Anthony Nguyen was born in California to a family from Vietnam, but says he is often mistaken for being Chinese or Korean American.
“It doesn’t bother me, and I’m more bemused about it than anything else since it happens so frequently,” said Nguyen, a commercial bankruptcy lawyer in New York.
Nguyen’s experience is shared by many Asian Americans, both native and foreign born. Most say they are used to being asked about their ethnic backgrounds and think little of its significance. But 30 years ago when American auto manufacturers were suffering a major decline and facing fierce competition from their Japanese counterparts, a young man in Detroit named Vincent Chin exemplified how looking “Asian” could have tragic consequences.
Out on the town for his bachelor’s party just five days before his wedding in June 1982, Chin was brutally attacked by two white men, out-of-work autoworkers who mistook him for being Japanese. They struck him with a baseball bat, causing serious blows to his head. Chin died in the hospital four days later at the age of 27.
He was of Chinese ancestry.
Chin’s attackers never served a day in jail. They were sentenced to second-degree manslaughter and each fined $3,000. Chin’s death became a rallying point for the pan-Asian American community activist movement, leading Asian Americans from different countries of origin to band together.
Nguyen was born a few months after Chin’s murder and only learned about Chin’s story in college. He was one of the dozens of participants at “Vincent Chin 30: Standing Up Then and Now” at the City University of New York’s Asian American / Asian Research Institute in late June in remembrance of Chin and his legacy. The event was organized by Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, who invited Asian American community organizers from across the country as well as Judy Chu, a congresswoman from California, to reflect on the 30th anniversary of Chin’s murder via video conferencing.
Chu, who became the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress in 2009, said Asian Americans have made significant gains over the last three decades but prejudice still exists. She pointed out a controversial television ad sponsored by former Michigan congressman Pete Hoekstra, who is running for the U.S. Senate. The 30-second ad—which aired during this year’s Super Bowl—opened with the sound of a gong and showed an Asian woman riding a bike in a rice paddy and talking in broken English thanking Hoesktra’s opponent, Debbie Stabenow, for spending more federal money to create jobs in her country. The ad drew harsh criticism from journalists, community groups, and elected officials, who called it “blatantly racist.” Hoekstra later took down the ad from his website but refused to apologize. His approval ratings tanked.
“Now we have the infrastructure to fight back,” said Chu, who condemned the ad. “Today we have national advocacy groups, elected officials and community leaders. With this growing voice, we are able to speak out against xenophobia and scapegoating, and educate others about the danger of this kind of rhetoric. We must make sure that what happened to Vincent Chin never happens again.”
Andrew Tso, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Division, warned that Asian Americans are once again in a precarious position because of the faltering American economy, but this time it is China, not Japan, taking the blame. He noted that many leading U.S. economists such as Paul Krugman have urged China to de-value its currency so American exports can be more competitive.
“That type of language is very dangerous,” said Tso. “What average Americans take from ideas like that is basically ‘China is costing me my job. China is being predatory in its economic policies. That’s why our country is declining.’ They can’t fight back against China. They may direct their hatred towards Asian Americans, whom they all see as Chinese.”
It was Vincent Chin’s story that inspired May Lin, one of the organizers of the event, to become an activist.
Lin, who was born three years after Chin’s death, said she got interested in Asian American Studies in college after watching a documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin? She went on to complete a master’s degree in Asian American Studies at UCLA.
“The Vincent Chin event is not just about one man being killed. It’s about the fact that Asian Americans are portrayed as this yellow peril and that at anytime can be trotted out as something as menace to the country,” said Lin, a native of Los Angeles. “The violence can be not just individual but institutional.”
To fight it, Lin said that education and consciousness are key. “Invisibility makes it possible for things like hate crimes to occur.”
Nguyen, the Vietnamese American lawyer who is often mistaken for a Chinese American, wore a commemorative Vincent Chin T-shirt at the forum to show his support.
“People have paved the way for us. We need to make sure that their efforts have not been lost and the history has not been forgotten so that these things won’t happen again in the future,” Nguyen said.
Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.