Parallel struggles, parallel lives:
A tragic Detroit death becomes a baptism in activism

A tragic Detroit death becomes a baptism in activism.

Sep 6, 2000 at 12:00 am

A federal district judge recently set bail for Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese-American scientist who had been held for eight months on charges that he improperly downloaded some of the country’s most sensitive nuclear secrets. The judge decided the scientist was not a risk to flee. He also inferred that the material he downloaded was not so top secret, though he stopped short of suggesting Lee was targeted because of his ethnicity.

The federal judge and the prosecutors may not have viewed Lee’s Chinese ancestry as part of the accusations brought against Lee, but author Helen Zia minces no words in her assertions that Lee was “scapegoated and accused of the high crime of espionage because of his ethnicity.”

Although Lee’s predicament emerged too late to receive a full discussion in Zia’s thoroughly engaging book, she provides ample historical and contemporary evidence of racism perpetrated against Chinese and other Asian minorities. Episodes of Asian discrimination such as the “Yellow Peril,” the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, violence against Korean shopkeepers in Los Angeles and the brutal murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit form dramatic chapters in a book that is part memoir, part historical record, and totally absorbing.

When Zia recounts the mass culture’s offensive stereotypes of Asians — gangsters, gooks, geeks and geishas — they are similar to the roster of repugnant labels often applied to members of the black community, everything from coon to jigaboo. There are times when she is describing racial encounters in which you need only replace the Asian victim with a black one to understand the commonality of oppression experienced by people of color in America’s history. And one of the most disheartening circumstances — and it is a point that Zia mentions more than once — is the inability of blacks, Chinese and Koreans, in particular, to find mutual ground on which to fight the pernicious manifestations of white supremacy.

It loomed like a double defeat when the African-American community failed to build an alliance with Asian-Americans after the savage bludgeoning of Vincent Chin in Highland Park in the summer of 1982. The easygoing, computer school graduate was celebrating his bachelor party with friends at a striptease joint when he incurred the wrath of two white men who took exception to the attention given him by the strippers. With the Motor City in the throes of an economic crisis blamed on Japanese car manufacturers, this was not a good time for any Asian to be having fun amid unemployed or laid-off white factory workers, which one of Chin’s attackers was.

Racial slurs were hurled at Chin and his friends; a scuffle ensued. Both groups were ejected from the bar, but the fight was not over for the white assailants. Later they saw Chin and a friend on Woodward Avenue, sneaked up behind Chin, and while one held him down, the other bashed his head in with a baseball bat. Chin died, and the tragedy enraged the Asian community, which was even more upset when the two men were practically exonerated with probation. That aroused Zia, and for the next couple years she was a relentless activist seeking justice for Chin, at the same time gradually developing the speaking and writing skills that would earn her a leadership role in several national Asian organizations.

Chin never got justice, but Zia’s baptism into activism was triggered by this tragedy. Her course set, Zia ran from one rampart to the next. She was in the thick of things in New York City when the black community and Korean grocers were at each other’s throats in the 1990s; on the West Coast, she was once more a mediator, seeking a truce and understanding between angry blacks and baffled Korean shopkeepers, many of whom were unaware of their insensitivity to their patrons and their culture. Tensions between African-Americans and the Koreans were exacerbated when the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted; helpless to vent their rage on the police, blacks unleashed their fury on the Korean merchants, burning and looting stores throughout Koreatown in Los Angeles.

“If Korean Americans had been invisible in America before,” Zia summarized, “they were now in the full limelight. Asian Americans consider riots to be the moment that America took notice of Korean Americans. Journalists did not know what to make of this Asian American population that suddenly emerged in their headlines.” Nor were they any less bewildered — and the same can be said of the politicians — in Alaska when the Filipino workers were continually exploited in the salmon canning industry, or on Broadway when only organized protests from Asians temporarily halted the appearance of an European actor playing an Asian role in Miss Saigon.

But Asian American Dreams is more than a series of conflicts. In the chapter “Reinventing Our Culture,” Zia cites notable Asian-Americans who have made it despite a welter of obstacles — Minoru Yamasaki, I.M. Pei, Maya Lin, Yo-Yo Ma, Kent Nagano and Isamu Noguchi. And Olympic fencer Peter Westbrook, golf superstar Tiger Woods, Hollywood stars Keanu Reeves, Meg and Jennifer Tilley, and TV newscaster Ann Curry are among the mixed-race Asian-Americans who have achieved some piece of the American dream.

Zia also profiles Gary Locke, governor of Washington, who was an effective speaker at the recent Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Locke is the first Chinese-American to be elected governor in the United States, and the first Asian-American to head a state on the mainland.

As for Chinese-American success stories, Zia need look no further than her own remarkable ascendancy, which deftly unfolds as bits of memoir at the beginning of each chapter. But it was not until she arrived in Detroit that she really found her métier. “In Detroit,” Zia related, “what I found seemed to fill the void. As an autoworker at Chrysler, I experienced the essential humanity of people, across differences of race, culture and class. I discovered my voice and my calling as a journalist. I embraced a vibrant Asian American community that went far beyond my fellowship of well-meaning activists.”

Even so, Zia was faced with another troubling self-discovery — her lesbianism. How could she disclose her sexuality without jeopardizing her standing as a leading activist in her community? In a bold and courageous manner that has typified her life, Zia stepped out the closet. “My fear of losing my ties to the Asian American community never materialized,” she wrote. “Rather, I discovered a new sense of freedom with my colleagues and my work.”

And we discern only a portion of this tireless advocacy from her book; it is a commitment that shows no signs of ending as Zia packs her bag and travels to yet another battle to dignify her culture and her lifestyle.

Also read a review of Herb Boyd's Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African American History Told by Those Who Lived It. Helen Zia and Herb Boyd were both involved in the early days of the Metro Times, Zia as a freelance writer, Boyd as writer and editor. Their recent books enrich our understanding of their people — and our America.

Return to the home page for other stories and features celebrating the Metro Times' 20th anniverary.

Email Herb Boyd at [email protected].