Detroit Chinatown: Works In Progress
An Historical Research Project and Exhibition
Since the first “Oriental” arrived in Detroit from the Canton region and opened a laundry service on Gratiot Street in 1872, the geographic and ethnic area known as “Detroit Chinatown” rapidly expanded its residential and commercial hold on Third Avenue. Between 1890 and 1920, the Chinese population in Chinatown increased from 50 to 1,500 and continued to grow thereafter. Chinese organizations like the On Leong Merchants Association and the Association of Chinese Americans were economic and cultural strongholds in the community, organizing for residents’ interests, sponsoring drives for aid during World War II, and hosting events ranging from Chinese New Year celebrations to healthcare advisory sessions. Though mostly socially isolated during the early years of the 20th century, Detroit’s Chinatown soon became a focal point and destination for “nosy” journalists, constituents of the local government, and international members of the elite, like Madame Chiang Kai-Shek in the 1940s and 1960s.
The modes in which the history of Chinese populations’ residence in the City of Detroit and the surrounding suburban neighborhoods intertwine with local, national, and international trends are particularly poignant. For example, Detroit News and Detroit Free Press articles that report on the “Chinese colony” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries are indicative of both perceptions of racial identity and attitudes toward the racial difference of the transforming status quo. The fluidity of reporters’ rhetoric and points of interest in the ethnic enclave over a period of one hundred years did not dictate but rather encouraged a simultaneous shift in the ways in which the general public and people of power viewed, categorized, and documented an individual’s or a community’s “Chineseness.” Furthermore, shifts in the economic vitality of countries vying for resources and revenue in the global market also affected citizens of Asian descent in Detroit. During the murder trials of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese man beaten to death by a Ford autoworker who mistook him for Japanese, thousands of Asian Americans mobilized nationally, but especially in the Motor City, to combat the racial sentiments felt by hundreds of autoworkers who blamed new foreign markets, particularly in Japan, for layoffs on the line. Such historical currents like those above and others that highlight the themes of race, gender, class, nationalism, patriotism, and the question of cultural continuity in the multi-cultural urban environment of Detroit not only define Detroit Chinatown but also illuminate the story of a people and a place that has long been ignored.
Record of Chinese in Detroit
From 1872 until 1989, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News periodically ran articles that concurrently reported the number of Chinese living in Detroit and their customs. Because many Chinese entered Detroit illegally and because the racial categories were still fairly limited to either black or white throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. Census data and Detroit City Directory entries do not accurately indicate the proportion of the population in Detroit that was of Chinese descent.
The figures in this table represent men only until the years following 1910, when the first Chinese woman, Rose Fang, permanently settled in Detroit.
|Number of Chinese
Names and Addresses of Early Chinese Settlers in Detroit
|Name of Early Settler
|Address in Detroit
|February 5, 1873
|December 20, 1873
|December 20, 1874
|May 21, 1875
|January 25, 1876
|Woodward avenue, just below Grand River avenue
|Larned street west
|Michigan avenue, west of Cass
|May 18, 1878
|Sam Lee (An Hoo Fang)
|Larned street, near Shelby
|Wah Hap (Yung-Ching)
|Michigan avenue, near Washington avenue
|Tern Gee (Hing Ching)
|Woodward avenue, near Gratiot avenue
|Larned street, near Brush street
|Griswold street, near the water office
|July 17, 1879
|August 12, 1886
|Hang Chin Hong
|147 Gratiot avenue
|148 Randolph street
Names of early Chinese settlers are listed as they are mentioned in each document. Thus, the same name may appear more than once and may be accompanied by an alias in parentheses. The alignment of the aliases to the common names of the settlers was made explicit by reporters, and no assumptions were made otherwise.
Source: Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, and Detroit Tribune articles from 1873-1886.
Today, an ancient 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 a historical 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 sought 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, the 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, the 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 the American gentry. Produced in Chinese “hongs” or factories, imported teas, silk, porcelain, and wallpaper became available for mass consumption.
Commodore Matthew C. Perry, a U.S. naval officer, landed in Tokyo (Edo) in 1853 to pressure Japanese officials into discussing trade policy before disembarking on 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.
Eight Pound Livelihood: Chinese Laundrymen In Detroit
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 families 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 HVAC 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
Within a short amount of time, the Chinese migrated to every state and territory in the U.S. Compare and contrasted 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.