Editor’s note: Curtis Chin is writer, director, filmmaker, artist, and activist. He has worked for mainstream entertainment, and produced Asian American documentaries including Vincent Who? (2008), Tested (2015), and Dear Corky (2022). His memoir, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant (2023 by Little, Brown), speaks to his Detroit family history and becoming a prominent activist. This is from a Zoom interview in June of 2022.

Curtis Chin. Photo courtesy of Chin.

“Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant”

I was born in 1968. My family arrived from Hoipin 开平 to Detroit, Michigan in the late 1800s. The joke was that they went from Canton, China to Canton, Ohio.[1] My great-great-grandfather eventually brought his son who then brought his son, etc. They lived in Detroit’s Old Chinatown near Michigan and Third Avenue.[2]

My great-grandfather, Joe Chin, opened his first restaurant in 1939. Chung’s Restaurant was opened in in 1940 on Third Avenue. During the World War II years, there were a lot of workers coming to Motor City’s factories, and they needed cheap places to eat. My great-grandfather was actually a scoundrel and had three wives. Chung’s Restaurant was for my grandfather and his sister. The sister’s husband was born in America, and his name was Chung; Harry Chung (1902-1951), was considered the unofficial mayor of Chinatown.[3] Prior to the restaurant, great-grandfather had a successful grocery store catering to Chinese in the area. Before that, he was in hand laundry.

Chung’s was the best Chinese restaurant in Detroit. I’m not bragging here; it’s the truth. In the sixty years of business, we sold tens of millions of eggrolls. They were all handmade – including the skin. We were also known for almond boneless chicken – also known as “ABC” – and woo dip harr (butterfly shrimp). 

In the early 1960’s, Detroit Chinatown had to give way to the building of Interstate 75. My family tried to move to the suburbs, but the landowner wouldn’t sell to them. They asked their Jewish customer to front the sale. The restaurant moved to the new Chinatown on the Cass Corridor near Petersboro. Detroit’s Chinatown was small with about six restaurants and two grocery stores. There were other Asian businesses in the area: Filipinos, Indians, and Afghanis. With time and the murder of Vincent Chin, this Chinatown area became seedy and diverse. The restaurant closed in 2000.

My father was born in Detroit. My mother was born in China, but she also had family in Ohio by the 1800s. My mother’s family tried to escape to Hong Kong after the Communist took over China in 1949. Unfortunately, the boat operator that was paid to take them over to Hong Kong, instead turned them in to the authorities. Eventually, my mother grew up in Hong Kong speaking Cantonese. Chinese families endured a lot of trauma.

1953 print ad.

My mom came over in 1965, and my parents had two kids right away. In 1967, Detroit had race riots.[4] The restaurant had to close its doors for four days – and that’s when I was conceived (laughs). My parents had three more children after me. We are five boys with one sister.

When I was 14, Vincent Chin was murdered in Detroit. Our families knew each other, and it was shocking. My response was to become a Republican (laughs). At that time, you didn’t want to be perceived as an Asian outsider so it seemed the most “American” thing I could do. In 1980, the Republicans had their convention in Detroit and that’s when Reagan said “make American great again”. In my graduating class of 400 from Troy High School, there were 10 to 12 Asians, 2 Latinos, and 2 African Americans.

Not only was I Asian in a Black and White world, I was also gay. I knew early on when I was second or third grade that I preferred to hang out with boys. When I was about twelve, there were a lot of robberies in the area. My grandfather was the president of On Leong, and he was meeting with some people in the restaurant. Along comes four gay Whites tapping at the window as they thought we were open late. They were invited in to share the food with On Leong members. For me, it was a moment that maybe my life as a Chinese American and my life as a gay could come together. Maybe I wouldn’t have to choose between identities, maybe I could be whole.

My family never said anything homophobic. We welcomed gay customers as downtown was the center of the gay community as well as Chinatown. But you still had this fear of disappointing your family. I don’t think my parents suspected I was gay. I liked sports and all that. They say I’m “cis”; if I didn’t tell you I am gay, you wouldn’t suspect. I was a good student, class president, on the school newspaper, and pretty popular. I even got on to the Wheel of Fortune TV game show when I was in high school. I had a great upbringing.

My parents wouldn’t let us date so that was a great excuse for me. My friends started having sex in high school, and I would say, “I’m sorry. I’m a Reagan Republican, and I believe in abstinence” (laughs).

Cass Avenue in 1976.
Source: Detroit News Photo Archive

In my senior year in 1985, there was another death near me. We had a favorite regular customer that said he was an E.R. doctor. It turned out Alan Canty was a psychologist that was frequenting the prostitutes near Chinatown. The pimp killed the doctor – also with a baseball bat – and then chopped up his body and littered it in garbage bags all over the state.[5]

AIDS was also a new fear.

I didn’t want to go to college. I thought I would be dead before the age of 30 anyways. My parents pressured me to apply for colleges. I let them choose one school. If I didn’t get in, that would be that. They chose the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I got in.

Creative Writing, Filmmaking, and Political Activism

This is the introduction to my new book. The same question for my great-great-grandfather is the question for me:

“Welcome to Chung’s. Is this for here or to go?” That’s how I would greet customers in the lobby of our popular restaurant in Detroit, armed with a smile and in a red waiter’s jacket with perpetual plum sauce stains. I was trying to see if they wanted to stay and dine-in or order take-away. But it was the same question facing my great-great-grandfather on a rickety dock in Guangzhou China – trying to decide his own future, for here or to go?[6]

On the one hand, I love my family, and I love the restaurant. But at the same time, I wanted to grow.

In college, I wasn’t dating. I was working fulltime to pay for college and going to classes at night. I worked on a diner on campus. I was also busy with student activism. That was about establishing Asian American studies.[7] Three “A’s” made me switch away from being Republican: apartheid, abortion rights, and AIDS. I could not understand Reagan’s stands on those issues. I had thought to be pre-law but I got the bug for creative writing. Michigan established a special creative writing program, and I was the only person of color to get in.

Next was New York City in 1990. I just turned 22 and had a few hundred dollars in my pockets. New York was not scary for someone from Detroit. In my years there, I co-founded the Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW) there, still in existence.[8]

I came out to my parents when I was about 24. I had gone home for Thanksgiving, and we all went to Big Boys diner. For the first time in my life, my mother turns to me and said, “When are you getting married?” I was caught off-guard. And I answered very casually, “I’m not getting married; I’m gay.” My parents have always said, “We support you in whatever you do. Just go out and be yourself.” I thought that was code for you can be gay if you want. But apparently, it wasn’t (laughs). So our lunch table got very quiet. Funny was that I was due on an airplane in a couple of hours. My siblings said, “How dare you drop this bomb on us and then leave?”

My father went to talk to this White gay couple he knew, a doctor and a lawyer at that. They of course filled my parents with all these stereotypes: gays are rich; they have nice apartments… After that, my parents came around very quickly. At the end of the day, I think parents just want you to be secure and happy. When that fear was allayed, they thought I would be okay. My mom did cry. Perhaps parents have preconceived notions about how you are going to turn out. They hope for grandkids; they hope for “good” careers.

I was in New York for five years and had the greatest time in my life. I won a major poetry fellowship; I was on the New York State Arts Council; I was on the New Jersey State Council for the Arts; and everything was going very well. And I gave it all up for love (laughs). Well, we’ve been together for almost 30 years.

We actually met in Ann Arbor – although he forgot that meeting. He was from Ohio and grew up in Chicago. I had joined an Asian American student group. Someone wanted to set me up with this other Asian. I wasn’t really focused on just meeting Asian Americans. But what do you know. He then left for Japan.

While I was in New York, I was very lucky in that I shared a giant apartment on Sixth Street in Manhattan. I was head of the Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York.[9] In conjunction with Stonewall 25, I organized an Asian American “Rice Conference” with about 200 participating in day-long workshops.[10] I invited folks who needed a place to stay to come to my apartment. I had seventeen people take my offer! And he was one of them. We had a great time, but he was reluctant to start a long-distance relationship as he lived in L.A. But then he calls to chat – three days in a row. I decided to send him a card. Two days later, I get a card from him in the mail. It turned out he coincidentally sent me the exact same card at about the exact same time! Isn’t that fate?

My parents really liked my partner. It is probably because he went to Yale (laughs).

I came to Los Angeles permanently by 1997. I was writing poetry and plays. I didn’t really have useful skills (laughs). I started learning screenwriting. I got the Disney/ABC Fellowship which got me writing for different television shows for several years. We were living in downtown Los Angeles.

In 2005, my father passed away in a car accident. I went back to Detroit for six months. The return to Detroit set me to producing a documentary about the Detroit hate crime, Vincent Who? (2009). At the same time, I was invited to be part of candidate Barack Obama’s Asian American Leadership Council. I was organizing a bunch of events around the country. I hooked up some entertainers and made some videos. I was caught in the whole euphoria of Barack Obama – and I paid little attention to California’s Proposition 8.

The polling for Prop 8 started to climb. The anti-gay marriage group was showing ads involving children, and White women voters were flipping. I ran into John Chiang, the State Controller at the time, who said, “Why don’t you come into my office, and I’ll marry you.” We had a last-minute private ceremony before the November elections. We are one of 18,000 gay couples who married at that time. But we could not celebrate.

The Chinese American gay community is growing. It is easier to come out these days. Just as there is a minority of people that are left-handed, there is a group that are gay. That’s how the science goes. I think the LGBT+ community is more politicized than the straight population. In fact, I wish the Asian American population would be as politicized as the gay community. A lot of gay kids get picked on, and they turn to academics as an escape. That’s also what some Asian Americans have done. There seems to be parallels between the Asian American experience and the gay experience. When my generation was coming out, there were a lot more organized groups because it also served as a social network alternative to bars. But now, because of social media, it is much easier for queer to network and hook up. They didn’t even have coffee shops during my era (laughs). There is much more acceptance so there is not as much need for queer-specific spaces.

I recently released Dear Corky (2022) but as an artist, I don’t define my genre. I just like the projects to define itself. I’m excited about my book. I wrote for Bon Appetit and Emancipator magazines. I’ve traveled over 600 places around the world screening and giving talks. I’ve been invited to the White House. I’ve had a wonderful life. Who knew for a boy born in Detroit Chinatown?

[1] Canton, Ohio is about 213 miles south of Detroit. Canton, Ohio was founded in 1805 and incorporated as a village in 1822. Its surveyor, Bezaleel Wells, named the community after Captain John O’Donnell’s home in Baltimore. O’Donnell (1749-1805) was a captain with the British East India Company and then established his own trade between Guangzhou and Baltimore. He named his 1900-acre slave-holding plantation in southeast Baltimore “Canton”. In 2021, the Canton Community of Baltimore removed the public statue of O’Donnell.

[2] Records show that in 1874, Detroit had 14 Chinese “washermen” and by 1905, there were two “chop suey” restaurants.

[3] Harry Chung was founder and leader of the Chinese Merchants Association, also called the On Leong Tong. He was a member of the Central Methodist Church and many other organizations. He was born in China and came to the U.S. at the age of seven. He was educated in Ohio.

[4] The July 1967 Detroit Riot is considered one of the bloodiest and most destructive in American history. Detroit had been a racially segregated community with a long history of police injustice. Despite the automobile industry boom in the 1960s, most union jobs were based on seniority and African American unemployment was twice that of White’s. After the Riot, Detroit saw much White flight. In 2020, the City of Detroit had a population of 639,000 of which 77% are African American, 11% White, 8% Latino, and less than 2% Asian. In 1950, Detroit was 84% White and 16% African American, with 0.1% Asian.

[5] Alan Canty’s murder is the topic of a book, Masquerade (2016), by Lowell Cauffiel.

[6] Excerpted with permission from the author from Curtis Chin, Everything I Learned, I Learned from a Restaurant, Little, Brown (2023).

[7] In 1989, resulting from student activism, University of Michigan established the first Midwest Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies program.

[8] From its founding in a Greek diner on the East Village in 1991, the Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW) is “devoted to creating, publishing, developing, and disseminating literature by Asian diasporic writers”. It is the premiere nonprofit organization dedicated to Asian American writers.

[9] Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY) was founded in 1990 as a non-profit volunteer group. Its mission is to “empower queer and trans to create positive change”. In 1990, the group participated in the Lesbian and Gay Heritage of Pride Parade in New York City.

[10] In June of 1969, New York police raided a Greenwich Village gay bar called Stonewall Inn which triggered several days of violent protest. The Stonewall Uprising was a catalyst for the LGBTQ+ rights movement. In June of 1994, over 100,000 participants came together in New York in marches to commemorate the Stonewall Uprising and continue the struggle for equality.