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Curtis Chin discusses memoir, chronicling his upbringing at Chung’s restaurant in Detroit

General Foundation News

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, Kresge hosted Curtis Chin, a Detroit native and author of Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant: A Memoir, for an in-person speaking engagement.

The event was coordinated by Kresge’s Equity Task Force, which hosts monthly learning and engagement activities for all staff centered on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice.

Chin’s memoir chronicles his middle school through college years at Chung’s, a family-owned Chinese restaurant in Detroit’s Cass Corridor in the 1980s.

According to Chin, Chung’s welcomed everyone from Mayor Coleman Young to local drag queens to Hollywood stars to elderly Jewish couples. The diverse patrons would sit down at adjoining booths to enjoy Chung’s infamous egg rolls, with the secret ingredient of peanut butter, and a Detroit-classic almond boneless chicken.

In the Cass Corridor, in the “city of tomorrow” (Troy, Michigan), and in Ann Arbor, Chin came of age and learned to embrace his gay and American-born Chinese identities.

During the presentation, Chin shared excerpts from his book, including his family’s migration from Canton, China, to Canton, Ohio, and then to Detroit where the family opened Chung’s. He also reflected on his first trip to the Fox Theatre to watch Bruce Lee’s Return of the Dragon.

Curtis Chin, a Chinese-American author, takes a selfie with a room full of Kresge staff behind him.
Curtis Chin takes a selfie with Kresge staff members attending his book discussion.

As Chin shared many memorable moments with Kresge staff, we learned that Chung’s Cass Corridor location was its second home. The first existed in the original Chinatown, which was demolished to construct the Lodge Freeway very similar to the demolition of Black Bottom with the construction of I-375.

How I-375 and M-10 tore through Black & Brown communities

Affected by the same urban renewal and ‘slum clearing’ project that destroyed the Black communities of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in the 1950s, Detroit’s first Chinatown was forced to hastily relocate in the early 1960s when the Lodge Freeway or M-10 was constructed. The Detroit Historical Society shared this content in a recent blog on Detroit’s two official Chinatowns.

Chinatown was rebuilt in the Cass Corridor, bordered by Cass Avenue, Peterboro Street, Second Avenue and Temple Street. Chinese Detroiters continued to gather in this second Chinatown for food, shopping, church, school and community events, and carried on the tradition of gathering at Belle Isle on Sundays.

While the population of Detroit’s Chinatown dwindled in the decades after the relocation to the Cass Corridor, the Chinatown pagoda still stands at Cass and Peterboro to honor the history of Detroit’s Chinatown community.

Reflecting on the damaging impact of infrastructure projects that fail to provide transformational solutions to community needs, Kresge’s Rip Rapson and Regina Smith shared this sentiment in a Smart Cities op-ed:

“The history of U.S. urban renewal is laced with tragedy: Federal infrastructure projects meant to reimagine our cities for the better instead deepened racial divides, sundering once-vibrant Black and brown neighborhoods and facilitating disastrous commuter sprawl. Look no further than the destruction of once-vibrant Black neighborhoods like Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in Detroit or Seneca Village in New York. The policies from decades ago continue to reverberate today as ever-present reminders of the harm that can be generated by federal spending that fails to fully account for racial equity and opportunity.”

Remembering Vincent Chin

During Chin’s visit to Kresge, he also discussed the senseless murder of Vincent Chin, where Chung’s served as the meeting place to get updates on Vincent’s condition as the local media remained silent on this hate crime.

A man in a suit and a mask kneels down in front of the tombstone of Vincent Chin.
The Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance and Rededication concluded its public events at the site of Chin’s grave on Sunday. (Photo by Patrick Barber for The Kresge Foundation)

In 2022, many Detroiters took part in the Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance and Rededication and viewed the national PBS broadcast of the 1988 movie Who Killed Vincent Chin?

The culmination of many months of planning by committee members across the country, with Kresge’s support as a presenting sponsor, Detroit-based activities included five days of film screenings, public art, musical and spoken word performances, panel discussions and more, all to mark the tragic events of 1982 that were a scar on the city and country, but that also energized the modern Asian American civil rights movement.

During a media press conference, Kresge Detroit Program Managing Director Wendy Lewis Jackson said the foundation supported the effort in hopes that it would “spark a national conversation on democracy, racial justice and Asian American culture. Our hope is that these events will engage present and future generations in the commitment to social justice and the fight against racism and hate.”

Several Kresge staff members and Board Trustee Kathy Ko Chin shared their reflections in a feature story.

‘Make space for joy’

While we reflected on these tragic events, much like a large family discusses moments in history over a shared meal, Chin also reminded us to make space for joy and humor when faced with challenges. Our Kresge colleagues shared many moments of laughter as we listened to Chin read pages from his book.

At points throughout the book, Chin will make you laugh out loud as he navigates the complexity of race and sexuality at a challenging time in Detroit’s history. The book is broken down into three sections with subtitles that align with Chung’s menu of Appetizers and Soups, Rice and Noodles, and Main Entrees.

Chin’s book has received high praise including being listed on TIME’s Most Anticipated Books, Washington Post’s Books to Read, Lambda Literary Review’s October Most Anticipated LGBTQIA+ Literature, and the American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book-Israel Fishman Nonfiction Award to name a few.

The conversation was coupled with a delicious lunch. Chin assisted in coordinating the menu for his book talk, which included egg rolls (without the secret ingredient) and Chung’s famous almond boneless chicken.

The connectivity between Detroit’s Chinatown and Kresge does not end with Chin’s book talk. In honor of Kresge’s Centennial, the foundation is hosting an exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum titled, Kresge at 100: A Century of Impact, a Future of Opportunity. If you happen to visit the Kresge exhibit, be sure to peruse the Detroit Chinatown exhibit, too. The exhibits are side-by-side.

We look forward to inviting Chin back to Kresge when he publishes his next book, tentatively titled, Leftovers.