His Life Cut Short, Vincent Chin Is Remembered For What Might Have Been

Jun 23, 2017
Originally published on July 28, 2017 1:02 pm

In 1982, Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old draftsman at an engineering firm living in Detroit. On June 19, the Chinese-American immigrant went out with friends to celebrate his upcoming wedding.

That night at a bar he crossed paths with Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz. The two worked in the auto industry and were angry about recent layoffs which were widely blamed on Japanese imports.

Gary Koivu met Chin when they were in the first grade and their teacher introduced Chin to the rest of the class. They were friends for more than 20 years and Chin asked Koivu to be the best man in his wedding.

"I was at work and he called me up and said, 'Why don't you meet me at the bar tonight?' It was one last time to go out with the guys before he got married," Koivu says. "We were just having a good time and listening to the music."

Koivu remembers that night and the first encounter with Ebens and Nitz.

"There was an auto worker," Koivu says. "He said to Vincent, 'Because of little mother f****** like you, a lot of Americans are losing their jobs.' Vincent wasn't Japanese. He was Chinese, but that didn't matter. ... He was Asian."

Koivu says Chin did fight, holding his own against Ebens and Nitz, but the argument didn't end at the bar.

"Later, we were outside and [one of the men] went straight to the car and pulled out a baseball bat, and started racing toward Vincent," Koivu says.

Chin ran, but Koivu says the men found Chin and attacked him.

"I don't know how many times he hit him in the head, but he was swinging the baseball bat like he was swinging for a home run," Koivu says. "Still hurts just talking about it. Left an empty hole in my heart."

Chin died four days later on June 23, 1982.

Ebens and Nitz were sentenced to three years' probation and fined $3,000.

"That was like a punch in the gut," Koivu says. "Vincent, he had a good life. He was getting married in a few days. He was looking forward to buying a house, and his mother was gonna live with him, and he was gonna have kids. And I was happy for him. He was living the American dream."

Koivu says he and the rest of Chin's friends got to live the rest of their lives out, "but he missed out on that."

After his death 35 years ago, the federal case against Ebens and Nitz was the first time the Civil Rights Act was used in a case involving an Asian-American victim. Chin's death went on to become a rallying cry for stronger federal hate crime legislation.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by John White.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today from StoryCorps on this Friday, we have memories of a Chinese-American immigrant killed 35 years ago today. Vincent Chin was a draftsman living near Detroit. In 1982, Chin and a group of friends went out to celebrate his upcoming wedding. He was 27 years old. At a bar, he crossed paths with two auto industry workers angry about recent layoffs, which they blamed on Japanese imports. Gary Koivu was with Chin that night. He recently came to StoryCorps with his wife to recall his childhood friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY KOIVU: Vincent was introduced to my first-grade class. And I can remember him standing up there and the teacher introducing him. And we were good friends for over 20 years.

KIM KOIVU: He asked you to be the best man for his wedding?

G. KOIVU: He did. I was at work. And he called me up, said - why don't you meet me at the bar tonight? It was one last time to go out with the guys before he got married. We were just having a good time and listening to music. There was an auto worker, and he said to Vincent, because of little [expletive] like you, a lot of Americans are losing their jobs. Vincent wasn't Japanese. He was Chinese, but that didn't matter. He...

K. KOIVU: He was Asian.

G. KOIVU: He was Asian. And with that, Vincent stood up, and he did fight. And Vincent was holding his own. Later, we were outside, and the man went straight to the car and pulled out a baseball bat and started racing toward Vincent. And Vincent ran, but they found him. I don't know how many times he hit him in the head, but he was swinging the baseball bat like he was swinging for a home run. Still hurts just talking about it. Left an empty hole in my heart.

These men that killed him, they were given probation and a fine for what they had done. And that was like a punch in the gut. Vincent - he had a good life. He was getting married in a few days. He was looking forward to buying a house. And his mother was going to live with him, and he was going to have kids. And I was happy for him. He was living the American dream.

G. KOIVU: And the rest of us, we got married and lived the rest of our lives. But he missed out on that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER BOWEN'S "I WANT TO SEE YOU FLY")

INSKEEP: That's Gary and Kim Koivu in Detroit, remembering Vincent Chin, killed 35 years ago today. The federal case against Chin's killers marked the first time a civil rights law was used to prosecute a crime against an Asian-American. It became a rallying point for stronger federal hate crimes legislation. And this interview will be archived by the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER BOWEN'S "I WANT TO SEE YOU FLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.