the work of framing anti-Asian racism as a product of white supremacy while trying to root out anti-Blackness in their communities, talking about the need for alternatives to policing in communities of color and placing Asian Americans in an intersectional movement with other communities of color.

There’s a history of solidarity between Black and Asian Americans, from the civil rights movement and student protests of the 1960s all the way to the present, when many Asian Americans marched in Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

I think grievance is: ‘We’re Asian. People are attacking us.’ And we have this sense of a kind of ethnocentrism to defend ourselves. But justice is something more meaningful and something much larger than that. Justice is the way to move forward. Renee Tajima-Peña, filmmaker

More broadly, Choy feels Asian Americans are generally more willing to engage with politics than in previous generations. Born in China and having lived in South Korea and Hong Kong before immigrating the U.S. in 1970, Choy said immigrants of her generation were often reluctant to get involved in politics because of the histories of political corruption and persecution in their countries of origin and their need to prioritize their survival as immigrants.

But today, she said, more Asian Americans are defying and reframing stereotypes, and they are more aware of the history of and need for solidarity across different communities of color to combat systemic racism and white supremacy.

“I think that really, qualitatively, is different than when I first arrived in this country,” she said.

Director Christine Choy at the Film Society Of Lincoln Center in 2015. 
Director Christine Choy at the Film Society Of Lincoln Center in 2015. 

Tajima-Peña said that the kinds of narratives about Asian Americans, such as those that pit communities of color against each other, are often framed by white gatekeepers. “Toni Morrison talks about how the master narrative is not written by us. And so in that master narrative, there’s this focus on Asian-Black conflict, and not Asian-Black solidarity,” she said.

That, too, is changing, because more than ever before, Asian Americans are telling our own stories and shaping our own narratives. 

“As soon as Captain [Jay] Baker from Cherokee County said, ’Well, it was sex addiction, and he was just having a bad day,’ and they were discounting the racial motivations, Asian Americans called bullshit,” she said. “And I think years ago, that would not have happened. I think the Asian American voices would have been drowned out, and I think also, the Asian American community, we kind of would have had second thoughts [about speaking out].”

Choy recalled beginning her career at a time when the gatekeepers in media were almost all white men, “all with a suit and tie, Burberry trench coat,” she said. “I remember, my first job was at ABC, and I had to spend money to buy outfits to go into the building. It was complete bullshit. And then you walk in. I mean, the only people I got along with were the people in the supply room because they were at the bottom of the ladder. Everybody else, they have nothing to say to me, and they’re not interested in my stories. They don’t give a damn.” 

She said that at the time, civil rights laws required TV networks “to do some programming [for] so-called minority populations. But all the people who are at the top of the programs are white, and they tell you what to do. So I quit, and I became an independent filmmaker,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to document our own history, rather than be documented by some other, you know, Burberry-coat wearing people.”