Asian-American community sees signs of resurgence in Detroit

East Asians were once deep-rooted in the city’s history with many coming to build railroads in 1800s, they eventually had two Chinatowns but scattered to the suburbs after crime hit their community hard in 1970s. Now, all that’s left are two markers in Cass Corridor.

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Over the Moon party goer David Tran (far left) of Windsor and party organizers Esther Kim of Grosse Pointe Farms (right) and Gowhnou Lee of Royal Oak (far right)  and others celebrate the Lunar New Year with an east-Asian style party at Detroit City Distillery in Eastern Market on Thursday, February 7, 2019.

Detroit — Frank Wu was a toddler when his parents arrived in Detroit in 1968, and despite the city's waning image as the Silicon Valley of the Midwest, his father quickly found work as an engineer at Ford Motor Co. headquarters in Dearborn.

By the next decade, the promise that had brought his family from China was slipping further away, Wu said. 

"When my parents moved to Detroit, they had made it," said Wu, 52, who now lives on the West Coast. "It was the American dream. But growing up, I always saw Detroit moving down. As a kid, I was desperate to get out because if you were Asian-American in Detroit, you were weird. I wish that wasn't the case."

The once small but vibrant Asian community in Detroit of the 1950s has all but vanished, dispersed by the fear of crime, the lure of post-war suburbs and educational opportunities elsewhere, experts say. East Asians, once deeply rooted in the city’s history, had scattered. 

Gone was Chinatown and with it the shops, eateries and entertainment that had hummed with life. 

"Those who came after (the) 1965 Immigration Act went straight to the suburbs, as have most other Asian subgroups and other foreign-born," said Kurt Metzger, an expert on population trends.

That could change: The city's east Asian-American population is growing, albeit too slowly to satisfy those watching the city's renaissance and wondering if there's a place again for their community.

Recently, a group of Asian-Americans gathered in Eastern Market in Detroit to celebrate the Lunar New Year. There, they pondered where that lost community went and how to bring it back.

Asians in the city, then and now

It is uncertain how many Asians filled Detroit in its heyday during the 1960s, with so little data compiled on their numbers, demographers say.

Current census data show Detroit's Asian population has been inching up, with a population of 10,000 listed in 2017. That's below the U.S. average, and the migration back to the city isn't following trends that project Asians will become the largest immigrant group in the country, surpassing Hispanics, in 2055.

The city's Asian population isn't mirrored in other national research, either: A 2017 Pew Research Center study reported that Asians overtook Hispanics in 2009 as the country’s fastest-growing ethnic group and grew 72 percent between 2000 and 2015 — from 11.9 million to 20.4 million — the fastest growth rate of any major racial or ethnic group. 

Distribution of Asian population in 2017 divided by Detroit neighborhoods.

Regionally, about 4.4 percent of the population is Asian; the U.S. average is 5.8 percent. Detroit lost Asian population in the first decade of this century, but the population has rebounded in recent years, demographer Xuan Liu said. 

Asian population   2000        2010     2017

►SE Mich.     123,949   168,958    206,984

►Detroit          9,268       7,559      10,185

Detroit shows a high concentration of Asian population in Midtown, Davison neighborhood and downtown, Liu said, citing census data. 

"Many Asians come to this region for education and high-tech jobs," Liu said. "They tend to live near universities and colleges, communities with good schools and employment centers."

Despite what is known about the recent population growth rate, there remain challenges in polling Asian-Americans for a fuller picture.

Their numbers were as difficult to track when the first Asians arrived before the 1950s because, while the 1950 Census questionnaire included Chinese, Japanese and Filipino, no specific numbers were published, said Metzger, the mayor of Pleasant Ridge.

"Any Asians were included in 'other races' in the tabulations," Metzger said.

After 1872, additional Chinese-Americans migrated to Detroit, establishing restaurants and businesses. The Chinese Exclusion Act signed into law by President Chester Arthur in 1882 stunted further growth of the community. The act was abolished in 1952.

Detroit’s Hmong community from Laos was concentrated in the city’s east-side communities near Osborn High School. During the 2000s, Hmong-Americans served as Detroit’s most visible East Asian community. In 2002, Michigan had America's fifth-highest concentration of Hmong-Americans, according to census records.

Cedric Lee (left) and his wife Gowhnou, owner of Tou & Mai, make a honey dew sweet boba drink on Wednesday, February 5, 2019 at the midtown Detroit store.

"The 2010 (Census) keeps this arrangement but follows the 'Other Asian' category with examples such as Hmong, Cambodian, Pakistani ...," Metzger said. "This followed a concern that people did not know how to answer the question, leading to possible undercounts previously."

Entrepreneurs reflect on community

Detroiter Gowhnou Lee, a Hmong-American, opened up Tou & Mai, a bubble tea shop that doubles as an Asian mini-mart, in Midtown in May 2017 because she had to go to the suburbs to get basic necessities.

She and her husband, Cedric Lee, also are owners of Go! Sy Thai next door to Tou & Mai. Gowhnou said they have found shoppers are eager to see Asian-American merchants representing their culture. 

Kevin Dingle makes a fresh order of egg noodles at Go! Sy Tha on Cass Avenue in Midtown Detroit.

"Growing up in Detroit, you have to learn how to fit in and think constantly, how do I assimilate?" said Gowhnou Lee, who reflected on her time at Fleming Elementary and Fitzgerald High. "There were big Hmong populations that lived on Seven Mile and Waltham. My parents used to have an oriental store there, but my father was always worried that my brother was going to join a gang."

Cedric Lee's father opened up Sy Thai Cafe in downtown Birmingham in 1993. Now, their pad thai is the most popular dish at the five locations in Metro Detroit.

Gowhnou Lee, co-owner of Tou & Mai, speaks of the Lunar New Year and the new business that she and her husband Cedric opened in Detroit's midtown.

"Even when we opened up this business here in Midtown before any of these shops opened up ... his parents were like, Are you crazy? It's dangerous, you're going to deal with too many problems," she said.

Gowhnou Lee said Asian-Americans have found a place in other established communities without having to deal with Detroit's crime.

"Our people fled persecution and wars," she said. "Our parents enforced that they never had these opportunities and we needed to take advantage of it. So they stay away from all the violence, distractions and focused on sending their kids to good schools."

Those seeking other environs would find plenty of communities outside Detroit, starting with Troy, with 19,758 Asian-Americans. Ann Arbor follows with the second-highest number in Metro Detroit based on 2017 Census figures, with 18,970. 

The top 10 municipalities with the largest Asian populations as of 2017:

1. Troy: 19,758 | 2. Ann Arbor: 18,970 | 3. Canton: 15,434 | 4. Novi: 12,903 | 5. Warren: 10,418 | 6. Detroit: 10,185 | 7. Farmington Hills:  9,982 | 8. Sterling Heights: 9,361 | 9. Rochester Hills: 8,759 | 10. Hamtramck: 5,357

History of Detroit's forgotten Chinatowns

The original sign has been restored at Peterboro Street and Cass Avenue in Detroit's old "Chinatown" area.

It's easy to pass the corner of Cass and Peterboro without realizing you’ve traveled through Detroit’s Chinatown.

The small neighborhood within the Cass Corridor was mostly abandoned for more than a decade before becoming home to businesses like 8-degrees Plato, Iconic Tattoo, Detroit Bike Shop and the upscale Peterboro restaurant. The area once was a cultural center for Asian-Americans in Metro Detroit.

Two monuments from the city's second Chinatown built in the 1960s still stand, one on the corner of Peterboro and Cass, the other at Peterboro and Second. But between the late 1970s and 1980s, Cass Corridor changed from a World War II working-class community to a red-light district.

“People moved to other neighborhoods and the suburbs to escape the increased crime in the area,” said Krysta Ryzewski, an associate professor of anthropology at Wayne State University.

It's unclear when the first Chinese immigrants migrated to Detroit. Newspaper articles in the 1800s did not differentiate between the many cultures of East Asia.

"We do know that in 1874, 14 Chinese washermen were living in Detroit," said WSU's Ryzewski. "The population grew slowly and reached 2,000 by the 1920s."

Detroit's Chinatown circa 1963

Chinese Detroiters lived all over downtown but their cultural base was the On Leong Association building at 162 Randolph. In 1917, the association bought surrounding land for stores and apartments, unintentionally creating the city's first Chinatown at Third and Porter. The intersection no longer exists, Ryzewski said.

There, Chinese Americans came together from 1920 to the 1950s, creating a vibrant community and celebrating such cultural moments as Lunar New Year until the early 1960s, when the Detroit Housing Commission condemned the neighborhood as part of their "slum clearance" program to make room for the Lodge freeway, much like the demolition of the Black Bottom neighborhood, once one of the city's major African-American communities.

Local merchants hoped to relocate Chinatown to the nearby planned International Village, an initiative by the city in 1960s featuring different ethnic restaurants, shops and a destination for tourists and convention-goers.

"The city actively recruited different ethnic groups to move into that area, but only the Chinese-Americans wound up gravitating there, mainly because their downtown neighborhood was destroyed around that time," Ryzewski said. "The plans for International Village fell through in the late 1960s around the time of the riots."

Cornerstones of Chinatown, including Chung's restaurant and On Leong, were relegated to Cass Avenue, where they anchored a second Chinatown. But many residents had moved to the suburbs by 1970, when crime in Cass Corridor spiked and the area was seen as unsafe, Ryzewski said.

Ryzewski created a video during her research of Detroit's Chinatown in 2016. It serves as a time capsule of the recent past. 

"Just about everything from the 2016 landscape that you see in it has totally changed," she said. "A commemorative mural is gone, Peterboro is filled with new restaurants, and the signs and other markers of the old Chinatown are disappearing as new owners take over and rehab buildings."

A day to remember

By the 1970s, Detroit's nickname as the nation's murder capital was cemented, however unfairly. By June 19, 1982, it was reinforced.

Two white, laid-off Chrysler plant autoworkers thought Vincent Chin, 27, was Japanese. Harboring ill-will toward Japanese carmakers that eventually would overtake the Big Three's production might, they exchanged words with Chin as Chin attended his bachelor party in Detroit. A fight ensued and Chin, beaten with a baseball bat, died four days later. The slaying reverberated across the country.

Lily Chin holds a photo of her son, Vincent Chin.

Born in China and raised in Highland Park, Chin has long been remembered as a historical figure for the East Asian community after his attackers received three years of probation. His mother, Lily Chin, left her home in Hamtramck to return to China saying, friends said, that she feared the country would never accept Asians.

Thirty years after Chin’s death, hate crimes seem to be a remote threat for Asian-Americans. But it is premature, if tempting, to celebrate progress, Wu, the former Detroiter, wrote in his New York Times column in 2012, "Why Vincent Chin Matters."

Wu remembers shopping in Chinatown with his parents in the 70s. He went on to be the dean of Wayne State University Law School from 2004-08. He now lives in San Francisco. He said Chin's death was a defining moment for Asian-Americans, one that has hindered Detroit's reputation for others like him to this day, he said. 

"The community impact can't be underestimated," Wu said. "This is the case people warned you about. Parents invoked the ghost of Vincent Chin to warn you to be careful. ... From California to New York, Asians thought Detroit is where you get bludgeoned to death with baseball bats." 

Wu said despite not being officially labeled as a hate crime, "the case had an impact of a hate crime on the Asian-American community."

"It defined Detroit for all Asian-Americans for decades," he said.

Growing up, Wu, said Asian-Americans worried about being bullied, taunted or sought out for similar treatment that ended Chin's life. Wu said he feared being told he wasn't a real American and that he didn't belong.

"You were supposed to fit in like everyone else," he said. "Teasing and taunting on the playground, calling me chink, being asked if my parents were communist, if I ate dogs ... it was constant ... and felt like we didn’t belong. That was the time before we celebrated background."

He said the one place Asian-Americans felt normal was when families went shopping at Eastern Market, where people from all races and backgrounds shopped together. Still, he never understood the prejudices around them and why his parents forced them to fit in.

Gowhnou Lee said the Asian community is diverse and can segregate according to sub-cultures. Lee said she wishes they would come together more often for a united front on issues. 

Asian communities have "very different histories and slightly different outlooks on life," she said. "I think Asians try to be as comfortable as possible. They would rather stay out of trouble and try not to cause issues."

She recalled an incident in 2006 when Hmong teen Chonburi Xiong was killed in his home by Warren police officers. The Macomb County Prosecutor's Office and an internal police investigation found the shooting was justified. The family sued for $5 million, alleging officers arrived unannounced at the home and shot Xiong 27 times. The case was settled for $130,000.

"When the Hmong boy was brutally killed and there was no justice, the community here wasn’t strong enough to back that up and we had to have community leaders from Minnesota step in.

"When there isn’t enough noise, you tend to stay quiet." 

Looking back to move forward

Chung's restaurant on Cass Avenue at Peterboro in Detroit's Chinatown circa 1976.

In 2008, there was a lot of hype for an Asian Village festival along the Riverfront, but the proposal failed.

To attract Asian-Americans back to Detroit, the city is working with Asian commissions to promote the city and highlight its resurgence, said Roberto Torres, the city's director of immigration affairs and economic inclusion.

They are working to "change the narrative about what people think of Detroit and living in it," he said.

“We have a Mexicantown, Greektown, Chaldean Town, but we don’t have a Chinatown or an Asian Village and that comes with investment," he said. "People know there’s a lot of potential here, but we also have to share that message with developers, our neighborhoods and residents. We have a great opportunity to do that in partnership with the commissions, associations and chambers of commerce.”

Linda Watson of Detroit shops inside of Tou & Mai, a mini mart and boba tea shop  in Detroit's midtown.

On Feb. 7, the Asian community expressed its concerns about the lack of Asian-American representation in Detroit at the Over the Moon event in Eastern Market that celebrated the Year of the Pig. But where, attendees said as they gathered for a rare event that drew Asians to Detroit, was an established Asian community in the city? 

"There’s been a gaping hole of Asian-American visibility in Detroit," said Joy Wang. "There’s not a single art space, full museum, community center or cultural spaces that I have seen. Where are all the Asian people?"

Wang, 24, of Pittsburgh said she felt isolated after coming to Detroit for a fellowship with Challenge Detroit, a leadership program that motivates people to work and stay in Detroit.

"In Pittsburgh, I never really had to go out of my way to find Asian people, but moving to a different city with a distinct lack, I felt like I wanted to confront and hug every Asian person I saw. It’s a very segregated city and as a newcomer, I really felt that."

Jerry Xu, former president of the Detroit Chinese Business Association and founder of Michigan U.S. China Exchange Center, has worked to create collaborations between the two nations. Xu says Michigan could be doing more to lure Southeast Asians.

The auto industry and advanced education opportunities deserve the credit for attracting students and workers from overseas, he said. 

"However, given so many other rich resources we have here, I would like to see more collaboration in more diversified fields such as agriculture, tourism, green technology, health care," he said.

Xu sees a younger generation of Asian-Americans choosing Detroit to be their home.

Detroit's strong post-bankruptcy performance has attracted more businesses and more people, he said, and created more opportunities.

"I see the Asian community is growing significantly; however, compared to cities like New York, Chicago, Toronto, we still have a lot of room for Asian community to grow in the city."

Over the Moon party organizers and attendees, including (from row, from left) Jennifer Vuong, Henry Balanon, Esther Kim, Gowhnou Lee and (backrow from left) Joy Wang, Medvis Jackson, Michelle Nguyen and Stephen Oh, celebrate the Lunar New Year with an east-Asian style party at Detroit City Distillery in Eastern Market on Thursday, February 7, 2019.

Gowhnou Lee, the entrepreneur, wants others to seize opportunities in Detroit.

Some of her extended family is trying to work with the city to buy land and restore the area where they first lived on Seven Mile, she said. The plan is to start an Asian farming community and the land will be an incentive.

Overcoming lasting impressions of the city, though, has been tough.

"You have family members say, 'We spent so much time trying to get out and you want us to come back in?' " she said. "I think Asians will come back eventually, but it won't be your typical mom and dad. It'll be people who are coming back to revitalize Detroit like the young hipsters. ... It's going to take some time."

Wu still calls himself a Detroiter and hopes to increase visibility of the city's rich Asian history and community. 

"Asian-Americans were always an afterthought," Wu said. "But the truth is, Asian-Americans have been in Detroit since it became the Motor City. They are just overlooked."
Twitter: @SarahRahal_