This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience. In this piece, reporter Carolyn Chin adds her voice to a growing conversation about the history and preservation of Detroit’s former Chinatown neighborhood.
Erasure comes in many forms. On July 18, my mother and her two siblings, all in their late 60s, stood together outside the building at 3143 Cass Avenue in Detroit one last time. Within those walls were the stories of a Chinatown long dissolved and mostly forgotten. Except by us. Since I can remember, 3143 Cass has been woven throughout my family’s Chinese American, immigrant, Detroiter identity: It was the home of Shanghai Cafe, a Chinese restaurant that welcomed my grandfather as a chef in the early 1930s and ultimately closed its doors in 1981 under my grandmother’s ownership.
Despite a unanimous vote by Detroit’s City Council to delay the demolition — citing a desire to research how the city could preserve the historic site — 3143 Cass was demolished less than a week later, on Saturday, July 29. A press conference held early that following Monday morning, originally scheduled to gain traction on preserving the building, now took place in front of a heaping pile of rubble as speakers were misted with water used to contain the demolition dust.
With that demolition, comes the erasure of history — Chinese American history, Detroit history, and history carried into this country by immigrants.
Shanghai Cafe, a staple dining spot for Detroit’s Chinese community, was located in Cass Corridor long before Chinatown was relocated there. The original Chinatown, near Michigan Avenue and Third Street, was displaced in the early 1960s with the construction of the Lodge Freeway — just another example of new infrastructure crowding out marginalized communities over the years.
The restaurant was a place for the community to gather, connect, and, of course, eat. Shanghai Cafe was frequented by the Chinese community, who appreciated the restaurant’s ability to host large parties and provide custom homestyle meals: ginger-rich Cantonese-style lobster, crispy Chinese fried shrimp, and chow mein with colorful veggies. If a dinner party wanted any other traditional dishes prepared, all they had to do was ask. The restaurant also was inclusive, offering American Chinese dishes such as chop suey, egg foo yong, and Detroit’s own Chinese American creation almond boneless chicken. There were even non-Chinese dishes including American flame-broiled steaks, sandwiches, and homemade custard.
My family’s restaurant was iconic, known for its red linen tablecloths and napkins, with servers dressed to the nines in black slacks, white button-up shirts, and black bow ties. But to us, it was so much more. It ensured my family’s future and offered them life after loss. And it opened the door to bring me to where I am today.
The stories of Detroit’s Chinatown are so whispered or untold that many are surprised to learn it ever existed. As older generations pass and relics like 3143 Cass are demolished, our stories crumble with them.
In the 1900s, when people from around the globe came to the United States in pursuit of the “American dream,” people from similar ethnic communities clustered in neighborhoods and built culturally rich spaces that upheld the food traditions, celebrations, and religious practices from the life they left behind.
In U.S. history, the only people to be banned by legislation solely because of their ethnicity were the Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, followed by the Geary Act in 1892, restricted Chinese immigration. Chinese people were only able to enter the country by showing blood relation to an existing Chinese person in America. My grandfather came to the country as a “paper son,” a term for a Chinese man who bought papers from someone who pretended to be of blood relation. His paper name was You Tem Wong, though his real name was Hop Guey Lim. This in itself speaks to another heavy layer of systemic erasure.
Because of these restrictions, Chinese communities across America strengthened and became “family” both figuratively and literally on paper. Family members looked out for and supported one another. Often, family associations by surname offered new immigrants work, housing, and education.
For years, my grandfather — who immigrated to America in 1928 at the age of 18 — worked at Shanghai Cafe, building a life, building community, and cooking. He had been intent on coming to the United States from a young age and already had connections to Detroit’s restaurant community when he arrived. In 1954, he traveled to Hong Kong and married my grandmother. (He was originally arranged to meet and marry another woman, but when he saw my grandmother walking down the street, those plans changed.) While their marriage was arranged, and she was just 19 to his 44 years, we grew up knowing that he deeply adored and cared for her. In 1955, she traveled to Detroit, several months pregnant, to start a new life and a family. For them, it was the American dream.
For 10 years, they enjoyed that dream together. They welcomed my aunt in 1955, my mother in 1956, and my uncle in 1957.
My grandmother left Hong Kong hoping to live a happier and easier life than the painful one she left behind. Having fled communism in mainland China by foot as a young child and losing many siblings on the journey, she had seen her fair share of loss already. While her family had lived a wealthy life in China, they knew what the threat of communism meant and chose to make the journey from Hoiping/Kaiping to Hong Kong, taking only what they could carry. Food was scarce. My grandmother, too small to walk long distances, was carried on the back of her older brother. That brother died in a lookout tree post searching for members of the Communist Party behind them.
But in Detroit with my grandfather, she built a family, lived happily, and found connection in her Chinatown community. He remained a chef at Shanghai Cafe until 1964, when he and my grandmother purchased the business. Under other circumstances, the purchase would have been a celebration, but this was more bitter than sweet. My grandfather decided to purchase the restaurant when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer — a battle he’d lose within a year’s time — as a means for my grandmother to provide for their three young children.
When my grandfather made a plea to the then-owner of Shanghai Cafe to sell the restaurant to our family, she agreed, though reluctantly. She knew the battle my grandmother was facing; she had also become a single mother and sole owner of the restaurant after the passing of her husband years prior.
My grandfather gave my grandmother a crash course in the restaurant business. This included learning recipes and how to cook as well as the back-of-the-house operations and front-of-the-house customer service. Prior to this, my grandmother had never worked a day in her young life.
I often think of how terrified and brave my grandmother must have been losing her husband, inheriting a restaurant business, caring for three children under the age of 10, and still persevering in a foreign country on her own at just 29 years old.
This new life of theirs was not easy, but it was all they had. My mother and her siblings grew up on a fast track in that restaurant, helping my grandmother run it from the kitchen to the dining room. Even at their tender ages, they understood the loss and pain the family had experienced — and that the restaurant was all they had to keep them afloat. Often, my grandmother would not come home until 4 a.m., as Shanghai Cafe served late into the night.
As they matured, the children took on more responsibilities, from prepping vegetables to cooking in the kitchen to supporting the customers who were dining in. While their peers returned home after school, my mother and her siblings went straight to the restaurant, finished their homework, and then worked.
In 1975, crime continued to worsen in the Cass Corridor — and entered my family’s apartment at Second Avenue and Peterboro Street. They had been robbed twice already when, one day, they returned home to find a pile of clothing and jewelry laid out on the floor near the front door by the intruder or intruders, alerting them that they would be returning for the rest of the items that they couldn’t carry in the previous round. This incident prompted my family to move to a quiet condo in Warren, 20 minutes north of the restaurant, where they continued to commute daily.
My mother and her siblings became adults, marrying and having children of their own, and my grandmother made the decision to close Shanghai Cafe in 1981, knowing it could not stand to lose the support of even one of her children.
But even with the restaurant closed, my grandmother would continue to share her gift. My fondest memories involve meals with my family prepared by my “po-po,” a term in Cantonese for one’s maternal grandmother. She cooked until her hands no longer could. My aunt and cousins, from Alberta, Canada, spent nearly every summer in Detroit with us growing up. We’d enjoy large meals, including my grandmother’s delicious homemade four seasons soup, bean curd soup, fried rice, hoisin barbecue spare ribs, Chinese salted fish over rice, and sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves. Every waking moment was spent together, and our time together was precious. We had a small family and didn’t necessarily talk about our love for one another, but in actions that love was clear.
After getting married, my mother would eventually return to working in restaurants well into my young adulthood. Our family of five had been living solely on my father’s truck driver income, and with money scarce, she took jobs in restaurants to help however she could. She didn’t have the opportunity to pursue higher education, and I know she wishes her life could have ended up differently. I will never forget the scent of diners’ cigarette smoke and Chinese food on her clothes and in her hair when she came home to kiss me goodnight.
In reflecting on the threads that are woven into the fabric of my family, I recognize the similarities from so many immigrant stories: journey, hope, loss, grief, joy, perseverance, resilience, grit.
As the children and grandchildren of immigrants, we are so often removed from our ancestors’ hidden struggles, though they are still embedded in our own identities. To say that my grandmother’s life was difficult is an understatement. Rather, it was a roller coaster of high hopes met with grief, time and again. She was resilient and strong because there was no other choice. And though my mother’s own struggles differed from my grandmother’s, they share many similarities, including the sacrifice of a mother trying to ensure the best life possible for her children despite the toll it takes on herself.
I’d be deceiving myself if I didn’t recognize that their struggles and difficulties have shaped my own life, for better and for worse. I realize that I am the first generation to reap the privileges that those before me worked so hard to provide. I know that I have privileges they didn’t have and the wherewithal to create spaces that were not available to them. I am grateful to have built a life where I live comfortably and know what I will and will not accept. And while all of this is true, I still carry their hopes and grief, their resilience and strength.
With the erasure of physical bounds — such as a building, an address, a plot of land — comes a critical moment to ensure we deeply understand and know our history, commit to embracing our identity, and tell our stories far and wide.
In telling such stories as this one, we can breathe life into our history and culture so that our identity does not succumb to the heavy pressure of erasure that surrounds us.
The Detroit Historical Museum will host the exhibit Detroit’s Chinatown now through January 7, 2023.
Carolyn Chin is a Chinese American metro Detroit native and a communications, marketing, and development professional.