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Friday, February 23, 2024
Feb. 23, 2024

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Memoir serves up lessons from life in restaurant

Childhood stories explore Asian American experience

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Many parents tell their children never talk to strangers. But Curtis Chin’s parents urged their six kids to ask customers at their Chinese restaurant about their background.

It was their way of showing the children a world outside the Detroit restaurant’s four walls.

“That is something my parents taught me — not to be afraid of people, not to be afraid to ask questions, not to be afraid of asking for help even,” Chin said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. “I would have to say that the Chinese restaurant and my parents are probably my greatest teachers in life.”

From co-founding the Asian American Writers’ Workshop to producing documentaries like “Vincent Who?” about the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, Curtis Chin has been championing other Asian Americans for over 30 years. Now, it’s his turn in the spotlight.

His memoir, “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant,” comes out Tuesday. The book, his first, has made several fall “must-read” lists including in The Washington Post and Time magazine. It’s a candid, sometimes funny reflection on growing up Chinese American and gay in Detroit in the ’70s and ’80s.

Chin delves into racism, gay rights and other social justice issues, but not by force-feeding them. Like a welcoming restaurant server, he invites the reader to share in digestible bites of memories from childhood up through college graduation. Instead of chapters, anecdotes are dished out in menu sections such as “appetizers and soups,” “rice and noodles” and “main entrees.” They just happen to be stories that are emblematic of that time in Detroit and the country at large, including epidemics of crime, drugs and AIDS.

Despite all this, it’s not a ”misery memoir,” Chin said.

“While the city did have a lot of challenges, I also wanted people to see the other side of Detroit, which is the good that came out of it,” Chin said. “I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. I really loved growing up in Detroit.”

The trajectory of the Chin family business matches the ups and downs of the city’s Chinatown. Chin’s great-grandfather opened Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine in 1940 in Detroit’s original Chinatown. The restaurant became a community hub and, like other businesses, relocated in 1960 when the city demolished the area for a highway and other development.

Chung’s moved to Cass Avenue. The Cass Corridor became a second Chinatown. That’s where Chin, born in 1968, spent his formative years. Chung’s closed in 2000, after 60 years and an estimated “10 million eggrolls.”

In its heyday, Chung’s drew in customers who varied across race and class. Local politicians, journalists and drag queens are among the patrons Chin recalls in the book. How his parents treated each person made an impression.

“It didn’t matter if you were the mayor of Detroit or if you were the pimp and prostitute standing on the street corner,” Chin said. “They really tried to judge each customer for who they were as a person. And that’s a value that my parents really taught me.”

Roland Hwang, a Detroit native who co-founded American Citizens for Justice a year after Vincent Chin’s racially motivated killing, has fond childhood memories of a bustling Chinatown. He would watch butchers chopping up chickens, or get a dragon puppet and play with other Chinese American kids. Chung’s was among the restaurants he ate at. It wasn’t until 1999 that he met Curtis Chin and they became friends. Hwang thinks the memoir does a service for the community.

“This book sort of raises the profile of this aspect of history of Chinese Americans in Detroit. Physically speaking, there’s not much left of the Chinatown,” Hwang said. “People don’t realize how fragile ethnic enclaves are whether it’s Chinatown or J-Town (Japantown).”

When Chin started writing a decade ago, he envisioned a “family comedy” memoir with his grandparents as a focal point. But when the national conversation shifted in 2020 with George Floyd’s killing and pandemic-driven anti-Asian hate, he shifted his focus to growing up Asian American and working class.

Recent hate crimes have evoked comparisons to Vincent Chin’s beating death at the hands of two white autoworkers outside his bachelor party. The assailants blamed foreign competition for the auto industry’s hardships and assumed he was Japanese.

The slaying was personal for Curtis Chin. Their families were not related but knew each other. Curtis Chin’s uncle was Vincent Chin’s best man. In his memoir, Chin describes the sadness and outrage in the community when the attackers only got probation and a $3,000 fine for a manslaughter plea. It was a watershed moment for Asian Americans nationwide, including Chin, then a high school freshman.

“I feel like that’s why I’ve spent so much of my life trying to open up opportunities for more people of color or more Asian Americans to tell our stories, because I feel like that’s what’s going to improve our lives or help prevent the next Vincent Chin,” Chin said.

His book has inspired an exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum. “Detroit’s Chinatowns” opened earlier this month. Lily Chen, who curated the exhibit, said 20 people were interviewed for oral histories. Several others contributed artifacts, including a 70-year-old mahjong set, as well as videos and photos. Chin will give a talk on the book there on Nov. 12.

“Seeing people like Curtis of a generation above mine do this really brave thing of telling their story is such a big inspiration for wanting to trace the long history of Detroit’s Chinatown,” said Chen, who like Chin is Asian American and a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

“When older generations of people tell their story, it is so incredibly powerful for younger generations because it says not only are we here today, we’ve been here.”

Chin’s work elevating Asian Americans is coming full circle as many want to show up for him on his book tour. Asian American and Pacific Islander groups are behind several upcoming events.

“I just can’t impress upon it enough how much I feel like my whole community is rallying behind me for this book,” Chin said. “In some ways, being an older author coming out with my first book in my 50s, it’s been easier because of this.”

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