“Another John.–Ah–Chee, the only Chinaman of whom Detroit has been able to boast for a year past, has just been reinforced by a friend and brother, who has come to take in “washee” and render himself generally useful to the county. They have a shanty on Gratiot street, and as they bend over their washboards they sing:



Detroit Free Press, 1873

“As they say, we have become American. I served my country; I fought the war. Why shouldn’t I be American! The Chinese population in Detroit has changed drastically.”

—Yin Ack Yee, 2008


Today, an aged pagoda stands at the corner of Cass and Peterboro in downtown Detroit. Among rows of Chinese characters, a white sign with red lettering reads “Welcome Chinatown.” Perhaps once a greeting to visitors and residents of Detroit’s “New” Chinatown, this sign now serves as an historic marker for an ethnic and commercial district that ceases to materialize as suggested before passersby.

The story of Detroit’s Chinese residents and their neighborhoods we call “Chinatowns” does not begin at Cass and Peterboro; instead, the history of Chinese Americans in Detroit extends as far back as the late 18th century when the first Chinese merchants landed in the ports of New York and Honolulu and wealthy American entrepreneurs ventured across the Pacific Ocean to Canton, China to establish trade routes. Throughout the early 1800s, Chinese from the Toisan region in what is now known as Guangdong Province in Southern China traveled to the United States to trade goods and seek work. In Hawaii, early Chinese settlers labored on sugar plantations. In California, gold mines and textile mills profited from Chinese travail. In the “unsettled” West, Chinese also contributed greatly to the development of the economy by constructing roads and reservoirs. By 1890, after aiding in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese lived in every state and territory.

During this time, “Chinatowns,” sometimes referred to as “ethnic enclaves” or “colonies,” formed in towns and cities where Chinese lived and worked. Not only did these settlements provide an arena where individuals could share communal traditions and celebrate cultural holidays, but Chinatowns also enabled the Chinese community, which was mainly comprised of young married men whose wives remained in China, to support one another with services that were rendered unavailable to socially and economically disadvantaged minority groups. As U.S. immigration policy changed and the demographics of urban metropolises, like Detroit, shifted, so transformed the composition, purpose, and spatial boundaries of Chinatowns.

Pacific–centered World Map

19th Century

Although popular accounts emphasize the attributes of the United States that “pulled” immigrants like the Chinese to our shores, the U.S. also had burgeoning economic and political interests in the “Far East.” During an era of rapid industrialization, trade with East Asian nations became essential to the rise of America’s middle class.

Captain Abraham Gould Jennings capitalized on trade between China and New England by marketing items to a new class that were once reserved for American gentry. Produced in Chinese “hongs” or factories, imported teas, silk, porcelain, and wallpaper became available for mass consumption.

Commodore Matthew C. Perry, an U.S. naval officer, landed in Tokyo (Edo) in 1853 to pressure Japanese officials into discussing trade policy, before disembarking to China’s coast. En route to China, Perry anchored in Taiwan, formally Formosa, to examine natural coal deposits and draft documents that urged the U.S. to claim sovereignty over the island.

Click image for full-size version:



Although the building of the Transcontinental Railroad facilitated Chinese laborers’ movement through the Great Plains to the Midwest and Deep South, targeted attacks by other emigrant groups during recurring labor strikes in the West quickly affirmed the Chinese will to migrate into other areas of the country.

Detroit, the “city where life is worth living,” was more than a refuge; with various developing industries and a growing middle class, Detroit was the crux of innovation and ingenuity for thousands of hopeful migrants. For a small population of Chinese, Detroit provided an opportunity to establish an independent business that could furnish a spartan living in the U.S. and amenities for family overseas.

Not required to do domestic or “women’s” work in China, many Chinese men had learned how to do laundry when they were hired by wealthy women in the U.S. to help with household chores. As entrepreneurs, Chinese men took up washing, ironing, and mending, important and necessary services in a world where few could afford many outfits and many were expected to dress their best for church, business, or socializing. Though first–hand accounts do not exist from Detroit’s first Chinese settlers, the Detroit City Directory informs us that they did indeed own and operate laundries that also functioned as their living quarters. Renting “shanties,” Detroit’s Chinese laundrymen set out to make an “eight pound livelihood,” supporting themselves and their families, who still lived in China, with the aid of an eight–pound sadiron.

Regional Map of Chinese Population, 1890

Courtesy of Terry Douglas Goldsworthy

Within a short amount of time, Chinese had migrated to every state and territory in the U.S. Compare and contrast the size of the Chinese population by county in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Note how the Chinese population increases in some counties, but decreases in others as you view similar maps in other parts of the exhibit.


Detroit’s Old Chinatown, c. 1940 National Film Preservation Foundation (12:20)

Detroit’s New Chinatown, c. 1970 Chinese Lunar New Year, Lion Dance & Firecrackers (2:48)