Nearly 40 years ago, a Metro Times reporter helped turn the killing of Vincent Chin into a movement for Asian American rights

‘It’s not fair’

Jun 22, 2022 at 4:00 am
click to enlarge Helen Zia at a 1983 rally for Vincent Chin in Detroit. - Victor Yang, courtesy of the Vincent and Lily Chin Estate
Victor Yang, courtesy of the Vincent and Lily Chin Estate
Helen Zia at a 1983 rally for Vincent Chin in Detroit.

On June 19, 1982, 27-year-old Vincent Chin was celebrating his bachelor party when two white men fatally bludgeoned him with a baseball bat outside of a crowded Highland Park McDonald’s. He died four days later at Henry Ford Hospital.

The case was initially covered locally as a barroom brawl gone bad. “There was a story in the Free Press that was sort of a tragic feature story with a picture of a very handsome Asian man and his attractive bride to be,” recalls Helen Zia, then an aspiring young journalist who got her start at the Detroit Metro Times. But Zia says she always felt there was more to the story than what was being reported.

Like Chin, Zia is of Chinese descent. And like Chin’s attackers — Ronald Ebens, then 43, and his stepson Michael Nitz, then 22 — Zia had worked in Detroit’s auto industry, at a time when Japanese companies were being blamed for outcompeting Detroit’s Big Three. Ebens was a Chrysler plant supervisor, while Nitz had been laid off.

“In those days, there was never an article or a picture of an Asian American,” she says. “When I saw that article in the Free Press, I clipped it, and I just thought, I know there’s something more to this story, I want to keep an eye on it, and I put it away in a folder.”

Born in Guangdong, China, Chin was adopted in 1961 by Bing Hing “David” Chin, who served in the U.S. military in China during World War II, and his wife Lily. The family raised Chin in Highland Park, moving to Oak Park in 1971 after Chin’s father was mugged.

As the homicide case moved through court, disturbing details emerged. At the time of his death, Chin was a Lawrence Tech student who was employed as an industrial draftsman at an automotive supplier, also working on weekends as a waiter at the former Golden Star restaurant in Ferndale. On the night of the attack, he was celebrating at the former Fancy Pants strip club in Highland Park, where Ebens and Nitz drunkenly began taunting him. Later, witnesses testified that Ebens, apparently mistaking Chin for Japanese, told him, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” Chin reportedly responded by punching Ebens in the face.

After club security broke up the fight, Chin and his friends left, later encountering Ebens and Nitz in the parking lot. After Chin reportedly called Ebens a “chicken shit,” Nitz took a baseball bat out of his car, causing Chin and his friends to flee. Ebens and Nitz then stalked Chin to the Woodward Avenue McDonald’s, where Nitz held him down while Ebens struck him in the head multiple times with the bat. Witnesses included two off-duty police officers, one of whom later testified that Ebens was striking Chin like he was swinging “for a home run.” Reportedly, Chin’s last words were, “It’s not fair.”

click to enlarge Vincent Chin. - Courtesy of the Estate of Vincent and Lily Chin
Courtesy of the Estate of Vincent and Lily Chin
Vincent Chin.

Nine months later, Zia and others in metro Detroit’s Asian communities were outraged when Chin’s killers were released in a plea deal, their second-degree murder charges dropped to manslaughter, and each getting off with just three year’s probation and a $3,720 fine. Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman defended his decision, saying, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail ... You don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal,” which appeared to be an admission of systemic racism at work.

The incident became international headline news, and a rallying cry for Asian American civil rights. Yet to this day, many still do not know Chin’s name.

Zia and others are determined to make sure the incident does not fade from memory. Now 70, Zia returned to Detroit last week from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area to participate in a series of events called the Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance & Rededication, which included a mural unveiled at the site of Detroit’s former Chinatown and a Detroit Film Theatre screening of the recently restored Who Killed Vincent Chin?, a 1987 documentary that was selected last year for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and features Zia prominently.

The 40th anniversary of Chin’s death also comes amid a new wave of anti-Asian hate crimes that have occured since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in Chin. Last year, six Asian women were killed in a shooting spree at Atlanta spas. And on Saturday, New York City police arrested a Florida woman for pepper-spraying four young Asian women on June 11. According to police, she told an Asian man standing nearby to “take all your bitches back where you came from.” The anniversary also comes at a time when Republicans are banning the teaching of systemic racism in schools, and similar worsening economic conditions in the U.S.

click to enlarge The June 22, 2022 issue of Detroit Metro Times. - Photo courtesy of the Estate of Vincent and Lily Chin
Photo courtesy of the Estate of Vincent and Lily Chin
The June 22, 2022 issue of Detroit Metro Times.

“It kind of crept up,” Zia says. “It started with, just like today, you know, ‘Kung Flu,’ and it starts with a little bit of innuendo, and then it started rolling like thunder, and was continuous — continuous — every day for a year.”

A Princeton graduate, Zia first arrived in Detroit from Boston in the mid-1970s. At the time, she was trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. When a friend suggested that Zia should move to the “American heartland” to learn about issues there, Zia leapt at the opportunity.

“I thought, what a great idea,” Zia says.

She crashed with a friend of a friend, applying for jobs in Detroit’s then-thriving auto industry. Within two weeks, she says, she got a job as a large press operator at a Chrysler stamping plant on Eight Mile Road and Mount Elliot.

“I didn’t lie on my application, I just didn’t mention that I had gone to college,” she says, adding, “They might have held it against me.”

At the time, work in the auto industry paid well, far higher than the minimum wage, thanks to the strong UAW autoworkers union. “Back then, minimum wage, for me as a college graduate, was about $1.50 an hour,” she recalls. “When I went into work for Chrysler, I got $10 an hour, and every benefit under the sun. I had the Cadillac — well, as a former Chrysler worker, I shouldn’t say ‘Cadillac’ — of health plans. We had everything.”

Zia says she was not intimidated by factory work. Growing up, her parents, who were Chinese immigrants, ran what Zia describes as a cottage industry out of their home.

“My father was educated, but back in the ’40s and ’50s, a Chinese person, whether here for generations or newly immigrated, could not get a job,” she says. “If you were a lawyer, you would end up working in a restaurant, or if you were an engineer, you’d work in a laundry. My father spoke excellent English and could speak a number of languages, but he could not get a regular paying job.”

During the postwar baby boom, Zia’s parents started a business selling handcrafted wooden toys to flower shops. Zia says she started working when she was 5.

“It was not as sophisticated as an assembly line ... but there were saws, and drills, and hammers, and paintbrushes,” she says. “It was pretty [hard] manual labor as a kid.” She continued working in high school and college, including digging ditches as part of construction crews.

Still, working at the Chrysler plant was tough, she says. There, Zia operated a large hydraulic press, stamping steel into hoods, doors, axels, and other car parts.

“It was a real Eight Mile Road stamping plant, not like the one that Eminem had in his movie,” she says. “His was nice and clean and quiet. There is no such thing as a nice and clean, quiet stamping plant!”

There were myriad safety issues, Zia recalls. “These were machines that were, you know, installed at the beginning of the Detroit Industrial Revolution,” she says. “By 1970, these machines were really old. I mean, the working conditions were terrible.”

She says her fellow workers would build awnings and umbrellas out of cardboard and wire to protect themselves from being squirted with grease and chemicals coming from the machines, which also left the floors slick — one slip and you could fall down a hole in the floor the story below.

“You’d go home and you’d be covered with stuff that we called goop,” she says, adding, “And I’m sure everybody ended up with hearing loss, like I do.” The cut steel posed additional danger, as it could be sharper than a knife.

Zia worked in the facility for a little more than two years, before getting laid off in the late 1970s, as war in the Middle East led to a disruption of oil production, soaring gas prices, and fuel shortages.

“It was an oil crisis, and people couldn’t afford to drive,” Zia says. “Back then, Detroit cars got like seven, or eight, or nine miles a gallon. They were tanks.”

Then the finger-pointing started, Zia says. At first, big business began blaming industry woes on the UAW for demanding too-high wages and benefits. At the same time, workers blamed the companies for funneling all of their profits to investors and not reinvesting them in their facilities and products. And everyone blamed Washington dysfunction for failing to solve the energy crisis.

But eventually, all parties found a new scapegoat. America’s economic misery, according to this new narrative, was due to the Japanese auto industry, which exported smaller, more fuel-efficient cars to the U.S. Even though European companies like Volkwagen also exported smaller cars, the blame was largely directed at Japan.

The anti-Asian sentiment was “like a drumbeat,” Zia recalls. Former Chrysler CEO and chairman Lee Iacocca was famous for his Japan-bashing, and Michigan U.S. Rep. John Dingell complained that American jobs were being lost to “little yellow men.” Who Killed Vincent Chin? shows footage of metro Detroiters paying to vent their anger by smashing a foreign car with a sledgehammer.

“If you had Asian face, the last thing you wanted to do was have a Japanese-made car. I drove a Dodge Omni back then.”

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“The climate was thick, like a poisonous fog,” Zia says. “If you were Asian and you walked around, you had to be conscious of who was around you. The Asian Americans who worked in the auto tech centers were told by their bosses, ‘Don’t go into the factories, it could be dangerous for you,’ because the auto management knew that there was a lot of hate, and it could be violent.”

She adds, “This was every day around the country, and it was war, war, war, we’re at economic war. So if you had Asian face, the last thing you wanted to do was have a Japanese-made car. I drove a Dodge Omni back then.”

After Zia got laid off, she found a new calling. She decided that she wanted to write about the collapse of the manufacturing industry.

“I just realized that what I really wanted to do was tell the stories of the people that I knew that I worked with,” she says. “In the factories, I got to know many people as my friends. We’d go out together, I had dinner at their homes, I’d met their kids, and saw how everybody was suffering. And that wasn’t a story that was being told about people’s lives, and just how destroyed they were.”

Zia says she found herself constantly disappointed in how the story of the U.S. economy was being covered by the mainstream media. “I was watching the news — I always watched the news closely, and read everything I could get my hands on — and none of it covered people’s stories,” she says. “I was watching TV, and I turned the TV off, and I said, ‘This sucks. This is terrible. I could, I could do better than this.’”

She adds, “And then that’s what clicked in my mind. Like, I could do better than this. I know these stories, and nobody else is telling them.”

Zia enrolled in a class at Wayne State University, which encouraged her to pitch to publications. She says she manually typed up “hundreds” of letters on a typewriter pitching her idea for a story on the collapse of U.S. manufacturing. For the most part, nobody responded — except for Ron Williams, the founding editor of Metro Times, then a scrappy bi-weekly launched in 1980.

“He said, ‘We got your query letter, we like it a lot,’” Zia recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh, you want me to write about the changing labor conditions in America?’ And he said, ‘No, we have a special issue on winter interiors, and we want you to write about indoor flowering plants. … Oh, and by the way, this is on spec.’”

Zia was undeterred. “I said, ‘Oh, great. OK,’” she says. “I did not tell Ron that I killed every plant I had ever looked at.”

Zia says she “poured her heart” into the story. Metro Times published it largely as is, she says, including the headline she came up with — “Enhance your secret life with plants,” a riff on Stevie Wonder’s 1979 soundtrack for the documentary The Secret Life of Plants.

“She was a natural,” recalls Williams, who sold Metro Times to a new company in 1999. “Back then we had very little money, we were barely hanging on. So it was great to have someone of that caliber.”

“With each story, I got more experience,” Zia recalls. “So it was really a great relationship that developed because Ron was a super editor … and then he started assigning me investigative pieces.” Over the next two years, she became a regular contributor.

She adds, “So when Vincent Chin was killed, Metro Times was really one of the first papers to look at it from Asian American angle, because, you know, I wrote the story.”

In 1983, Zia got a full-time job as an associate editor at the monthly Metropolitan Detroit magazine. She finally got to write her story about labor in the U.S.

But the subject of Chin was off-limits, she says.

“We actually did have a conversation and my boss said, ‘Well, I see you’re very involved in this. You know, I understand why,’” she recalls. “And, and I thought, OK, I’m getting fired here. And he said, ‘I’m not going to argue with you about whether you should or shouldn’t do this, but you can never write about this or work on a piece about this for our publication.’”

All the while, the Chin case loomed. Zia says while working on a story, she once did an interview with a subject who didn’t like her line of questioning. “This was a big man who took his big fist and put it in my face and said, ‘What happened to that guy could happen to you,’” she says. “I knew what he meant.”

On March 16, 1983, Wayne County Circuit Judge Kaufman announced the light sentences for Chin’s killers. Weeks later, on March 30, Zia, along with other members of metro Detroit’s Asian American communities, formed the advocacy group American Citizens for Justice, demanding a retrial. Zia says at an early fundraising dinner, the Detroit-based architect Minoru Yamasaki — best known for designing New York City’s former World Trade Center, and perhaps the Motor City’s most prominent Asian American — voiced his support for the group’s cause. “He stood up, and he said, ‘If Asian Americans don’t speak up, these things will continue to happen,” Zia recalls.

click to enlarge May 9, 1983 demonstration in Kennedy Square, downtown Detroit. - Courtesy of the Vincent and Lily Chin Estate
Courtesy of the Vincent and Lily Chin Estate
May 9, 1983 demonstration in Kennedy Square, downtown Detroit.

Still, the group decided to downplay its Asian American identity. “I’ll say that, today, 40 years later, [American Citizens for Justice] seems like a terrible name,” Zia says. The group met in Detroit’s historic Chinatown to decide what to call itself. “One was the idea that it should be broad, it should be all people, that we were fighting for justice for all people,” she says. “I’m sure many of the people who were there were actually not citizens, that there would be some people who had not yet taken their citizenship test. But we felt that it should broadly reflect all Americans, and that’s why it ended up with that name.”

Zia worked as a communications director for the group, writing press releases and speeches, and fielding questions from other reporters. She worried that it could tarnish her reputation as a journalist, however, as the mainstream thinking was that journalists should strive for objectivity and avoid participating in political issues.

The thinking persists today. Last month, a leaked memo showed the news organization Axios banned its reporters from protesting for abortion rights, a reversal from a 2020 memo that permitted its reporters to march in support of Black Lives Matter.

“I mean, it was obvious, because I was starting to speak out on things,” Zia recalls. “And when I started, I wasn't sure whether I was going to lose my job or lose my career that I had just begun.”

But Metro Times did not share that view, and Williams allowed Zia to write about the issue.

“We viewed that as a plus, as an advantage,” Williams says. “We thought she would bring knowledge and insights and perspectives, and that a regular journalist who has just one more assignment may miss some of the nuance and the importance of some aspects of a story.”

Today, Zia is sure of her belief that journalists can and should have a perspective. In 1989, she became the executive editor of the feminist publication Ms. magazine.

“If you work for a magazine about cars, you’re not going to be a car hater,” she says. “So you will have a point of view, and the whole pretense that journalists don’t have opinions is ridiculous. I think it’s more fair to a reader or a news consumer if the opinion of the writer or reporter actually is put out there, and people know it … I’m Asian, and it gives me an insight that somebody else doesn’t have. The main thing is to be upfront about it.”

She adds, “In my opinion, you can have a point of view, but you can still be fair.”

“There was this whole mythology of ‘balanced reporting,’ and, ‘he said, she said,’ and that each reporter was looking to bring objectivity to a story,” Williams says. “And we said, ‘Well, look, we’re an alternative weekly, we’re looking to complement the rest of the media out there. And so we're looking for the stories and the voices that don’t get access to the mainstream media. And Helen was a good example of that, both who she was as a young, aspiring writer, and also her perspective as a person of color and as someone who could advocate for that community.”

Metro Times published an article by Zia on April 28, 1983, titled “The Death of Vincent Chin,” which distilled the problems with the Chin case and identified Zia as a member of American Citizens for Justice. The article reported that the courts relied on the defendant attorneys account and did not seek statements from other witnesses. It also called out the racism of Kaufman’s sentence. “The racial implications of Kaufman’s sentence are clear,” Zia wrote. “Kaufman’s comments suggest that minorities, the unemployed, and non-students are the kind of people who should go to jail.”

American Citizens for Justice worked with Chin’s mother Lily, who toured the country, making emotional pleas for justice for her son. It also earned support from the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, who also condemned Kaufman’s sentence, writing, “Black people know that when punishment is meted out to fit the perpetrator, rather than the crime itself, we as victims become the ultimate losers.”

Led in part by Zia, American Citizens for Justice was successful in getting a new trial for federal civil rights charges, which accused Chin’s killers of being motivated by “race, color, or national origin.” In 1984, Ebens was found guilty, sentenced to 25 years in prison, while Nitz was acquitted. But Ebens appealed, and in 1987 his conviction was overturned due to a mistrial after an audio recording appeared to reveal an American Citizens for Justice attorney coaching witnesses who claimed Ebens made racist remarks. Chin’s supporters argued that those at the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, located in Cincinnati, did not understand the racial dynamics of Detroit’s auto industry and did not see the racial motivation in the attack.

“What happened to Vincent Chin could have happened to any other Asian American,” Zia says.

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American Citizens for Justice said the result was a failure of the U.S. court system, which effectively gave racists a “$3,000 license to kill” Asian Americans. The group eventually found success in a 1987 civil suit, which was settled out of court and ordered Nitz to pay $50,000 to Chin’s estate, while Ebens was required to pay $1.5 million. Now 82, Ebens has since moved to the Las Vegas area. He still has not paid his debt to the Chin estate, which is now about $10 million.

Zia says while justice was never served, Chin’s death had the effect of galvanizing Asian communities in metro Detroit and beyond. “What happened to Vincent Chin could have happened to any other Asian American,” she says.

She also says metro Detroit, which has a relatively small Asian population, should be proud for coming together in support of Chin, and sparking a national movement for Asian American rights.

“It’s something that everybody in Detroit can be proud of, because not only did Asian Americans come together, but actually there was support from the Black community, from people of conscience, from the faith community, pretty much across the board,” she says. “We had great support from Detroiters of all walks of life.”

She adds, “This movement of Asian Americans, that at the time was small in numbers, became the birthplace of a national movement, with support of all these other communities.”

Who Killed Vincent Chin? ends with CNN footage of Lily Chin in the aftermath of the trial, quaking with rage, demanding justice for her son. Heartbroken, she later returned to China, and died in 2002.

Zia took to the stage at the Detroit Film Theatre on Friday for a screening of the film, reminding the audience to stand in solidarity against all racial injustice.

“An attack on one of us is an injury to us all,” she said.

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