There are many reasons I could devote my annual Asian Heritage Month article to Chinese American science fiction author William F. Wu. Having written thirteen novels and over fifty short stories (many having appeared in famed magazines like Omni and Andromeda), Wu has built up quite the body of work and won numerous honors for his achievements. One of his best known works is the Hong on the Range series, which combines his childhood love of westerns with his desire to remove Asian stereotypes (like Fu Manchu) from American popular culture. In fact, it’s been noted that he “weaves Asian characters into the tapestry of his most personal fiction, trying to reverse stereotypes and create tales that illuminate the Asian experience” in much of his work. Let’s not forget his brief cameo as a zombie in 1989’s The Laughing Dead. However, I want to focus on what I personally feel are two of his most famous accomplishments in the genre.
First is participation in the Robot City and Robots in Time series. Said books were set in the fictional universe created by legendary Isaac Asimov, so you know they don’t hand out the keys to the kingdom to just anyone. Although the original idea was to have six different authors write a continuing storyline across the Robot City line of books, Wu was eventually tapped to write two of them. As for Robots in Time, this was the first series to be set in Asimov’s universe to be written after his death in 1992. As was the case with Robot City, Robots in Time was written to target a young adult audience (but this fact was never noted on the books themselves). This series was so popular that it was reissued in 2004.
Second (and in my opinion, the most important) is the fact that his 1983 short story “Wong’s Lost and Found Emporium” was adapted into an episode of the 80’s revival of The Twilight Zone in 1985. The plot involves an Asian American man who comes to the titular store looking for his lost compassion. According to Wong, he lost it due to the racial intolerance he’s dealt with over the years, with the murder of Vincent Chin being mentioned specifically. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, you’re (sadly) not alone. Although the name “Rodney King” immediately brings racial discrimination and physical brutality to mind, asking someone about Vincent Chin is more than likely to result in their giving you a puzzled look and asking who you’re talking about. Sadly, this is even factoring in how his murder had gotten more exposure in recent years.
It was June 19, 1982 when Vincent Chin and his friends were celebrating his bachelor party at the Detroit strip club “The Fancy Pants Lounge.” Also at the club were Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz. Nitz, like many in Detroit at the time, had been laid off from his job in the auto industry. Although employed as a superintendent at Chrysler’s Warren Truck Assembly Plant, Ebens directed racially charged comments at Chin’s party and cited them as the reason “that we’re out of work” (a reference to the rise of the Japanse auto industry during the 80’s, nevermind the fact that Chin was Chinese American and Americans choosing to buy cheaper foreign models were what led to the layoffs in the first place). Chin responded by engaging in a fight with the two. After being separated, they had another fight in the parking lot that resulted in Ebens attacking with a baseball bat and Chin fleeing. Ebens and Nitz then proceeded to search the area for Chin, even going so far as to pay another man to help them. After finding him, Nitz held him down and Ebens beat him with his bat until Chin fell into unconsciousness. Although hospitalized, Vincent Chin fell into a coma and died on June 23rd.
While both were convicted of manslaughter, neither Ebens nor his stepson served any time in prison for what they had done. In fact, there were numerous twists and turns in the efforts to try them. Despite the African American and Jewish communities showing solidarity with the Asian American community, justice was not served and the case quickly faded from the public eye. Nitz was eventually acquitted and Ebens has only paid a small portion of the money he was ordered to pay Chin’s family.
By referencing Vincent Chin in “Wong’s Lost and Found Emporium,” William F. Wu kept the murder in the public eye. Given the massive popularity of The Twilight Zone, this episode has been in syndication for decades (and will continue to be). The rise of home video and massive popularity of streaming video services have also ensured that audiences would be continue to be exposed to the episode and what it has to say. In the internet age, curious viewers can now research Chin’s murder online with ease and truly understand the injustice of the incident. In other words, he has helped guarantee that the murder of Vincent Chin will never be forgotten.