Spilling The Tea

Curtis Chin grew up as much of a Detroit insider as you can be, as a member of a family who trace their origins in the city to the late 1800s. His clan for generations had run Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, a restaurant popular with both working-class neighborhood residents and city dignitaries. Yet as a queer and closeted Asian American growing up in Detroit’s darkest era, the 1980s — when his city was experiencing urban decay, racial polarization, sporadic street violence and persistent malaise — Chin felt very much the outsider.

A poet, filmmaker and veteran activist and organizer for Asian American and LGBTQ causes, Chin writes about his physical, political and sexual coming of age in those times with intimate candor in his new memoir, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant, to be released Oct. 17. A heartbreaking centerpiece of the book: Chin’s insider account of the Chinatown community’s experience of the brutal killing of Vincent Chin — beaten to death in 1982 by a pair of angry white autoworkers as he was celebrating his imminent wedding — and the miscarriage of justice that followed when the men were initially sentenced to probation and fined a mere $3,780 fine with no jail time for the crime. For Asian Americans nationwide, Vincent Chin’s murder eventually became a rallying cause, defining the political awakening of a generation. For young Curtis, it was that and more: Vincent’s and Curtis’ families were close, and Vincent was a regular presence at their restaurant.

In this conversation with Capital & Main’s Jeff Yang, a longtime friend and collaborator, Chin discusses code-switching, his youthful embrace of and later rejection of Reaganism, the critical role of labor politics in shaping the Asian American immigrant experience, and telling stories as a tool for community survival. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Capital & Main: Why was your family’s restaurant the place where you forged your sense of self?

Curtis Chin: First and foremost, I think of myself as a Chinese restaurant kid. And I think there is a certain kindred spirit that I have with other kids who went through this experience. It’s like belonging to a secret society, this nod of understanding that the restaurant was the first place where we learned the most important and fundamental things about life. About people, for example.

Most parents tell their kids not to talk to strangers. My parents told me the exact opposite. They wanted us to talk to strangers and customers. Not just to accommodate them but to learn from them.

My mom didn’t graduate high school. My dad went to community college for two semesters. They didn’t know much about the outside world beyond those four walls of the restaurant. They didn’t know what opportunities were available to us. But they definitely knew we had a room full of people that could answer our questions. So, whenever my dad met someone who had an interesting job, he’d immediately call all six of us to run over there and barrage them with questions.

This taught us several things. First: not to be afraid of people who are different. Not to feel like you can’t learn from other people. And not to be afraid of asking for help. I think that was a very powerful lesson. It’s why I’m the way I am.

“As an Asian, I was constantly being asked to pick a side, Black or white. At the playground, in class, even in our restaurant.”

You’ve told me before that you had to rethink the book in the wake of COVID and the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, as well as the murder of George Floyd. What did you change?

Well, in that moment, I was forced to really ask myself: What kind of book would be relevant for readers? That’s when I thought I’d shift the focus to my life at an older age, through high school and college, where I could go much deeper into my identity formation — not only as an Asian American, but as a queer Asian American and as someone from a working-class background reflecting on the complicated dynamics of growing up Chinese in a very Black and white city.

As an Asian, I was constantly being asked to pick a side, Black or white. At the playground, in class, even in our restaurant. I felt like the safest way to go was to be as “American” as possible — I was so conscious of being accused of having divided allegiances that I ended up overcompensating and becoming this ultra-patriotic, jingoistic Reagan Republican.

What ended up changing your politics?

I would say two things. The first is this: One of our family friends, Vincent Chin, was beaten to death by two white autoworkers.

Your perspective on his killing was illuminating — I don’t think that a lot of people have really heard about it from that insider perspective, inside the Chinatown community.

Right. I mean, we were in inner-city Detroit; murders were happening all the time. I talk about four other murders that happened to people close to my family in the book. But Vincent’s was the only one that was racially motivated. And it was so close to home. He used to hang out in back of our restaurant because he was friends with some of our waiters. It was all the Chinatown community could talk about, and for the longest time, it felt like we were all alone. But then I remember seeing a rally on TV, and it wasn’t just Chinese — it was other Asians; it was allies from the Black and Jewish communities. And that led me to start reading up on the history of civil rights.

We had this World Book Encyclopedia set that my parents bought, and I read about slavery and Jim Crow and the fight against segregation. And it hit home to me how much those struggles related to what my family faced too. I was still a Republican — that was my way of trying to fit in — but it planted a seed.

“When you’re growing up, things just sort of hit you. Someone will just say something racist or do something homophobic, and you just have to reconcile how that fits in with who you think you really are.”

What was the other thing?

Well, in the book, I talk about how Mayor Coleman Young used to come by our restaurant. He was such a regular that we actually renamed his favorite dish, “egg foo yong,” to “egg foo Young,” in his honor. And one day, my parents pushed me to talk to him. I was embarrassed, and the mayor could tell. He asked what was making me angry, and I told him, “Nothing.” Then he said, “You need to think about what makes you angry. And then you need to think about how you’re gonna fix it.” I didn’t appreciate what he really meant by that at the time. But over time, that advice was life-changing.

In the book, you do such a beautiful job of exploring the multifaceted aspects of being a queer person of color from a working-class background, and how you had to code-switch among those identities.

I think that when you’re growing up, things just sort of hit you. Someone will just say something racist or do something homophobic, and you just have to reconcile how that fits in with who you think you really are. In a way, it felt less “intersectional” than like Whac-A-Mole. Except I was the one trying to avoid being hit. When you’re young and you have to code-switch, you may not even be conscious of it. It means speaking English versus Chinese, or even using different dialects of Chinese. Or changing the inflection of your voice to sound more masculine. They just become natural because you’re thrown into these situations. And sometimes you end up in situations where you don’t know which code to use.

I write in the book about how excited I was when a drag queen came to our restaurant. As a closeted teen, she was my first experience with someone queer, and it was thrilling. I was waiting on her table, and I gave her lemon slices to go with her water! It was my way of saying, “I’m one of you.” But after I took her order and headed to the kitchen, she shouted after me, “You better not be serving dog meat.” And I was stunned. I had no other way of retorting, so I ended up calling her “Sir” as she left the restaurant with her date. So much for queer solidarity.

Your dad’s side of the family was many multiple generations in America. Your mom was an immigrant, though, right?

My mom was an immigrant but only because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Her grandfathers came here — they’re buried in America! But her grandmothers stayed in China. Most Chinese women wouldn’t come under the conditions that were possible then. My dad’s side of the family were the strivers; the women on that side came over sooner, in part because my dad’s side became merchants. My great-great-grandfather quickly went from working in a laundry when he came over to owning a laundry and then a grocery store. That allowed him to bypass the Exclusion Act and bring over his family. Because there’s a loophole … 

Was it a labor loophole? Like, “Oh, I need more people to work in the business”?

No, quite the opposite. The Chinese Exclusion Act was really pushed by the labor unions, right? Because they didn’t want Chinese people taking their jobs. So, if you were a Chinese person that actually owned a business, you weren’t competing against American labor, so they didn’t care. By the year 1950, the law was adjudicated so that if you owned a restaurant, you could sponsor people to come in, but if you worked in the restaurant, you could not. So, you had all these Chinese restaurant owners who were actually not allowed to work in their own businesses, because as soon as they picked up a dish or washed a plate, they were considered a laborer.

“Because our voice was unheard, the deck was already stacked against Vincent Chin and against any Asian American that might be a victim of a hate crime.”

I did not know that nuance, and I feel like I’ve been immersed in the various contexts of the Exclusion Act. So, you’re saying that if you were a hands-off owner, you could sponsor workers to come in, but if you had any involvement in the business, you could not?

Yes. Workers would leave and open their own restaurants, and then they had to stop working in them if they wanted to bring in new people. You’d work, save, people might pool money to give to you, and then you’d open your place, and then, look, you’re the captain now. And you could bring in more people. These are the schemes that immigrants engage in to overcome racist laws.

It just shows how labor law and the status of Asians in this country have always been deeply interwoven. We’ve always been this labor buffer — embraced when people need workers, told to leave when they need jobs.

Yeah, I mean, that’s capitalism, right?

Yeah. And it’s a part of our history that just doesn’t get told.

Well, who’s going to tell it if not us? You know, in the book I talk about how I first started writing after Vincent was bashed. He was in the hospital dying, and I was looking through the papers to find out how the papers were going to write about his case. And nobody wrote about him for 12 whole days. It made me so angry that I began writing letters to the editor to Detroit newspapers. Throughout that whole period, the papers kept publishing articles about the suffering autoworkers losing their jobs, how difficult their lives were. Meanwhile, I was thinking, “This man I knew was killed by autoworkers, and you guys are ignoring it, and it’s because he’s Chinese.”

I honestly felt like if the papers covered us more than just the annual article they would do about Lunar New Year, if they covered us as real people — as part of the community — then the judge would never have given his killers that softball sentence. Because our voice was unheard, the deck was already stacked against Vincent Chin and against any Asian American that might be a victim of a hate crime.

So, that’s why I’ve always tried to give Asian Americans more opportunities to tell our stories. It’s why I co-founded the Asian American Writers’ Workshop — because I understood the importance of narrative. And yeah … I guess it’s why I wrote this book.

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