Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant, a memoir by Curtis Chin, is a beautifully written and moving account of growing up in inner city Detroit in the 1980s. Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, a beloved eatery in Detroit, was opened by Chin’s grandfather and run by the family for nearly 60 years before finally closing in 2000. For over 30 years, the restaurant was located in Detroit’s old Chinatown. Eventually urban renewal forced relocation a few blocks away. In 1963, the restaurant moved to a new building with an ersatz pagoda roof and parking located at Cass and Petersboro.
Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine was located in a dicey location slowly on the skids, with large glass windows that once offered views of the street. The front red vinyl booths next to the windows were favored by customers who could keep an eye on their cars while dining. The restaurant’s plate glass windows were eventually replaced with cinder blocks after a few vandalism incidents and customers were later routinely buzzed in at the front door.
If you grew up in a family restaurant, you learned to do every job to run it, from bussing dishes to operating the dishwasher. You learned the hospitality business from the ground up, on the job, before working your way to waiting tables and earning tips. Service with a smile, greeting with equanimity old customers and new. You learned to have everything in its place and how to get along with others.
“Work hard. Be quiet. Obey your elders,” said Chin’s mother wisely. 2,500 years of Chinese culture are distilled in this short phrase and represents a consistent thread in this memoir.
Detroit in the ’80s was a segregated and troubled city, but everyone loved the famous egg rolls and boneless diced almond chicken at Chung’s. Chin describes it as a famous inner city restaurant that catered to Jewish, Black, and gay customers, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, and even high officials from City Hall. Chung’s was a food destination for all. Sadly, Chung’s has been closed for over 20 years and so is most of its Chinatown, too.
While Curtis Chin draws sympathetic portraits of his family and friends, and briefly touches on his adolescent gay crushes, most of the time he is in the closet and his ngeen ngeen or paternal grandma never knew. He does confide his secret to a best friend.
I was disappointed with the lack of illustrations. Thanks to Google, I was able to find photos of Detroit’s Chinatown, Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, and its surroundings. For those of us readers unfamiliar with Detroit, it would have provided more context.
The book’s front cover has a tantalizing vintage photo of Chung’s original signage, with a restaurant receipt where the books title is written instead of an order.
Curtis Chin is a wonderful storyteller, with a chatty personal style and he’s now out and about writing, making films, and living in Los Angeles. His new memoir is a welcome addition to Asian American coming of age stories.
The author reads from his memoir on Wed., November 1, 2023 at Ocean Star 605 7th Ave S, Seattle, WA 98104. Register here. Chin also has a reading set for Thursday, November 2, 2023 at 1:30pm at UW Tacoma.