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Lily Chin speaks at a news conference in 1983 at historic Cameron House in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Rev. Jesse Jackson took time from his presidential bid to show support for the national campaign to seek Justice for Vincent Chin.

The name Vincent Chin can elicit two starkly different responses: A quizzical “who?” from those with no idea who he was, or a look that recognizes the anti-Asian racism behind the baseball-bat bludgeoning of a Chinese American in Detroit in 1982 – and the multiple acquittals of the two white men who attacked him.

Amid the resurgence of such racism and violence during the pandemic, rectifying the former has been the prerogative of much cultural programming and announcements this Asian Heritage Month. Before the calendar flips to June, a rare Canadian opportunity to stream Who Killed Vincent Chin?, the definitive 1989 Oscar-nominated documentary, is worth considering alongside a spate of new projects about the case. A new book, podcast, limited series and feature film help push forward a new question about this oft-forgotten story: How do we remember Vincent Chin?

The documentary, screening via the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, asks a question that seems to hold no mystery. Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz continued a confrontation with Chin and his friends that began at a strip club. The pair soon caught up with Chin outside a McDonald’s. Ebens then retrieved a baseball bat from his car, which he has described as a frenzied intention to exact retribution for a bloody gash Nitz had received.

Eyewitnesses said that Nitz got a hold of Chin from behind, allowing Ebens to strike him with the bat on his chest, shoulders and head. Chin died in hospital four days later. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” Ebens would say in a later interview.

In a clip from the documentary, a newscaster asks, “How can a young man be beaten to death with a baseball bat by another man, and not have his civil rights violated?” following a final judicial defeat for Chin’s friends, family and advocates. The answer to that question, as filmmakers Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña depict, is what actually killed Chin: anti-Asian racism in North American society that persists to this day, and systemic racism within the U.S. courts that allowed Ebens and Nitz to never serve a day in jail. (To quote Ebens: “I think the system worked the way it should have worked.”)

Choy and Tajima-Peña stitch together a vivid document of Detroit in the 1980s, a time when the rise of Japanese auto competition first took its toll on the Big Three. Ebens and Nitz, who worked in the industry, mistook Chin as Japanese and loudly blamed him for their woes that fateful night. But over nearly 90 indicting minutes of footage, white interview subjects – friends, family, lawyers, journalists appearing in the treasure trove of archival footage – don’t dare describe Ebens and Nitz as racist. Hot-headed, stressed by failing fortunes at work, sure. But to possibly be white, male, American and racist? It was simply not in the 1980s vocabulary (it’s getting there, today).

It takes the activists, who pressured authorities to charge and try Ebens and Nitz, to centre the Chin case on race. Meanwhile, Chin’s mother Lily is the heart of the documentary, her anguished cries in Toisan, a Cantonese dialect, punctuating the facts of it all. But rather absent from the documentary is the man at the centre of the story. Chin is mostly remembered in a handful of photographs, often in black and white, that were published over and over in newspapers and on newscasts.

Perhaps a film like Who Killed Vincent Chin? doesn’t get made in 2021 without a theoretical lode of texts, videos and social media posts. (Perhaps his killers are convicted of murder if footage existed of the attack.) The digital detritus of modern life affords non-fiction storytellers unparalleled means to portray the inner lives of their subjects that did not exist in 1989, short of a person partial to letter-writing (more likely to be white and affluent). Such curtain-lifting on once-private stages of thoughts has become de rigueur in many documentary styles, particularly when it comes to true crime. Audiences now expect it. So how should the story of Vincent Chin be told today?

Hollywood’s renewed interest is driven by a moment when Asians of all backgrounds in Canada and the U.S. have experienced a surge in anti-Asian racism because of COVID-19. Fears for safety reached new heights after eight people were killed at spas in Atlanta – six of whom were Asian women. The shooter’s confession points to a sex addiction that conflicted with religious beliefs – but not to racism, an ongoing point of contention in the case. Or, as Ebens’s attorney tried to delicately put things more than 30 years ago: “He’s not guilty of doing this because of racial animus or racial feelings or racial bias or racial prejudice. It so happens that the person he was involved with was Chinese.”

A March report from the Chinese Canadian National Council’s Toronto chapter and other groups found that 1,150 racist attacks against Asian-Canadians occurred across the country since the beginning of the pandemic. In Vancouver, police reported a 717-per-cent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes between 2019 and 2020, numbers that have led some media to call the city the “anti-Asian hate crime capital of North America.”

Against this backdrop, Asian creatives in Hollywood are turning to dramatic adaptations of the Chin story. On television, creator and executive producer Marilyn Fu is helming an untitled limited series for Amazon Studios. On the big screen, actress Gemma Chan is behind a push to produce Johnny Ngo’s Hold Still, Vincent screenplay. In the meantime, Chan and her production partners are working on a civil rights podcast anchored by a table read of the script, with a voice cast that includes actors Kelly Marie Tran and Benedict Wong.

While there has been no film and TV casting announced yet, those adaptations will surely feature Chin front and centre. Writers will read through news clippings and other source material, including Who Killed Vincent Chin?, to sketch out his character and try to do right as they fill in his life’s margins. They will take artistic liberties, but not too many, in service of the story’s human scale. The man who has been described as charismatic and outgoing will spring to life from those flattened photos and, hopefully, captivate audiences.

Real life still offers one more way to explore Chin’s civil rights legacy. In From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement, young-adult author Paula Yoo hangs her non-fiction work on someone forever connected to a man killed before he was even born. Jarod Lew had no idea who Chin was – until discovering that his mother was Chin’s fiancée. Vikki Wong buried her would-be husband instead and eventually built a quiet life in the aftermath.

Lew feels so far like a more relatable protagonist than any fictional version of the man he chases. He begins with the same question that many of us will ask first: Who is Vincent Chin?

Who Killed Vincent Chin? streams for free May 26 to 27, along with a panel discussion, at reelasian.com.

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