The life, death, and small beginnings of rebirth 

Detroit’s forgotten Chinatown

We were seated at a long, communal table at Harry’s Detroit bar just off Cass. To our right was a group of suburbanite wannabe foodies who struggled to remember if they had ever tried pho. To our left, a couple on date night, who were looking for a laid-back spot for dinner and drinks, but were instead urged to join the large dinner party, marking their first pop-up dining experience.

After the first round of drinks were served, the night's star, chef Brion Wong, stopped by to say hello. Over the next three hours, we were treated to several courses of Asian-inspired cuisine, a preview of what was to come at one of the more hotly anticipated restaurants in Detroit, the Peterboro.

The concept, which plays up Wong's background in cooking at Asian restaurants in New York, is to be installed right where the name suggests, Peterboro at Cass, less than a mile north of the November pop-up at Harry's.

The new restaurant will sit right around the corner of a trendy new bottle shop, 8 Degrees Plato, and Iconic Tattoo. Across the street, another new restaurant — a new location for the reinvented Jim Brady's Detroit is in the works. Later this year, a team of developers hopes to construct a new food hall, made entirely out of shipping containers. Not far, the buzz of construction of the new Red Wings arena carries on.

Rewind a couple of years ago and the same block was occupied by an assorted hodgepodge of drug dealers and other transients who gathered around a small grouping of buildings with faded signs scrawled in Cantonese symbols and crumbling pagoda rooftops.

If you asked most Detroiters what they thought of this run-down part of town, they would have probably mentioned the storied Cass Corridor, wrought with hookers, hustlers, and drug addicts. If you suggested that this was once Detroit's Chinatown, you just might get a look of disbelief.

The scene is not just a long-forgotten neighborhood, banished to the history books, but also the epicenter of Detroit's Chinese food desert. It's remarkable to consider that Detroit's 140-odd square miles are mostly void of one of the most popular ethnic cuisines in the country. There are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the United States — almost three times the number of McDonald's franchises — and in almost every large American city there is a Chinatown. Detroit boasts no such current neighborhood, and as far as Chinese food goes, the city lays claim to not much in the way of special or authentic cuisine than greasy takeouts scattered in strip malls.

Without question, the decline of Chinatown and the restaurants that drove its business is symbolic of and intertwined with the downfall of Detroit's own heyday. Anyone who calls Detroit's new restaurant scene an oasis — with $13 "small plates" of shrimp soaked in avocado mousse and heirloom tomato salads — without talking about the past is missing the point. On the backs of trendy New American locavore haunts are the ghosts of Detroit's Chinatown.

The end of days

The beginning of the end for the neighborhood came in 1951 during the funeral of its mayor, Harry Chung. It was marked by a $25,000, two-day celebration, complete with a jam-packed funeral procession where mourners carried signs written in Cantonese calligraphy. There was a blocks-long trail of cars on a once-congested Third Avenue, lined by tenements, laundries, restaurants, and underground card parlors. This was Detroit's original Chinatown.

Obituaries for Chung were written in both dailies, and visitors from all over the United States flocked to Detroit to pay their respects to the businessman and restaurateur who was revered for generations within the city's Chinese-American community.

Despite his influence on the neighborhood and the outpouring of admiration for his impact at the time, the scene of his memorial is hard to imagine in present-day Detroit. Visit the site now and any sign of the once-bustling Chinese-American district has been completely buried, in part by the presence of the MGM Grand Casino, in part by the whizzing of cars on Interstate 75.

A decade after his death, Chinatown was torn down and relocated to the area surrounding Cass and Peterboro, where its decline continued for the next 40 years despite efforts to develop an international business district around the area. The once legendary restaurant Chung founded (aptly named Chung's) moved too. But the 1967 rebellion drove away Chinese-Americans, along with most other Detroiters who could afford to flee. Suburban sprawl brought on by the relocation of the automotive factories and the advent of the shopping mall didn't help either. Some argue the final nail in the coffin came in 1982 with the murder of Vincent Chin, who was killed by two autoworkers who mistook the Chinese-American for Japanese and drunkenly blamed him for the downfall of the U.S. car industry.

Chung's hung on until 2000. It was the last restaurant to shutter its doors in the by-then derelict Chinatown neighborhood.

The city's first Chinese immigrants

The first Chinese immigrants began moving to Detroit in the 1880s, lured to the city by the opportunity to help build the railroads. By the turn of the 20th century, a bustling collection of restaurants and groceries became a fixture at Third and Michigan. The city was introduced to its first two Cantonese chop suey lunch counters in 1905 when two men set up shop alongside the Detroit River to serve sailors and Americans curious about this new Eastern cuisine.

By the 1920s, Chinese-Americans were establishing civic groups and forming merchants' organizations. That's when a 20-year-old Henry Chung moved to Detroit from Ohio.

Chung made a name for himself for his role as a sort of fixer in the community, someone other Chinese business owners and families could turn to in times of need, someone who could help make problems go away. Around 1940, he opened Chung's Chinese restaurant. The restaurant introduced Detroiters to a now regional staple — almond boneless chicken, an American-Cantonese hybrid entree that can be found really nowhere else.

For many years, Chung was the executive secretary of On Leong, a Chinese merchants association, was active in the China Relief Society (which housed a notorious illegal gambling ring in the basement), and rubbed elbows with the political elite in City Hall.

Far from authentic, Chung's was still revered for offering Detroiters an early taste of ethnic cuisine, and a faint reminder to the by then more-established Chinese-Americans of their roots.

"The older immigrants in Detroit, they were not cooks, they were laborers, they were hard workers, they built the railway. Nobody taught them (how to cook), they only knew chop suey," says Raymond Wong, a longtime restaurateur, who owned Wong's of Windsor for 30 years. "Chung's was a pretty good chop suey restaurant."

At the center of Chung's menu was almond boneless chicken. For the uninitiated, almond boneless chicken, or ABC to some, is akin to say, Southern-style smothered fried chicken. Breast fillets are battered and deep-fried and hidden under a thick coat of brown gravy. The dish is usually topped with scallions and thinly sliced almonds on top of shredded iceberg lettuce.

"Our restaurant was really known for [the boneless almond chicken]," says Curtis Chin, a filmmaker whose father inherited Chung's. "I can't say whether there's a real history behind it, but the one thing that you can say is that it was adopted by Detroit. If you go to chop suey joints around the coasts, you might still see it there, but it's one of those cultural vestiges that is kind of developed here and just kind of stays around. You wouldn't find this in China."

Beginning of the end for Chinatown

By the end of the 1950s, Chinatown's original location had long shown signs of decline and was considered a skid row in need of demolition. And so government leaders in Detroit, in what is now widely considered a major gaffe in city planning among the area's Chinese-American community, set out to redevelop Chinatown elsewhere. Only this time, instead of offering the community a say in where it resettled, the city wanted to lump all ethnic groups into one "International village," and dedicate a sliver of that to the Chinese-Americans.

The problem with Detroit's plan, as described by longtime Chinese-American activist Roland Hwang, was that the city and Chinatown leaders could not come to an agreement as to how to build this new neighborhood. Chinatown merchants wanted their own space, on their own terms.

"We now know it's hard to transplant an entire ethnic community," says Hwang, now an attorney in the state's attorney general's office. "You can't reproduce something like that. Instead you end up obliterating an entire community."

The international village proposal died, and Chinatown's future became less clear soon after ground broke in 1961 at its new location at Cass and Peterboro. Curtis Chin grew up in the kitchen, and says he vividly remembers stories of some of Chung's best customers — of prostitutes and the down-and-out juxtaposed against families from the suburbs with their children or young lovers celebrating prom night. Among those stories was that of the murder of Tommie Lee, owner of another Chinatown restaurant, Bow Wah. In 1970, Lee was shot dead by a lone gunman in an apparent robbery gone wrong.

The notion of Chinatown as a district for seedy shakedowns and concealed chicanery continued to appear in the collective consciousness over the years. For instance, in the release of films like Roman Polanski's Chinatown, the film portrayed shady characters colluding in the night over plates of General Tso's under a stuttering "Chop Suey" sign. Duck sauce and chopsticks joined handguns on the table.

That narrative continued throughout the decades. In the 1982 thriller Blade Runner, police Officer Rick Deckard is seen eating at a noodle bar in a futuristic Chinatown before he's approached by agents who drag him down a rabbit hole that ultimately leads to his demise. In 1997, we saw Men in Black, with a pivotal scene also in a Chinese restaurant, wherein an alien agent convinces another man to join an under-worldly organization. It was almost like stepping into a Chinese restaurant meant going into another universe, a journey to the ends of the earth shrouded in bamboo and ginger.

In Detroit, we played up that hype at one of the most popular Chinatown restaurants at the time, Forbidden City. The name itself conjures up all sorts of images and exoticisms that ring nothing but stereotypical by today's standards.

The killing of Vincent Chin

By the 1980s, suspicions of corruption and the infiltration of the Chinese mafia started encroaching in the neighborhood, with shakedowns for payments from restaurateurs and grocers took place, according to a 1981 Detroit News article.

And then came an event that would not just shake relations between Asians and whites in Detroit, but across the country.

It was the middle of summer, June 19, 1982. The Milwaukee Brewers pummeled the Tigers at Tiger Stadium. Detroit was in the midst of the type of epic heat wave that often ignites violence on the streets. That night, Vincent Chin, an engineer and part-time waiter at the Golden Star Chinese restaurant in Ferndale who was supposed to get married in eight days, was celebrating his bachelor party at the Fancy Pants Lounge strip club in Highland Park. The scene could have taken place anywhere in the United States. The revelers getting trashed, sucking down screwdrivers and shots of whiskey, with Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" likely blaring over the sound system. The bachelor party was belligerently confronted by another group, a drunken Chrysler plant superintendent and his stepson, who started throwing punches at Chin and his friends. The group of men took the fight outside after they were thrown out of the club.

The instigators, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, thought Chin was of Japanese descent, which in early 1980s Detroit — as the Big Three were laying off plant workers and as Americans were opting for more economical Japanese imports — was a group who faced a particular kind of bigotry. Ebens called Chin a "motherfucker for taking our jobs." Chin tried to flee to a McDonald's, but his attackers followed him, now armed with a Louisville slugger. The Chrysler superintendent proceeded to beat Chin's head in while his doting stepson held him down. Chin, slipping into unconsciousness, lamented, "it's not fair!" As subdural hematoma set in after the fourth blow, Chin's protests quieted down to a whisper. He eventually slipped into a coma beneath the golden arches. Chin died four days later and with him so did almost all of good-old Chinatown, as more Asian-Americans fled to the comforts of the suburbs, taking with them pieces of a once vibrant community.

Ebens and Nitz were only sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay a fine, but the sentencing awoke a civil rights movement among Asian-Americans outraged by the verdicts.

"We really didn't follow the case until after the sentencing," says the AG lawyer Roland Hwang. "We sort of thought it would take care of itself."

Only it wasn't resolved. Hwang, then president of the Detroit chapter of the Oriental Culture Association, received a call from Chinatown's honorary mayor at the time, Kin Yee.

"Yee said, 'We have a problem here,'" Hwang says.

That's when the two, joined by journalist Helen Zia and Marisa Chuang Ming, formed American Citizens for Justice, a group dedicated to fighting for the civil liberties within the Asian-American community. The group fought for, and lost, several appeals at the county and state level to overturn Chin's killers' convictions. The group learned that one of the dancers at the Fancy Pants club, Racine Colwell, overheard Ebens spitting out racial epitaphs like "nip" and "chink." The activists pushed forward, urging for federal civil rights charges to be brought against the killers. They won that appeal and Ebens was handed a guilty verdict and 20-year sentence before U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor. The victory was short-lived. Ebens' verdict was overturned in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. But the case caught national attention and ignited a widespread conversation about the civil rights of Asian-Americans everywhere.

Many years later, the incident would move Curtis Chin, the filmmaker, to revisit the Michigan upbringing he had wanted to escape when he left for Los Angeles to pursue a career in television. During a six-month stay in Detroit in 2005 after the death of his father, he began focusing on the Chinese-American experience in Detroit. That led to his eventual release of the documentary Vincent Who? which debuted in 2009.

Chin also began writing a memoir, which as he told us when he visited Detroit awhile back, would be based on his experiences growing up in Chinatown. The film has taken Chin all over the world to speak at universities, and he has made several return visits to his hometown. When we met with him back in 2014 it was at Shangri-La in midtown. We sampled the dish that made his family's restaurant famous, the almond boneless chicken. He noted at the time it was his first time he had eaten it since his parents' restaurant closed over a decade ago.

"I usually just get Lafayette Coney Island," he told us with a grin. He pushed the almond boneless chicken around his plate from side to side with bemusement, and didn't ask for a doggie bag. He did take home the fortune from his cookie though, tucking it in his wallet.

A new life

Chung's now stands vacant, but the neighborhood has sprouted new life.

In 2014 Matt Hessler purchased a building with four retail spaces on the northwest corner of Cass and Peterboro. In it he installed Iconic Tattoo last year where the former Mantra resale outlet used to stand. A few months later, the parlor was followed by a sleek second location for Ferndale-based craft beer shop 8 Degrees Plato, which opened in the former Wah Lee grocery store space (once owned by Jin Chin, who opened the successful Mon Jin Lau in Troy in 1969). This time around, instead of selling rare ingredients to the Chinatown restaurant owners, the spot caters to craft beer fans.

Around the corner, a bicycle shop is in the works, as is the Peterboro, set to open anytime now.

As for Chinatown's essence, one need only look just outside of the city, mostly in Oakland County, and more recently at a newer wave of Chinese immigrants making their home in the Ann Arbor area. The migration is similar to those in other parts of the country, like New York and Southern California, where the traditional hubs have faded and given way to suburban environs.

The migration has resulted in establishments like Mon Jin Lau, which offers what they call NuAsian, featuring not just traditional Chinese cuisine, but also sushi, fine wine, and weeknight mixers for young professionals. After the death of Curtis Chin's father, the family sold the restaurant concept to another family and it has since relocated to Waterford.

And while Chinese movement in metro Detroit may have shifted more toward surrounding Washtenaw County, a still burgeoning and relatively younger Asian immigrant district can be found in Madison Heights, dubbed by some as Little Saigon, where pho shops, Asian supermarkets, and Vietnamese-Chinese fusion restaurants abound.

Tom Brady, the restaurateur working on the new Jim Brady's location, says he looked all over the city for the perfect place to set up shop. When he came across the old Chung's, he knew it's where he belonged.

"Chung's was one of those memories from my childhood," Brady says. "My dad always said they had the best egg rolls. But once it started getting more violent, we kind of stopped going."

For Brady, Being able to reopen a legendary restaurant founded by his grandfather more than a half a century ago inside another iconic Detroit establishment, he says "there's some romance to it."

"For us to come back to Detroit, it means a lot to us," he says.

As for the Peterboro, co-owner Dave Kwiatkowski says he and his partners lucked out when they met Wong, who grew up in a Chinese-American household in New York. Originally, the space was to have more of a Polynesian theme to it, with tiki drinks. With Wong's expertise, the concept will be able to pay homage to the area's history.

"I just love that we're going to be the only Chinese restaurant in old Chinatown," Kwiatkowski says.

We gathered much of our historical research from DetroitChinatown.org, a website compiled by attorney Chelsea Zuzindlak. In 2009, she installed a public exhibition of the region's Chinese-American history at the Detroit Historical Museum.

Images courtesy of the Detroit News Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

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