Paula Yoo fights to end racism against Asians

By Caroline Gordon

Arts & Features Editor

The Education Department, Center for Inclusive Excellence, and Council on Diversity and Inclusion welcomed author Paula Yoo virtually to discuss the history of anti-Asian sentiments Jan. 26.

Yoo is an award-winning author, TV writer and producer, and feature screen-writer. 

Her books have won many awards such as the Boston-Globe Horn Book Award, the National Book Award Longlist for Young People’s Literature, IRA Nobles and Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections. 

She previously worked as a journalist reporting for The Seattle Times, The Detroit News, and PEOPLE Magazine. 

Yoo graduated with a Bachelor of Arts cum laude in English from Yale University, a Master of Science in journalism from Columbia University, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. 

She began the presentation by discussing Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American man from a working class area of Chinatown in Detroit. 

Chin was adopted by his mother, Lily Chin, who brought him to America when he was 5 years old. 

Yoo said Chin was an affable kid who “had a great smile.

“He was the kind of person that if you met him for the first time, he would bring you into a circle and want to be your best friend immediately – just a really good guy,” Yoo said. 

She said Chin was engaged to a woman named Vicki Long. Their wedding was set for June 28, 1982. 

Yoo said on June 19, 1982 Chin and a few friends went out for a bachelor party at an adult entertainment night club. 

As Chin and his friends were having a good time, two white men were staring them down. 

The perpetrators were Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz. 

People started hearing racist slurs such as j*p and ch*nk coming from where Ebens and Nitz were. 

One of the dancers at the club claimed she overheard Ronald Ebens say, “It’s because of you little mother f*cker that we are out of work!” 

Yoo said the fight escalated as the perpetrators chased Chin and his friends down the street with baseball bats.

She said Chin was beaten into a coma. Ebens and Nitz were charged with second degree murder, but because of plea bargaining, the charge was lowered to manslaughter. 

With a sorrowful look on her face, Yoo explained that Chin was in a coma for four days before being pronounced dead on June 23, 1982 – six days before he was supposed to get married. 

Yoo said in March 1983, there was a hearing for his manslaughter. Both perpetrators pleaded guilty. 

She added the men expressed remorse and the judge believed their actions were due to “toxic masculinity and drinking too much.” 

Yoo said the judge sentenced the men to three years probation each with a $3,000 fine. 

“This should have stayed a second degree murder charge. Why was it plea bargained down to manslaughter?” Yoo asked. 

She touched upon how after the tragedy, a group of lawyers and activists, including Helen Zia, a Chinese-American journalist and prominent figure in the Asian-American movement, started a group called American Citizens for Justice. 

Yoo said, “That story has been gaining awareness because that was another example of Asian Americans banding together in solidarity.” 

She added, “The reason why the Vincent Chin case is so high profile is because Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Indian Americans, the Latinx communities and the Black community all came together to form a diverse coalition to fight for Vincent Chin’s justice.”

Yoo said after the Vincent Chin case, Asian Americans began referring to themselves as Asian Americans. She said otherwise they would not be granted their civil rights. 

She noted how she has seen photos of Asian American college students from the 1960s marching “arm and arm” with the Black Panthers. 

Yoo explained that in 1982 America dealt with an oil crisis, causing the American automobile industry to struggle. There were hundreds of thousands of layoffs across the country. 

She said people were no longer buying American cars as there were smaller, more efficient cars coming from foreign countries such as Japan. 

“The auto industry and politicians started scapegoating Japan,” Yoo said. 

Yoo asked, “Sounds a little familiar, right?

“It sounds like the COVID-19 pandemic where suddenly Trump said it was the ‘China virus’. Then we started hearing things like ‘kung flu,’” she added. 

Yoo showed the covers of her books and discussed one of the episodes of West Wing she wrote titled, “Han”, which had a character of Korean descent. She said the episode inspired her book on Anna May Wong, who was the first Chinese and Asian American movie actress from the 1920s. 

Yoo said Wong was one of the first women to be featured on the American quarter. The quarters were released this year as part of the “American Women Quarters Program” according to the U.S. Mint.

“She fought for representation matters long before the computer and Twitter were invented,” Yoo said. 

She said Wong started “fighting for less racist roles,” as during her career she was “relegated to be the Mongol slave or other stereotypical roles.” 

Yoo said one of the roles Wong auditioned for was that of a wife married to a white man in the film “The Good Earth.” 

She said as the husband was white, she was not allowed to play the wife because during the “golden age of Hollywood” actors of color were forbidden from interacial kissing with white actors. 

Yoo said a white actress named Louise Rainer was selected for the role. However, since the character was supposed to be Asian, they created “yellow face” by taping her eyes back. 

She added that Wong was casted as a Mongol slave in the film. 

Yoo offered some insight. “I show you this because, as a writer, whatever you do in life can help influence what your books are. So, I always tell people it doesn’t matter what job you have, whatever it is you are doing – all of that can translate into your writing because we all have a book inside of us. We all have our own story to tell,” she said. 

“No matter what your day job is, you are all writers as well.”