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How a Chinese restaurant in Detroit taught a queer L.A. writer everything he knows

On the Shelf

Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant: A Memoir

By Curtis Chin
Little, Brown: 304 pages, $30

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It was the 1980s, and Detroit was grappling with civil unrest, the AIDs crisis, crack cocaine and sky-high racial tensions. Curtis Chin was only a child when a close family friend, Vincent Chin, was murdered by racist autoworkers. By the time Chin turned 18, the violence of his hometown had ended the lives of five people he knew.

But Chin’s family restaurant, Chung’s, was an oasis on Cass Corridor where everyone was welcome to feast on American Chinese food: drug dealers, sex workers, gay men, touring Broadway performers, even Detroit’s first Black mayor. At its peak, Chung’s was selling 4,000 egg rolls a week.

“We were the oldest surviving Chinese restaurant” in Detroit, Chin said in an interview last month on the release of his new memoir, “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant.” His parents, who didn’t graduate college, encouraged Chin and his siblings to learn from everyone who walked through their doors. “Anytime my dad met someone who had a cool career … he’d call all six of us over and we’d run over and barrage [them] with all these questions.”

Three generations of Chins faithfully stewarded the establishment from its start in 1940 until the restaurant officially closed in 2000. Without a restaurant to pass down, Chin began writing stories to share with his nieces and nephews about their family history — stories that became his memoir. In bite-sized chapters listed as menu items, he examines his upbringing as a queer Chinese American kid learning to find his place.

It wasn’t as easy as it looks now. Chin, 55, worked for years as a writer and community storyteller, becoming the first head of the Asian American Writers Workshop, advising the Democratic Party on outreach and making feature films and documentaries. But It took him a decade to find a home for a book he had written himself.

The lunch menu at Chung’s, Curtis Chin’s family restaurant in Detroit.

(From Curtis Chin)

It was “a different memoir” at first, Chin explained, “focused on my middle-school years being a kid. It was just crazy stories about my grandmother and my grandfather who ran the Chinese mafia.”

It was the COVID pandemic that nudged the book in a different direction. As anti-Asian hate crimes surged and the murder of George Floyd sparked a nationwide movement against racism and police violence, Chin pivoted toward contemporary issues and the memoir suddenly became timely. After a three-week bidding war, Little, Brown snapped it up in a six-figure contract.

“I hope the book opens up a conversation and brings people together,” said Chin. “As I’ve jokingly said before, the pitch is: Come for the egg rolls, but stay for the talk on racism.”

Chin was a staunch Republican in high school and even college before migrating toward the Democratic Party. He later went on to advise the Obama campaign on Asian American issues. He explains his prior political affiliation as part of his own struggles to assimilate.

“One of the racist stereotypes against Asian Americans is that we’re not very loyal to the U.S., right?” said Chin. “To fit in, I tried to go to the extreme. So I tried to out-patriot my classmates.”

A black-and-white photo of a man wearing glasses and a hoodie with the words Detroit vs. Everybody

Curtis Chin is the author of “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant.”

(Michelle Lee / Studio Plum Photography)

Chin might seem like a late literary bloomer, but those who have benefited from his activism aren’t surprised by his latest turn. Jeff Kim, Chin’s partner of more than three decades, has seen his husband constantly advocating for Asian American stories throughout his career.

“He’s got this network of goodwill,” Kim said. It goes all the way back to Michigan State University, where Chin studied poetry before moving to New York City and co-founding the AAWW in 1991. That group provided a safe space for AAPI writers in New York City, Kim explained, at a time when racist and fetishizing depictions of Asians were still prevalent in the arts.

When Chin followed Kim to L.A. in the late 1990s, he couldn’t find a nonprofit arts position, so he pivoted to writing for network and cable television. Eventually he made documentaries focused on the legacy of Asian American figures; his most recent film, “Dear Corky,” follows the work of Asian American community photographer Corky Lee. And he had a producing credit on the 2008 documentary “Vincent Who?,” which brought renewed awareness of the murder of his friend decades ago.

Now, after helping launch so many careers, it’s Chin’s turn in the spotlight.

The memoir feels like less of a career shift than an expansion of his lifelong work. “The book is perennial or universal,” he said, “because of some of the issues that we face as Asian Americans … the idea of us being foreigners, the idea of us being dirty, the idea of us being unassimilable — these are all things that have followed us since the moment our ancestors first arrived, they haven’t changed. The only thing that really has changed is our ability to respond to these issues and to be able to push back.”

A family eats Chinese food at their restaurant.

Chin’s family at their restaurant. From left, Chin’s father, mother, sister Cindy, brother Clifford and grandfather Tom.

(From Curtis Chin)

Chin’s background as an organizer came in handy when it was time to plan his book tour. He scheduled 30 community readings before his book was even officially launched, supplementing his publisher’s budget with institutional funding via speaking engagements with Asian American community groups, universities and museums.

It’s not only about his own success, Chin said. “If the book doesn’t sell, then it becomes a challenge for us in the long run as writers of color. So that’s why I am doing everything I can to ensure that this book is a bestseller.”

Healthy sales also would give Chin the opportunity to publish a follow-up to his memoir with all the things he left out — and there are a lot. There was the experience of moving to New York and becoming an activist in the thick of the AIDS crisis. And there is the story — which he isn’t “emotionally ready” to tell — about the car accident that caused his father’s death and led to the sale of Chung’s. What he doesn’t want to do is write yet another chronological coming-out story explaining how he reconciled with his family.

"Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant," by Curtis Chin

“Every queer person knows, the coming-out process isn’t just a single act,” Chin said. “It’s something that we do constantly, no matter how old we are.”

For now, Chin is content to soak up L.A. in all its richness, particularly the Asian American enclaves of Koreatown, Little Tokyo and the San Gabriel Valley — when he isn’t making annual jaunts to London. Asked if he’s here to stay, he jokes that he’s Detroit-bred, L.A.-based and London-bound.

Wherever he goes now, home will feel as close as the nearest Chinese restaurant, his lifelong classroom and proof of the resilience of his family and Asian immigrants everywhere.

“We’ve always, you know, had uphill battles,” he said. “The odds have always been stacked against us, but we just persevere. And it’s all you can do.”

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