Curtis Chin reflects on offbeat upbringing in 1980s Detroit


Curtis Chin’s delightful memoir, “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant,” is as tasty as one of the 10 million eggrolls his family turned out in their multigenerational restaurant that thrived for more than six decades in Detroit. It has garnered quite the buzz nationwide, and more locally, it was named a 2024 Michigan Notable Book.

The memoir is reminiscent of the popular television series “The Bear,” providing an unbridled behind-the-scenes look at the operation of a Chinese restaurant, but it also sorts through a complex coming-of-age story of a self-proclaimed “fat boy” coming to understand and embrace that he’s also gay.

I was fortunate enough to catch Chin as he traverses the country on a book tour while balancing his successful documentary filmmaking business. He’ll make a stop at Michigan State University’s Main Library Feb. 1 to discuss the book and sign copies.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Chin has written for CNN, Bon Appetit, the Detroit Free Press and the Boston Globe as well as network and cable television programs. He’s the co-founder of the nonprofit Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City and served as its first executive director. He’s screened his films at more than 600 venues in 20 countries, with his most recent documentary, about the late photographer and activist Corky Lee, premiering at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May 2022.

Chin’s family’s restaurant, Chung’s, was already thriving as he began to come of age in Detroit’s tumultuous ‘80s, when crack-cocaine mixed with an auto industry scrambling to survive met the AIDS crisis.

Despite the hardships, Chin writes lovingly of his experiences in Detroit, especially the time he spent hanging around and working in the restaurant, which was located in the Cass Corridor. Before being bulldozed for one of the many Detroit expressways, it had been in the center of a bustling Chinatown.

“Detroit, for me, was normalized. Oh, a nearby building was burned down or a person got shot a block away. I don’t feel bad about growing up in Detroit,” he said.

While most parents were telling their kids, “Don’t talk to strangers,” Chin and his brothers were thrown into the restaurant environment, where talking to strangers was encouraged.

Through the restaurant, he said, “My parents always got us to meet and talk with different people.”

Of course, I had to ask Chin if he had a favorite dish at his family’s restaurant.

“Oh my God. You can’t ask that question. There were so many dishes. I’d eat multiple times a day. That’s why I was a little fat kid,” he said.

I was curious about why Chin’s first name is Curtis, an Americanized name, and his book provides the answer. Growing up in Hong Kong, his mother loved movies, and one of her favorites was the 1959 crime comedy “Some Like It Hot.” The movie stars Tony Curtis, who wore women’s clothes and a wig to hide from pursuant gangsters.

“Basically, she’d named me after the worst drag queen ever,” Chin writes.

If he hadn’t opted for a degree in creative writing, his book shows he may have had a career in stand-up comedy.

But he doesn’t abstain from writing about the painful times, too, like the overt racism his family faced after moving to the suburbs as he was entering middle school. Anti-Asian sentiment was widespread — when he was a freshman in high school, his family friend Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two autoworkers who mistakenly believed he was Japanese and blamed foreign competition for taking American jobs. In the end, the culprits received what amounted to a slap on the wrist.

The incident clearly had a lasting effect on Curtis Chin, who explored the murder and its aftermath in his 2009 documentary, “Vincent Who?”

Chin is working on a screenplay adaptation of his memoir, with the hopes of optioning it for a movie, which would be set against the backdrop of Chinese Americans living through the chaotic ups and downs of 1980s Detroit.

“Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant” discussion and book signing

Feb. 1

7 p.m.

MSU Main Library

366 W. Circle Drive, East Lansing



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