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No Hollywood Ending: Lily Yee, Mother of Vincent Chin

This is the story of Lily Yee, the mother of Vincent Chin, whose brutal murder in 1982 at the hands of auto workers in Detroit galvanized the Asian American community.


Lily Yee was born in 1920 in Heping, Guangdong province. Her happy childhood was disrupted when one early morning, Lily’s parents grabbed her out of bed. The Japanese were invading and all the children in the area were to hide in the mountains. It was the start of a long and bitter period filled with the ominous sounds of Japanese fighter planes overhead and ravaging military forces on the ground.


Chin Hing

Right after the Second World War, Lily met and married Chin Hing. Chin Hing was from her mother’s village, but had been living in America since he was 17. He had fought in the US army and now he was back in China to get married. In 1948, Lily and Chin Hing emigrated to the US, settling in Detroit. Lily’s great-grandfather had worked on the Transcontinental Railroads and in spite of his tales of racism and suffering in America, the war had traumatized Lily too much to stay in China.

Mao’s communist regime closed China off from the outside world, forcing Lily to lose touch with her family back home. Instead, Lily and Chin Hing focused on building their own family.

However, Lily lost her first baby during pregnancy and was forced to undergo an operation that left her unable to bear children. The couple would eventually adopt a chubby six-year-old from Hong Kong. Lily’s life was finally on track and their son Vincent grew into a smart, kind and hard-working young man.


Vincent Chin

But life would take another tragic turn. First, Lily lost Chin Hing to kidney disease in the winter of 1981-82. Half a year later, Vincent was brutally murdered in a hate-crime that shocked the nation.

During Vincent’s bachelor party at a strip club with some friends, he got into an argument with two workers in Detroit’s auto industry, at the time suffering from the success of Japan’s cheaper cars. Taking Vincent for a Japanese, one yelled: “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work!” A fight broke out and the two men bashed Vincent’s skull with a baseball bat. He died four days later.


No Hollywood ending

Lily buried her son on the day of his planned wedding. She spent the next years tirelessly fighting for justice in the courts and participating in the civil rights movement. In the end, the court ruled that the two men were to pay $3,780. Neither were sentenced to jail. Vincent Chin’s case galvanized the political consciousness among Asian Americans. For the first time, the Asian American community came out as one, fighting against racial injustice.

However, for Lily, the injustice was too much to bear. She left the US and returned to her native village in Guangzhou province in China. She passed away in 2002.

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