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The Detroit’s Chinatowns exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum is Lily Jiale Chen’s love letter to the older generations of people that paved the way for her own, and an invitation to younger generations of Chinese American Detroiters to say thank you. Photo by Erin Kirkland/Michigan Photography

The textbook story of Detroit’s Chinatowns might go something like this: Many Chinese people were left in poverty after two wars that Britain waged on China, in which Britain forcibly exported opium into China in exchange for tea. At the end of these two wars, in the mid-1800s, many people from China traveled to the United States, including the metro Detroit area. Today, a centralized Chinatown no longer exists in the city.

Lily Jiale Chen’s telling of the story is a much richer version, displayed in three dimensions and in vibrant colors at the Detroit Historical Museum. Chen is an assistant curator at the museum as well as a doctoral student in the Department of American Culture at LSA. A museum provides unique opportunities for visitors to engage with history using all of their senses, Chen says. “You get to occupy a physical space that looks, feels, and sounds like what you’re studying.”


A 1965 street scene from Detroit Chinatown’s Cass Corridor location, at the intersection of Cass and Peterboro. Photo courtesy of the Chin Family


She recently put her studies into practice in the curation of an exhibit called Detroit’s Chinatowns. Chen emphasizes the plurality of the word “Chinatowns,” explaining there’s more than one story to tell here.

For example, as Chen considered how to introduce how people from China arrived in the Detroit area, she had to acknowledge that the story, because of the colonial history, is not neutral. Many people from Taishan in Guangdong province were willing to make the long journey in the mid-1800s to the United States, where many were tricked into indentured servitude and hard labor to build the transcontinental railroad, Chen says.

In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants traveled the very same railroads to Detroit, where they created communities, faced racism and exploitation, started businesses and families, went to school, had picnics and parades, went dancing, and went to war.

The Detroit’s Chinatowns exhibit features a kiosk similar to one that once graced the entry to Chinatown before relocation. Photo by Erin Kirkland/Michigan Photography

That story of migration is just one of many Chinese American stories featured in the exhibit, alongside cheery images of baseball players on Belle Isle in the 1950s, restaurant menus, and a telephone created for the exhibit that speaks many of the different Chinese dialects spoken over the last 150 years in Detroit.

In the exhibit, a timeline from the Detroit Free Press glides across a wall alongside photographs curated from family albums, a case of congressional war medals from Chinese American veterans, Miss Chinatown pageant photography, and memorabilia from Chinese restaurants that were home to community organizations.

The objects and words that fill the exhibit space tell many simultaneous, sometimes contradictory stories, filling in blanks in some instances, and raising fruitful questions in others. The room is full to bursting with stories of many shapes: painful, quotidian, personal, and joyful.


Left: The Yee cousins (Jack, Allan, George, Mon, Marshall, Robert, and Dick) play football in 1958 on Belle Isle. Mon, Marshall, and Dick Yee are LSA alumni; Jack is a U-M architecture alum. Photo courtesy of the Yee Family. Right: Chinese American youth celebrate in front of the Shanghai Café, circa 1970. Photo courtesy of the Lim Family
The Yee cousins (Jack, Allan, George, Mon, Marshall, Robert, and Dick) play football in 1958 on Belle Isle. Mon, Marshall, and Dick Yee are LSA alumni; Jack Yee is a U-M architecture alum. Photo courtesy of the Yee Family
Chinese American youth celebrate in front of the Shanghai Café in 1970. Photo courtesy of the Lim Family


Chen says the exhibit “is less about celebrating multiculturalism, and more about how histories of oppression and resilience influence the way we live today.” But how to show the nuance, variety, and depth of these stories within the four white walls of a museum?

“I had to think really critically about doing it [telling these stories] practically,” Chen says.

“I had to ask myself, what does it look like to carry out your dreams, visions, with very limited timespan, very limited budget?”

Working closely with community members, Chen learned that many family photographs were being held in local archives, and she worked with museum staff to return the materials to families. “Something that theorists sometimes miss,” Chen says, “is that the practice of museum work provides opportunities to decolonize.”


Lily Jiale Chen holds an abacus from the exhibit, which encourages visitor interaction with the materials. Photo by Erin Kirkland/Michigan Photography

Ian Shin, assistant professor of history and American culture and Chen’s mentor, was impressed by her dedication to public service and connected her with Roland Hwang (B.S.E. ’71, MBA ’76), a Department of American Culture lecturer, lawyer, and lifelong Detroit Chinatown community member and legal advocate. Hwang is perhaps best known as one of the founders of American Citizens for Justice (ACJ), the group that led efforts to investigate and prosecute the killers of Vincent Chin in the landmark 1982 hate crime.

In 1982, just days before his wedding, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American Detroiter, was brutally murdered by two white men on Woodward Avenue. Assailants Ronald Ebens and stepson Michael Nitz, after being charged with second-degree murder, pled guilty and no contest, respectively, to manslaughter.

The three years of probation and $3,000 fine meted out by Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman brought about the outrage and consternation of the Asian American community and community organizations like Anti-Defamation League and Detroit Association of Black Organizations (DABO) to create a justice for Vincent Chin movement, and the creation of ACJ.

Hwang vividly remembers the moment after this initial ruling that his outrage turned to action. “I got the phone call from the head of the Chinese merchant’s association, On Leong. I was at the Detroit Association of Chinese Americans. We decided to join forces, and that was the birth of American Citizens for Justice,” Hwang says.

The action of ACJ, and “the investigation, not by the police officers, but by our pro bono attorney Lisa Chan,” Hwang says, revealed witness testimony indicating that the killing had been a hate crime. The discovery led to Chin’s murderers being tried in a federal case, one that is recognized for giving birth to the Asian American victims’ and civil rights movements. The Vincent Chin story is part of the Detroit Chinatowns exhibit as well, and Hwang’s collaboration with Chen helped the curator to shape the telling of this story. And the organizing for Hwang’s legal advocacy, it should be noted, took place at the tables of family restaurants such as those represented in the exhibit.

Connecting with Chinatown community members, especially elders, was key for Chen’s research, and Chen found that many community members were eager to share their histories.

The exhibit features the story of another Chin family (no relation to Vincent), complete with family photos of U-M alum Curtis Chin and his siblings sitting as children in front of their famed family restaurant, Chung’s. Chin’s book, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant (Little, Brown, and Co., 2023), shares stories about his family’s history in the area, as well as his personal story of growing up in Chinatown and coming out as queer.


Left: Ngan Oi Woo Wong in Shanghai Café, circa 1970. Shanghai Café photo courtesy of the Lim Family. Right: Tom Chin with grandsons Chris, Curtis, and Craig, in front of their family restaurant, Chung’s, around 1971. Chung’s photo courtesy of the Chin Family
Ngan Oi Woo Wong in Shanghai Café, circa 1970. Courtesy of the Lim Family
Tom Chin with grandsons Chris, Curtis, and Craig, in front of their family restaurant, Chung’s, around 1971. Courtesy of the Chin Family


Through oral histories and family narratives shared by community members, Chen collected the stories of some of the more difficult experiences faced by Chinese American women in Detroit’s Chinatowns, and was struck by their enormous strength.

“I wanted to call out how much was carried on the backs of Chinese women for the community to survive,” Chen says.

Chen spoke with Carolyn Chin, the granddaughter of Ngan Oi Woo Wong, who, as a single mother of three, ran the Shanghai Café. Their family story is featured prominently in the exhibit and its oral histories.

Chen’s exhibit shows the relocation of Chinatown across Detroit and tells stories about a place where physical landmarks no longer exist. “Detroit has not done a good job preserving historical landmarks,” Hwang says. “That bears repeating and contemplation, and this exhibit does that on the neighborhood level, which actually tells the stories of the different families.”

Chinese Americans, Chen says, “have been part of the Detroit fabric since the 1870s, and there have been active efforts to remove and forget. The ‘urban renewal’ that destroyed the Black Bottom neighborhood [a predominately Black Detroit neighborhood that was demolished and replaced by Lafayette Park in the late 1950s] also destroyed Chinatown in the late 1950s and early 1960s with forced relocation to Cass Corridor.”

Chen’s exhibit does something else a textbook cannot do: It invites participation from visitors. There is a playable mahjong table, an abacus like the ones mid-century schoolchildren would have practiced their numbers on at the Chinese school, and interactive maps that encourage visitors to contemplate their own family’s journeys to the Detroit area. On one world map, visitors can place a dot signifying family origins. On another, visitors can drop a chip into a bucket that shows how their family arrived in this area: by sea, by train, or if they trace their origins back to the area, as the Anishinaabe do. “We all come from somewhere,” Chen says, “and we come from here, too.”


Left: Members of the Yee family visit Belle Isle in 1956. Courtesy of Kathy Yee. Right: Mrs. May Lim and students at the Chinese School of Detroit in 1952. Courtesy of The Detroit News Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University
Members of the Yee family visit Belle Isle in 1956. Courtesy of Kathy Yee
Mrs. May Lim and students at the Chinese School of Detroit in 1952. Courtesy of The Detroit News Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University


The Detroit’s Chinatowns exhibit has affirmed for Chen the importance of place-based work, and she says the work has shown her the critical intersections of the stories of different communities of color.

“We can’t talk about Detroit Chinatown without Detroit’s Native and Black communities, and what Asian American communities owe the communities that have survived,” Chen says. “Our land acknowledgment recognizes that all immigrants come to land and water that have been cared for by Anishinaabe and labored on by Black communities.”

Chen says she is committed to holding two things in tension: that museums are inherently colonial institutions, and also radical sites of opportunity, “places where I still dream,” she says.

“I wanted to engage people my age or younger to think critically about the generations of people that paved the way for us. Growing up in a suburb of Detroit, as a second-generation Chinese immigrant, it took me a long time to see past my parents’ hardship. I faced so much racism that it almost prevented me from seeing the longer history, and how much I owe to older generations,” Chen says. “This exhibit is my love letter, my chance to say thank you.”

In 1982, just days before his wedding, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American Detroiter, was brutally murdered by two white men on Woodward Avenue. Courtesy of The Detroit News Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University


In his 2016 novel The Fortunes, English professor Peter Ho Davies writes about real figures of Chinese American history. To tell the story of Vincent Chin, he imagined the perspective of Chin’s friend, a witness to the murder who is haunted by his memories of that night.

“What do I remember? What does anyone remember after all of this time?” the character asks in Peter Ho Davies’s novel The Fortunes. A reluctant key witness, he goes on to tell the story of that night, of his friendship with Vincent, and of the formation of the American Citizens for Justice in a Chinese restaurant, where he puzzles over questions of truth, justice, and identity in a swirl of shame and shock:

“I sat at the back of those meetings, between the pay phone and the cigarette machine, watching koi gliding silently back and forth in the aquarium.”

Later, he must testify in the federal case, and in his stunned, obligatory participation in this historic moment, grief warps memory.

Thorough historical research, including conversations with his LSA colleague Roland Hwang, informed Davies’s construction of the Chin narrative in The Fortunes. But the space of uncertainty, between the public record and the unknowable interior experiences of those who lived it, is where Davies makes Chin’s story come alive.

Peter Ho Davies. Photo by Erin Kirkland/Michigan Photography


In an interview with Fiction Writers’ Review, Davies—the Charles Baxter Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature—discusses his process of writing fiction inspired by history with LSA’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program alum Eric McDowell (M.F.A. ’13).

Eric McDowell: For you, when is it best to work from your imagination, and when is it best to turn to “the facts”?

Peter Ho Davies: The space between the public life and the private life is a space for fictional speculation to flow into. It fills a gap in the record, without necessarily contradicting the known facts. And in general that’s what I look for in historical material, a space of uncertainty that the historical record can’t quite account for.

One more thought in this regard. It’s always tempting to think of a before-and-after in regard to research, and it would be awfully neat if we could do all the research first followed by the writing. For me the process is more dialectical. I do enough research to inspire myself to write, write until I run out of steam or reach the limits of my knowledge, go back and do more research until I find myself primed to write again, and so on.

Read the entire interview.



Plate/chopsticks, teapot, and mahjong photos by Erin Kirkland/Michigan Photography

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Release Date: 05/08/2024
Tags: LSA; English; American Culture; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Helen Zell Writers' Program; Gina Balibrera