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Obituaries

Lily Chin, 82; Son's Killing Led to Rights Drive

June 14, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lily Chin, whose grief and outrage over the 1982 killing of her son helped galvanize Asian Americans to fight for civil rights, died of cancer Sunday at a hospital in Farmington Hills, Mich. She was 82.

Chin was a Chinese immigrant whose only child, Vincent, was beaten unconscious outside a Detroit restaurant by two white unemployed auto workers who thought that he was Japanese and blamed him for American auto industry layoffs. He died four days after the assault, on June 23, 1982.

His assailants confessed to the crime but were never sent to prison, despite three trials.

Lily Chin, who had emigrated from a small village in southern China in 1948, spoke little English but crisscrossed the country to raise awareness about the injustice of her son's case.

He became a martyr and she the crusader and emotional center for a budding movement.

"She often said, 'There is nothing I can do to bring back Vincent, but I don't want any other mother to go through what I went through.' She wanted justice for her son. She believed in justice," said Stewart Kwoh, who started the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles a year after the slaying.

"She was the inspiration for many of us to get involved, not only to track and address hate crimes but also to build strong civil rights organizations," Kwoh said.

Chin and her husband, David, adopted Vincent from China when he was 6. In 1982, he was a 27-year-old engineer when he encountered Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, at a topless bar in the Detroit area. Chin, who was to be married in nine days, was attending his bachelor party when he got into an argument with the two men.

According to the federal indictment, Ebens and Nitz called Chin a "chink," a "nip" and other obscenities before being ejected from the bar. Ebens allegedly returned with a baseball bat, chased Chin outside and caught him in the parking lot of a nearby McDonald's restaurant.

Witnesses said Nitz held Chin down as Ebens smashed his skull. A friend who cradled Chin before he lost consciousness said his last words were, "It isn't fair."

Ebens and Nitz pleaded guilty to manslaughter. They were handed a $3,000 fine and four months' probation--a sentence that outraged Asian Americans in Detroit and nationwide.

Lily Chin was well-known in Detroit's Chinese American community, where her husband had worked in laundries and restaurants. At the time of Vincent's death, she worked in a brush factory outside Detroit. Her husband had died six months earlier.

"She felt as one lone widow woman that she needed support," said Liza Chan, one of the early attorneys for American Citizens for Justice, a Detroit-based Asian American coalition that was founded in the wake of Chin's slaying.

"She really thought justice had to be sought. You have to give her credit for that. At the time, she hadn't any notion it would turn out to be what it turned out to be," which was the beginning of the Asian American civil rights movement.

Chin spoke at rallies across the country. She never spoke at length, but her message was nearly always the same: "I want justice for my son."

In 1984, Vincent Chin became the first Asian American whose case was prosecuted under the 1964 civil rights statute providing federal penalties for hate crimes.

During the civil rights trial, a dancer from the topless bar testified that the fight began when Ebens told Chin, "It's because of you little [obscenity] that we're out of work." She said Chin walked over and pushed Ebens, then the two started swinging chairs at each other.

Defense attorneys did not dispute that their clients killed Vincent Chin. But they denied that the two men assaulted him out of racial prejudice.

Ebens was found guilty on one count of violating Chin's civil rights but was acquitted on another count of conspiring with Nitz to violate Chin's rights. Nitz was acquitted on both counts.

A federal appeals court later threw out Ebens' conviction and ordered a new trial. That trial, in 1987, resulted in Ebens' acquittal.

It devastated Chin. One of the most searing moments in the 1989, Oscar-nominated documentary, "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" was the filmmakers' interview with Chin, who was nearly incoherent with grief.

"The skin is different," she said, "but the heart is the same."

A $1-million civil judgment in a third trial was later levied against Ebens, but he has not made any payments.

Soon after Ebens' acquittal, Chin announced that after four decades in the United States, she was moving back to China.

"She had sisters, nieces and nephews here," said Oakland journalist Helen Zia, who was a Detroit magazine writer when she met Chin and became involved in her fight. "But she said she cried every night when she went to bed, she cried when she woke up. She lived in the same house Vincent grew up in. It was really hard, being in Detroit, seeing all the landmarks--where he worked, was chased down, killed.

"She said it was too sad to stay in America."

She returned to her village in Guangdong province. She seemed happy, said Kwoh, who visited her in 1995.

She intended to spend her last days there, but she became ill and decided to seek treatment in the United States.

She will be buried Saturday in Detroit next to her husband and son.

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