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On Menus in Motown, Detroit's Chinatown

by Harley Spiller

Chinese Food in the USA

Fall Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(3) page(s): 17 and 18

The sprawling metropolis of Detroit, Michigan recorded its first arrival of a Chinese person in 1872. By the 1910’s, a Chinatown had been established on the west side of downtown, near Michigan and Third Avenues. By the end of the next decade, there were fifteen hundred Chinese citizens, a figure which doubled by the end of World War II. Then, in the mid-twentieth century, urban renewal was rampant and, just like Robert Moses’ New York Cross-Bronx Expressway, the creation of M-10, Detroit's Lodge Freeway, created blight and flight. Detroit’s original Chinatown was effectively eliminated, as was its neighbor, Skid Row.

Determined to have a community home, the On Leong Chinese Welfare Association, in 1963, purchased a large plot of land on the North side of Detroit’s downtown in a neighborhood known as the 'Cass Corridor.' The site was quite large, from Peterboro Street and Cass Avenues, down to Temple, and over to Second Avenue. Unfortunately, that planned development never really took root. All that is left today is on the west side of Cass, on Peterboro: two signs hang on the empty Chung's Cantonese Restaurant; and that place closed December 13, 2000. Check things out at: http://detroityes.com/webisodes/2000/01beautiful_light/001212-05Chungs.htm

Yes, there is also a drop-in center run by the Association of Chinese Americans; and a tiny but complex outdoor mural memorializing the history of the Chinese in Detroit, in particular the 1982 racially-motivated killing of Vincent Chin, for which the murderers got away with a slap on the wrist. Details of the Vincent Chin incident can be found at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~zrod/ and http://www.boggscenter.org/mc7-20-02.htm. Documentation of the mural project is at http://www.kuidaosumi.com/murals/mural-chinatown.html

Happily, a small network of concerned Detroiters are hard at work trying simultaneously to heighten political awareness and restore Chinatown. They are also working toward creating an online resource containing historical research, shared community memories, and personal reflections about the Chinese American experience in Detroit. Interested parties are encouraged to contact the Detroit Chinatown Revitalization Workgroup at Detroit_Chinatown@yahoo.com That site directed me to Wayne State University’s Reither Library and its circa 1950 black-and-white student film showing the everyday lives of Chinese Detroiters: at a curio shop, bowling alley, school, and church. The film provides glimpses of mid-20th-century Detroit, when 'Chinese, American and Native Style Foods' was a popular inscription for restaurants like the Hoe Hoe Inn. The highlight of the movie is a hilarious look at a Chinese waiter instructing a Caucasian lady on how to eat with chopsticks.

A perusal of the 2004 Detroit Yellow Pages yields some useful statistics. Close to eight hundred restaurants are listed in the greater Detroit area, the single most common style being 1950's to 1970's-style roadside shacks specializing in Coney’s (hot dogs). About seventy purveyors of Chinese food are listed, and four of the ten full-page color restaurant ads are taken by Asian spots.

In 1997, I reported in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 4(1) on pages 7 and 10 that Detroit's cable television cooking hostess, upon hearing of my collection, mailed me her personal collection of some four hundred menus. I am not certain if there has been a decline in restaurants in the intervening years, or if her collection comes from a wider circle than covered by the Detroit yellow pages. There are quite a few 'pan-Asian' places, including MR. WOK'S on Rochester Road in Troy and one called WOW, with a splashy building. It was a local favorite until new owners changed formulas and now WOW, like too many places in Detroit, went belly up. It is fairly common for a single restaurant to serve two or more Asian cuisines; and there are quite a few permutations of Chinese-, Vietnamese-, Thai-, Japanese- and Korean-combination restaurants. There is even an Oriental-Cajun place. Six restaurants had 'Peking' in their name, none had the more current transliteration of 'Beijing.' Is that a sign of the rather weak state of the art of Chinese cuisine in Detroit?

Despite the loss of two previous Chinatown's, a new one began developing about ten years ago in Madison Heights. It is along a three-mile stretch of the thoroughfare named John R. Here. Chinese and Vietnamese shops draw Asians from as far away as Grand Rapids and Toledo, Ohio. Previously, Asian Americans in and around Detroit had to travel a long way for a taste of home, to Chicago or across the Canadian border to Windsor or Toronto. The Epoch Times, a free Chinese language newspaper published in Chicago, is available at shops on John R, and in fifteen mid-western States as well as in Windsor and Ontario.

For Marsha Low's story in the Detroit Free Press, see: http://www.freep.com/news/metro/johnr12_20020212.htm) provides an overview of the life of Asians in Detroit today, and it focuses on the growth of Asian-owned businesses on that now busy thoroughfare named John R. She also reports that in the last decade, Asian residents increased by seventy-one percent to 179,202 according to the 2000 census. There are 54,631 Asian Indians; 31,086 Chinese; 20,886 Koreans; 17,377 Filipinos; 13,673 Vietnamese; and 11,288 Japanese. She says Troy experienced the largest growth of Asian Americans, up fourteen percent. Ms. Low indicates that Madison Heights is a 'starter city' for many Asians. They later settle in Troy, West Bloomfield, Ann Arbor and Canton Township. She also advises that work is underway to establish an Asian-American community center near John R.

The cultural flowering taking place on John R currently includes some thirty Asian businesses in a handful of strip malls, including hair salons, computer shops, foreign video rental outlets, and a World Journal book store and gift shop. George Yau's China Merchandise appears to be the oldest Asian business in the area, and sadly, not a very exciting one at that. Its haphazard layout includes many old and dusty products. A sullen staff, fox-marked cabbage, half-dead live crabs, and chicken that might have had pox; it indicates very little turnover.

Nearby, at TAI PAN BAKERY at 31666 John R, tel. (248) 583-3088 their baked goods are secondary to this snack shop's function as an informal social center. Shoppers chatted in Cantonese with the clerks and each other, picking up flyers on events for the Asian community, and taking a break from Detroit's stressful conditions. Tai Pan proffered something I had never seen before including Fried Pork Buns, oblong, granulated sugar-coated donuts stuffed with lengths of deep-fried pork chop, raw cuke, and mayonnaise. Their baked roast-chicken buns, an imitation of the more traditional cha siu bao, are a better choice.

There is a strong Vietnamese community in Detroit, seemingly centered around the superb Saigon Market (248) 589-0831. Posters for upcoming Vietnamese nightclub events provides emails for community leaders dinhsycuong@sympatico.ca and linhson_t@yahoo.com

I was shocked to see super-fresh piles of snow pea leaf, baby bok cai (bok choy) and >i>ong cai (hollow heart vegetable). The young counterman told me they grow their own Chinese specialty vegetables at a family farm in Ohio about an hour and a half away, and that they are having trouble keeping up with demand. He tried to scare me away from tiny yellow Vietnamese crabapples with hot pepper/salt dip but I fought him off and procured the single sourest item I have ever enjoyed. Also delicious, are moist homemade steamed rice noodle rolls with fish sauce, containing either bright pink dried shrimp and scallions, or ground pork and black fungus. In the same mall sits a Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant called THUY TRANG at 30491 John R (248) 588-7823. It is closed Tuesdays, but when open, the house specials are fried red snapper and catfish simmered in Hanoi tomato sauce. The menu contains categories for Family Dishes and Pan Chewy Noodles, and other Vietnamese food for Vietnamese and Chinese-Vietnamese emigres.

Asian businesses are by no means confined to John R. Small outposts are found scattered about the mall of malls that is Detroit. Across from Wayne State University, at DYNASTY at 1115 W. Warren Road (248/832-8999) in the University Shopping Plaza, I tasted lo mein. They crow about its New York Style Chinese Food (now, how far removed is that)? At 3 pm, just like in restaurants around the world, the staff eats their main meal of the day, in this case, bok cai stems with fatty pork and white rice.

Dynasty is an ordinary takeout and the noodles had an effect similar to Proust’s madeleines--they tasted exactly like the ones that used to be served in the handful of New York's seedy Upper East Side bars which, in a fit of mid-1980's desperation, hired Chinese people to run the dilapidated kitchens that used to hammer out corned beef hash. The thick, oily, soy-soaked wheat noodles were loaded down with wokked onion and scallion, oddball slabs of chicken, good doses of sugar and MSG, and approximately one one-hundredth of a giant carrot. It is perfectly satisfying if you are starving and as long as you do not venture into the last two or three inches of the takeout pail. There the oil rapidly pools and ruins the noodles. Dynasty has one hundred forty-two offerings on a 'boiler-plate' bilingual Chinese-American menu. The only thing unusual about the menu is their gravy for half a buck or six bits, and a rare joy for a menu collector, a tiny line at the bottom with the name and number of the printers, Elk Printing (734) 283-7774, and the date of production, 6/2000.

In trendy Royal Oak, SHANGHAI GARDEN at 315 South Center (248/544-0828) offers 'Nutrition Consciousness Cooking' and promises not to use saturated or partially saturated fat for cooking or deep-frying. There are a handful of Vietnamese dishes hiding on the back of their menu. In exclusive Birmingham, Americans simultaneous passions for Chinese food and diets-of-the moment, are being satisfied by CRAVINGS CATERING is at 300 Hamilton Row. Yuppies love their slogan: 'Let us mess up our kitchen, not yours.' They were lined up for the weekly special on the South Beach or Counting Points diets, spicy Chinese chicken kabobs with mixed fresh vegetables and South Beach mashed potatoes. You can learn more about these 'Cravings' and their pre-packaged meals at www.cravingscateringinc.com

At the time of my visit, Southfield, Michigan was promoting an Asian Rice Festival at the Pavilion and posters promised 'cultural entertainment, exotic food, arts and crafts, plant sale, door prizes.' Sponsored by the Philippine American Community Center of Michigan, whose website is: www.paccm.org the fest featured Asian rice breakfasts that were 'not just a bowl of cereal', a variety of fried rices from different nationalities. They offered visitors a chance to 'eat rice, learn rice, know about rice and nutritional value.' There was an international noodle eating competition without utensils and a very macho wasabi eating contest. Break dancing, sumo wrestling, popcorn, cotton candy and free fortune cookies were added come-ons to this fun sounding event.

The ultra-exclusive enclaves around Bloomfield seem to have the only place in Detroit with daily dim sum (not to mention nightly karaoke). It is available at gaudy Hong Kong-stye palace named SHANGRI-LA at 6407 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield, (248) 626-8585. Despite their swanky page in hardback paid-advertising magazines found in hotels, Shangri-la is, like seemingly everything else in Motown, in a mall.

Detroit foodies love to gather on weekends at the gigantic Eastern Market, one of the places in this city where people feel comfortable walking about. There were no specifically Asian marketers but they did have exciting foods like fresh pineapple mint. Detroit has been a long-suffering city, but there are many citizens, a large proportion of Asians among them, who love their town and are dedicated to its rebirth. Luckily, Chinese culture seems destined to play an important role in Detroit's future.
The author is indebted to Carolyn McCarthy, Kyong Park and Ralph Taylor for providing insider tours of their beloved city. He also thanks to Soh Suzuki, Adriene Lim, Emily, and the owners of the websites mentioned herein, for informing and enhancing this article. It would not have been possible without the tried-and-true friendship of Marc Labelle, and the graciousness of Peter Wilde, Sara and Jamie at Birmingham’s Townsend Hotel.

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