Abigail Lee is the 2022 recipient of the Vincent Chin Memorial Scholarship. Below is her winning essay. June 25 marked the 40th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin.
Lee says: “It is important to commemorate Vincent Chin because his life and legacy must be firmly planted in our collective memory as the AAPI community. It is an act of resistance to demand that this tragedy is not forgotten and therefore, not repeated. Vincent Chin is part of our history, which should never be erased.”
In a black-and-white photo, Lily Chin holds a framed picture of her son. There is sorrow and pain etched into her face, maybe even weariness. Even still, she looks directly at the camera, as if demanding one’s attention and compelling one to listen. It is impossible to look away from her gaze. It is as if she’s asking, what is a life worth? What is worth a life?
Detroit 1982. Summer day.
Who knows what kind of violence blooms in the heat,
what strains of anger burst open in the sun
and curdle ripe in the humid air, abuzz with flies?
What kind of noise can cut through the lazy swelter
of summer day —
The roar of a homegrown automobile,
an American product of shining metal and
exhaling shrouds of exhaust gas.
A car meant for Detroit soil.
But this is America in 1982 —
Is it a Japanese make that lounges on lawns,
rolls down the sizzling streets?
What is a life worth?
June 19, 1982: Vincent Jen Chin, a 27-year-old draftsman
just nine days shy of his wedding went to a bar to celebrate with his friends.
There, two white men resentful of the decline of Detroit’s auto industry
were the first ones to answer that question.
Who can conceive of the violence that followed —
the slurs crackling in the air, the spat between Vincent
and the two white men, the hunt for Vincent in the
A volcanic hatred, the kind that bubbles underneath
the surface of the country overflowed that night.
What was Vincent’s life worth to a few spiteful
white Americans? What was any Asian person’s life worth to this country?
“What is a life worth?”
In 1948, Lily Chin immigrated to the U.S from China.
She held modest jobs in laundromats and Chinese
restaurants. Like a seam in a swath of fabric, she was part of the
immigrant workforce that stitches this country together.
34 years later, the son she adopted would be the victim of centuries
of brewing hatred and exploitation, the same that greets
every immigrant when they cross that turbulent sea
from their home into the diaspora. In 1982, the national threads
would come apart and she would be part of the unraveling,
the effort to show every American the truth of this country’s brutality.
When Ebens and Nitz were charged with manslaughter,
the Wayne County Circuit of Michigan slapped a band-aid
on the gash the men had caused, sentencing them probation
and a $3,000 fine each.
How much is a life worth?
A one-time fine sewed up the wound
where an innocent life had slipped through
the cracks of white aggression.
The state hearing had essentially been a sham. No prosecutor was present, and Lily Chin had not been notified of the sentencing. Institutional racism allowed the men to walk away scotch-free from their crime. Vincent Chin’s life was worth $3,000,
the price of their freedom.
Before this point in American history, Asian Americans were an invisible people. We were a scattered diaspora, there was no collective power to put a name to what we all experienced. Therefore, we suffered alone and privately. Our pain was invisible, and we ourselves disappeared into the machinery of the nation.
“How much is a life worth?”
But Lily Chin would ignite a flame within Asian communities. Authorities said that race wasn’t a factor in the murder of Vincent Chin, that it was a negligible element. Lily Chin identified the hate crime for what it was. The spark of recognition sputtered into a fire, and soon, she worked with grassroots activists to push for justice. Helen Zia, a journalist and activist, among others, would form the American Citizens for Justice and fight to have the case investigated by the U.S Department of Justice. The Pan-Asian struggle would be legitimized through those federal proceedings but it would be made visible by the voice of a mother.
There are photos that 40 years later, still capture the public suffering of Lily Chin. Her cries and the grief distorting her expression are piercingly vivid. 40 years has not diluted the immeasurable nature of her loss. They are indelible images of a deep and intense mourning that is unspeakable. Yet, Lily Chin spoke about that loss. She spoke again and again of her son and the horrific injustice that had been inflicted and excused by American society. At protests and rallies, she shared her loss with strangers, becoming the moral bridge between communities and the justice system. Every time she told the story, she made it harder for people to look away from the fundamental abscess in American institutions. She ruptured the illusion of the American Dream, and in doing so, she revealed something more honest about how this country treats Asian people. She put into words how racial hatred manifests, so that people couldn’t deny the reality of the Asian experience. Lily Chin fought to prevent her pain from becoming invisible, and in doing so, she stopped an entire people from slipping through the cracks.
“Lily Chin was the first voice to represent a people, but not the last.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, America fell back into its old rhythms. The murmur and rumble of hatred seeped like a poison into the media coverage of the pandemic, into American communities, and into the lives of Asian Americans. Asian Americans once again became the scapegoat for a national crisis. In 2021, anti-Asian hate crimes would rise nearly 400%.
March 16, 2021: a white man entered three spas in Atlanta, Georgia where he shot and killed eight people, including 6 Asian women. There was a reverberation of horror across the nation.
As the story began to come together, the same cracks in American society started to show.
The suspect was said to have a “sexual addiction,” and this somehow, swept the issue of race aside.
What is worth a life?
The ability to assuage an addiction?
It was Asian communities that pushed to recognize the tragedy as a hate crime. Korean-language newspapers identified the age and job positions of the victims and reported eyewitness statements. Family members of the victims spoke publicly about the loss of their loved one — an inconceivable task. The Stop Asian Hate movement organized people across the nation. In the face of immense tragedy, a people came together to speak for their own, who no longer could.
The public dialogue that began in the wake of this event can be traced back to Lily Chin, who taught Asian communities what it meant to fight when the odds are stacked against you. She exposed racial bias when America brushed the issue aside. She showed that a life is worth a life, no matter what people say.
Lily Chin was the first voice to represent a people, but not the last.