From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: Paula Yoo's 2021 BGHB Nonfiction Award Speech

But what about Vincent Chin?

That was the first question to pop into my head when The Detroit News offered me a job as a full-time reporter in the summer of 1993. That was also the first question my Asian American friends asked me. “Are you scared of going to Detroit because of Vincent Chin?”

When I was growing up, Asian American history and literature were seldom taught in-depth at my schools. It was as if we did not exist. As a result, I graduated from high school with a desire to fill in the gaps. I am mostly self-taught when it comes to Asian American history, literature, and pop culture; and the 1987 Academy Award–nominated ­documentary feature Who Killed Vincent Chin? was my first encounter with ­Vincent Chin’s story, when I was in college.

In fact, by the early 1990s, Vincent Chin had become a household name for many Asian American Gen Xers (like myself). And now here I was, in 1993, a twenty-four-year-old Korean American woman — who drove a ­Nissan, no less — about to move to Michigan, home of the Big Three ­automakers: Ford, GM, and Chrysler.

Michigan was also home to Vincent Chin. On June 19, 1982, the twenty-seven-year-old Chinese American was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers on the night of his bachelor party at a nightclub in Highland Park, just outside Detroit. One day after his wedding was to take place, his bride, family, and friends attended his funeral instead.

Vincent Chin's gravestone. Photo courtesy of Paula Yoo.

Vincent Chin’s killing happened at the height of anti-Asian racism, as competition from Japan’s import cars was unfairly blamed for the mass layoffs throughout the American auto industry. Although both men were found guilty of manslaughter, a sympathetic white male judge gave them only three years of probation and a three-thousand-dollar fine each.

This outraged the Asian American community, who protested across the country. As a result, the Department of Justice and the FBI conducted a federal investigation. In November 1983, they concluded there was enough evidence to indict both men for two counts of violating Vincent Chin’s civil rights — one for conspiracy and one for violating his civil right to be in a place of public accommodation (the Fancy Pants Club) on account of his race.

Site of the former Fancy Pants Club. Photo courtesy of Paula Yoo.

Ronald Ebens, the man who held the bat, was found guilty of one count of violating Vincent’s civil right to be in a place of public accommodation on account of his race in the first trial in 1984. His ­stepson, Michael Nitz, was cleared of both counts. But Ebens’s conviction was appealed on the grounds of alleged witness coaching. His conviction was overturned in 1986, and a second trial, in 1987, cleared him of all charges. In the eyes of the law, Ebens was ultimately found not guilty, devastating Vincent’s family and friends and everyone who fought for his justice.

However, Vincent’s death enacted change. His case was the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American. He became a symbol of justice for the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. The fortieth anniversary of his killing is this year. His name made front-page news recently because of the haunting similarities between his case and today’s almost ten-thousand anti-Asian hate crimes, due to the pandemic, as reported by the Stop AAPI Hate organization ( In addition, one out of four AAPI teenagers has reported being verbally or physically harassed and bullied for the same reason, according to a 2020 Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign survey.

My family, friends, and I have also experienced pandemic-related anti-Asian racism. Relatives have reported airline passengers requesting to be seated away from them on planes. A white man refused to board an elevator with me, even though we both were wearing masks. I was racially profiled by a white family who was afraid I might infect their children, even though I was following social distancing protocol at the time by standing more than six feet away from them…in front of my own house.

And then Atlanta happened.

On March 16, 2021, a twenty-one-year-old white man shot and killed eight people and wounded one other person at three separate spas in Atlanta, ­Georgia. Six of the eight people killed were of Asian descent. Authorities reported that the shooter said he was having a “bad day.” At the time, they did not think the killings were racially motivated. (Lawyers would later pursue hate crime charges against the killer, who has been sentenced to life in prison for four of the killings so far. Legal proceedings remain ongoing.)

When I watched the news interviews conducted with grieving family members and friends of the eight people killed in Atlanta, I flashed back to when I had interviewed people for From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry. Many of them had cried. Even though Vincent Chin had died almost forty years ago, they shed fresh tears as if it had just happened. I was witnessing trauma occurring in real time. They weren’t remembering what had happened — they were reliving it. They were also reliving the moment when they were told his death was not racially ­motivated…that Asian Americans did not count when it came to the discussion on racism. They — we — were erased.

Vincent Chin mural in Detroit, which was demolished in 2021. Photo courtesy of Paula Yoo.

Atlanta became our flashpoint during the pandemic. We fought back. Again. “Stop AAPI Hate” rallies were held across the country, just like the “Justice for Vincent Chin” protests from thirty-nine years earlier. As a result, Congress passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act on May 18, 2021…the same day as Vincent Chin’s birthday. He would have been sixty-six years old. President Biden signed it into law two days later.

This is why Vincent Chin’s story must be told. His name reminds us never to be complacent when we witness injustice. We must always speak out and fight back in solidarity against all forms of hatred and racism. Black Lives Matter. Stop AAPI Hate. Atlanta. That is what Vincent’s legacy has taught us.

[Read Horn Book reviews of the 2021 BGHB Nonfiction winners.]

Thank you to my brilliant editor Simon Boughton, Kristin Allard, Golda Rademacher, Daisy Glasgow, and everyone at Norton Young Readers for their wisdom and insight during the writing of this book. I treasure my amazing literary agent, Tricia Lawrence, along with Erin Murphy, Dennis Stephens, and everyone at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, for their guidance, advocacy, and most importantly, their friendship. I also want to thank publicist Caroline Sun of Sun Literary Arts for her advice, professional savvy, and support.

It was truly an honor to interview Vincent Chin’s family and friends, the activists who fought for his justice, the lawyers involved in the case, and everyone who provided access and guidance during my research for this book. I am especially grateful to Jarod Lew and his mother, Vikki Wong, for their honesty and courage as they opened up about this painful but empowering moment in their family history and for letting me, a stranger at first, into their lives.

To my family: my love and gratitude to my parents, Young and Kim Yoo; my brother, David Yoo, and my sister-in-law, Jessica Jackson Yoo; and my nephew and niece, Griffin and Lucy. Thank you to my husband, Kyle McCorkle, for his love, patience, support, and good humor during the intense writing and research of this book. And of course, to our three cats Oreo, Beethoven, and Charlotte, who kept me smiling despite all my deadlines!

Finally, my deepest gratitude to Roger Sutton and everyone at the Horn Book and the Boston Globe for the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Award for my book. I am deeply moved by this generous recognition that will help keep Vincent Chin’s name alive for the next generation. Writing about Asian American history for young readers is an honor and a privilege that I do not take lightly. I don’t want children and teenagers to grow up like me, seeing much of our history ignored and often erased. Because our stories, our history, our contributions, and our voices matter.

From the January/February 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB21. Read more from The Horn Book by and about Paula Yoo.

Paula Yoo

Paula Yoo is the author of the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Award winner From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement.

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