"Who Killed Vincent Chin?": PBS re-airs 80s documentary of an anti-Asian hate crime

PBS POV (and Independent Lens) sometimes repeat films a couple of year old, but on Monday June 20 (the official Juneteenth federal holiday) it aired the 1987 Oscar nominated documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?, by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña. The film had been digitally restored (it still seems to be in 4:3 aspect ratio). The film had been produced by Detroit Public Television and the Center for Asian American Media. Wikipedia also notes that there is a 2009 documentary about the same case (“Vincent Who?”).

(Caption: trailer for 'Who Killed Vincent Chin?'

The crime at hand is the murder of Vincent Jen Chin at a McDonalds in Highland Park, MI on June 19, 1982 (he died of his injuries four days later) after his attackers followed him there after a brawl at a strip club in Highland Park where he had been having a bachelor party.

(Caption: Vincent Chin murder, and anti-Asian hate crimes.)

There would develop public outrage over the light state charges and sentences of one of the attackers (manslaughter and a $3000 fine) where the slogan was “you make the punishment fit the criminal”.  Then there would be a federal civil rights trial, with legal ping pong and a retrial, resulting finally in acquittal.  Civil suits against one of the defendants however resulted in a lifetime financial 'burden'.

The killing was partially motivated by the belief on the part of the defendants that Chin was Japanese (his ancestry was Chinese), at a time with competition with Japanese auto imports was killing the domestic auto industry around Detroit. The film spends some time on the foreign auto competition issue (vs. autarky), particularly in Michigan and other upper midwest states, which would eventually feed into “Trumpism” years later.  This was early in the first Reagan administration, shortly after his firing of striking air traffic controllers, as I recall.

I can remember when I started working on my first summer jobs (for the Navy) in 1965, one employee (black female) actually described Michigan and the Detroit areas as a desirable place to live.  That’s how much times changed.

Anthony BourdaIn had made a CNN Parts Unknown episode about the collapse of Detroit as a city and to a lesser extend some of the surrounding suburbs.

I visited the Detroit area in 1980 and again in August 2012.

Prejudice against Asian Americans is sporadic but very troubling in some cities.  On the other hand, Asian Americans have been 'accused' of outperforming others (even whites) academically and getting into top schools or top tech firms.  But the violence in the poorer rungs of society helped feed the reluctance by tech firms to allow the likelihood that the SARS coronavirus could have come from the Wuhan lab to be discussed freely on their platforms, in the early days of the pandemic.

(Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2022 at 9:30 AM EDT)