Curtis Chin (Courtesy photo)

Everything Curtis Chin learned, he learned growing up in the 1980s in the Chinese restaurant his family owned for six decades in Detroit. 

Chung’s was a cornerstone of Chinatown, making and selling 4,000 egg rolls each week and attracting Chinese, Black and Jewish residents, and even former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young. 

Born just two years after the Detroit riots, Chin’s childhood and coming of age is the premise of his first book “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant.” The memoir, being released next month, serves up a healthy dose of history and a critique on the social and political forces in Detroit that influenced Chin’s life growing up as a gay, first-generation Chinese-American in the Motor City.  

“It’s a love letter to Detroit,” said Chin. “If you pick up the book you may be thinking you’re just reading about a Chinese-American family, but I think you’re also going to learn about Detroit in a very specific time period, everything from Hudson’s department store closing to Devil’s Night – it’s all in there,” said Chin, who now lives in Los Angeles, California. 

After six decades, Chung’s Chinese restaurant at 3175 Cass Avenue in Detroit closed in 2000. (BridgeDetroit photo by Jena Brooker)

“One of the reasons why I wanted to write it was to give an honest portrayal of what it was like to live in Detroit at that time period, because you have all these rumors and all these stereotypes about the city. And yes, it was a difficult time, and yes, there were challenges. But there were also lots of good things that came out of Detroit at that time period, too. I wanted to give a real balanced understanding of the city from that particular time period.”

BridgeDetroit recently read an advanced copy of the book and sat down with Chin to learn more about his inspiration and his life.

*Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q. How long have you been working on this book? 

A. I started about 10 years ago when I originally wanted to just write about the family … but the memoir that you’re seeing is not that memoir, necessarily. That original book that I was writing was really just about being a kid and it was mostly elementary, middle school but I started thinking about identity politics and things like that, right before COVID, the George Floyd murder, but also the rise of Asian hate crimes. 

Q. The book didn’t go into much detail about the closing of Chung’s. Why did it close?

A. It was a confluence of things… There were repairs that were needed in the building and the owners of the building wouldn’t commit that kind of money. My dad tried to work around it, he tried to see if he could find a different property in the area because he wanted to stay. But it just wasn’t financially feasible because Chinese restaurants operate in a very thin profit margin. He made the decision that they would close the downtown (location) and just operate in the suburbs. That was disappointing. 

That’s why in some ways the closing of Chinatown is like, I can’t blame just people outside of the community for what happened. Part of it is our own responsibility, our own community to make sure that place remained vibrant. And we did abandon Chinatown ourselves.

Chung’s restaurant on Cass Avenue in Detroit closed down in 2000. (BridgeDetroit photo by Jena Brooker)

Q. How did you feel when Chung’s closed? 

A. It was hard. When my dad decided to close the restaurant, I said, ‘Don’t close it right away, I will come back, and I will help you organize a big celebration, because I feel like a lot of your customers will want to come and celebrate and it’s just a big thank you to all of them.’ 

But I think my dad was probably a little, maybe embarrassed. Or maybe he felt that he had failed or let the family down because it had closed underneath his watch. He was like, ‘No, we’re just going to close.’ So he basically gave one week’s notice to people. 

There was no celebratory party, there was no chance for people to come and say goodbye, to come and take pictures, or anything. He just sort of closed in the middle of the night. So that was sad to me.

Q. The former Chinatown community center at 3143 Cass Ave., now owned by Olympia Development of Michigan, the real estate arm of the Ilitch organization, was demolished in July, several years after a city ordered Olympia to do so. What was your reaction to this?

A. I can’t be too upset at the Ilitches. Yes, I can be upset because there was an opportunity, especially because there aren’t immediate plans for that building so in that sense, we did have a chance to right some wrongs. But our community was part of that, we did step away. 

Q. What’s left of the Chinatown you grew up knowing? 

A. Nothing’s left, there’s just two buildings – both connected to my family. We have long ties to that corner. That’s where I spent my childhood. There’s all these memories, images of that childhood. I think I’ll always be a Detroiter in that way. 

I’ve heard rumors that the new owners of the Chung’s building have already found a new tenant, a new Chinese restaurant. When I heard that I was a little sad, because there was still a percentage of me that always wished that I could come back and reopen the restaurant…but it’s not something I can do full time indefinitely, at least not at this point in my life. It’s a little sad, but it’s also good for progress in terms of bringing back that Chinatown in a small way. 

Q. Part of your inspiration for the book was wanting to share some of this history with the next generation. What else were you hoping to accomplish?

A. We live in a very divided country right now. We have these little silos where we don’t talk to each other. The Chinese restaurants are actually places where you can go in and possibly see somebody from a different racial, socio-economic, religious background. I wanted to take that opportunity to engage in a conversation where we talk about these very serious issues, but do it in a way that’s a little bit more friendly, or at least a little bit less vitriolic. So it’s sort of like, ‘come for the egg rolls, but stay for the talk on racism.’

The book comes out Oct. 17 and is available for pre-order.

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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1 Comment

  1. Great memories of Chung’s and Detroit as my father’s restaurant was near by Chung’s and is a historical site in Detroit. Looking forward to read Curtis’s book and reflecting on the memories of my beautiful childhood life lived.

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