Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Welcome Chinatown!

Welcome Chinatown!

Cass & Peterboro is officially recognized as the home of Detroit's Chinatown, but the Chinese have abandoned it long ago. On May 20th & 21st, 2006, I revisted the area my people have desserted in favor of suburbia.

I lament the loss of a casual community center where old friends stopped by, passed the time of day, and relived stories. Lost are the weekends where volunteers visited On Leong and assisted the aged with immunizations and social security paperwork. Long gone are the days of Kung-fu classes and awkward dances. Only memories remain from my childhood when On Leong offered Chinese language classes, live Chinese opera performances, Chinese movies, and gourmet 10-course Chinese New Year's banquets accompanied by a festive lion dance. These are the memories I carry with me from Chinatown on Cass & Peterboro in Detroit.

Welcome to my Detroit Chinatown! Please relax as I take you through a photo journey of the remains at Cass Avenue & Peterboro Street, Detroit, Michigan 48201.

The first thing you'll notice that will signal you're in Chinatown as you're driving south on Cass is Chung's Restaurant. This is simply because it is the largest and longest surviving landmark located right on Cass & Peterboro. As far as I can remember, Chung's has been a pillar of the Chinese community. It was one of the first restaurants to open at the "new" Chinatown (the "old" Chinatown was located at Michigan Avenue & Third Street) and it was the last one to close. Its owner, Tom S. Chin, passed away recently on April 22, 2005 in Lafayette, CA (read more about him here).

Looking north on Cass & Peterboro is the "Welcome Chinatown" sign next to the Birdtown Pet Shop (formerly Wah Lee). The sign is well-maintained (see D.A.Y. Project below), despite the fact that Chinatown has been abandoned for years. Wah Lee was a Chinese grocery store owned by Joseph K. Chin where fresh produce, canned goods, teas, medicinals, and the usual oriental fare in today's Asian grocery stores could be found. I remember begging my mother to buy sticky rice paper candies or perserved fruits as treats and those cheesy little paper lanterns. I dare not ask for what I truly wanted, which was a pair of the kissing (magnet-lipped) couple (she'd never go for that). She usually acquiesced to one of my requests and it kept me quiet for the remainder of our trip. Meanwhile, she would purchase some Tiger Balm for father's sore shoulders or some Chinese winter melon for some soup. It was great going to Chinatown with mom and dad!

Inside the peaceful courtyard on Peterboro, looking north, the tranquility of the trees offer a park-like setting to the urban area.

Looking east on Peterboro towards Cass, the wall paint and lights are well maintained. The D.A.Y. (Detroit Asian Youth) Project mural stands unviolated as a symbol of the community's statement of unity. Read more about the D.A.Y. Project below and at their Xanga site.

A front view of the D.A.Y. Project mural. The mural depicts Lily Chin (lower left) holding a picture of her son, Vincent Chin. Martin Luther King is also depicted (to the right of Lily Chin) in the mural. To read more about its development, click here.

Here is an overview of Chinatown on Peterboro, north (left) and south (right) sides of the street looking towards Cass Avenue.

I just can't get over how beautiful and mournfully quiet it was here, almost as if it were a memorial park. The trees that were planted in the 1960's when the "new" Chinatown was first transplanted to this community were placed in sturdy containers that the residents could sit on and pass the time of day. The planters/seats have not deteriorated and look inviting.

The other side of Chung's, as you walk south on Cass, more accurately depicts the stark reality of the era that no longer resides in Chinatown.

On Leong, situated on Cass Avenue, has long been boarded up and for sale. A strange smell of mildew and decay emanates between the broken boards as I walk by. On Leong (a/k/a the Chinese Merchants Association) was the benevolent association set up by the early Chinese settlers of Detroit. To learn more about it, see the Business/Politics section of San Francisco Chinatown's website.

This is where many of the cultural and social activities were held. On Chinese New Year, firecrackers and lettuce were hung from the windows. As the Chinese lion would dance around to the distinct beat of Chinese drums, the resounding firecrackers were lit. The loud commotion scared off evil spirits and attracted the god of wealth with the offer of lettuce. It was a great show! Gourmet Chinese chefs would prepare a grand 10-course meal, served to people seated 10 per table, and would take an entire night to consume. Throughout the year, live Chinese operas would be performed there as well as Chinese movies. Chinese language classes, Kung-fu classes, social gatherings, business meetings, just about every type of gathering would be held there. If walls could speak! There's a great deal of history there.

Looking north on Cass Avenue, you can see Gold Dollar (the white building on the left and the first place the White Stripes ever played), On Leong (the tall building in the center), Chung's (with the red roof). In my youth, I remember walking by the Gold Dollar Bar and witnessing strange visions. I didn't come to understand what a drag bar was until much later in my life.

No sign ever hung over the site of the old Chinatown Kung-fu Club on Charlotte Street. In the 1970's, with the advent of Bruce Lee, Kung-fu instilled pride in many ABC's (American-born Chinese) and martial arts clubs cropped up everywhere in the U.S. Ours was no exception.

The decrepit Chinatown sign on Peterboro & Second, is the sister sign to the one on Peterboro & Cass, and anchors the northwest quandrant of the Chinatown's block.


There are many tales and much history here left in the recesses of the memories of former Detroit-area Chinese residents. I've had many happy memories made here. If you would like to share your memories, happy or sad, please email me. I will be delighted to post them here. My hope is to keep Detroit Chinatown's memories alive by posting stories here and preserving them for future generations to enjoy.

I am in the process of developing a sister website also entitled, Detroit Chinatown, which looks at it more from a historical and cultural perspective from the late-1800's through today. I would especially appreciate any old photographs you may have of Detroit's Chinatowns, both "old" (Michigan Avenue and Third Street) and "new" (Cass Avenue and Peterboro Street).

Also, I realize that many of the old-timers have gone on. Here is your chance to preserve their history. Let me know about them, their story about how they made it to America, their livelihood, family, struggles, beliefs, and anything else you think is important. Here is a little story about the Woo Family. I have volumes of Chinese history and love reading about it and will post interesting stories here on my blog.

Thank you for your time and I hope you've enjoyed reading this.


Blogger Gabe said...

revive Chinatown!

8:26 AM PDT  
Blogger Gabe said...

revive Chinatown!

8:26 AM PDT  
Blogger Gabe said...

I want to use Chinatown as a set in my movie, but can't find a time when no one is down there! I've scouted it all times of day and night. I would also like to make a documentary about it

4:16 PM PDT  
Blogger George Bernwanger Jr said...

Very nice! My only memories of Chinatown were visits to Chungs and the grocery store when I was a university student in the early 99's. At that time the grocery store was a wholesale store I believe. Thx for the great article!

6:37 AM PST  
Blogger George Bernwanger Jr said...

Oops - should have been - early 90's.

6:38 AM PST  
Blogger anne breitenstein said...

Thank you so much for this blog. Today I was driving down Cass Ave and saw the Chinatown sign for the first time. I'm a transplant to Detroit so was not aware of its existence. When the weather warms I will explore on foot. What a joy it would be to revive this community!

6:48 PM PST  
Blogger Aztlan in Christ said...

This is upsetting to me. Im a mexican near mexican town in southwest Detroit.
I really would have enjoyed viewing this area, for what it would have been today..
:( i hope everyone left for good reasons.

8:51 AM PDT  
Blogger brandigirl313 said...

It's January 2018 now..12 years.It was my pleasure reading this article. Any updates?

1:17 AM PST  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home