Curtis Chin Discusses His Book “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant, A Memoir”

Detroit-born Curtis Chin has written for print and TV; now his debut memoir is getting national attention.
The memoir was recognized as a Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan. // Cover image courtesy of Curtis Chin

“We as people are a reflection of the places we grow up in, right?” says writer Curtis Chin. “They inform us; they change who we are.”

Chin, who was born in Detroit and raised there and in Troy, grew up at Chung’s, a beloved Cantonese restaurant stationed along the Cass Corridor in Detroit’s New Chinatown that was owned and operated by generations of Chin’s paternal family.

His recently published first book, the memoir Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant, is about growing up Asian in 1980s Detroit and coming out to his working-class immigrant family. Chin’s story orbits his family’s popular restaurant — which he describes as “the happiest place on earth” for much of Detroit — not unlike one of Jupiter’s moons. At least in Chin’s telling, that’s how powerful Chung’s gravitational force could be.

With coverage by Time, The Washington Post, NPR, W Magazine, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and named a Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan, the book has garnered praise for its candidness, humor, and charm, and Chin is holding out hope that it might be picked up as a TV show.

Though his love for his family is palpable on every page, as the third of six children, Chin often felt “overlooked and overwhelmed,” he writes. Between the failing auto industry, crack cocaine, and the specter cast by AIDS, “the 1980s in Detroit were tumultuous times. Trying to understand, accept, and establish my own identity by race, class, and sexuality was difficult.”

Chin began to notice his attraction to other boys early on but worried he wouldn’t be accepted — either by his family or by anyone else — if he came out. He tried to “de-gay” himself, he writes, by taking cold showers and chanting, “Don’t be gay. Don’t be gay. Don’t be gay.”

Chin was in grade school when his parents moved the family to Troy, and the transition was difficult: In the suburbs, they faced blatant racism, discrimination, and prejudice, and their house was repeatedly vandalized by white neighbors.

But even though he graduated from Troy High School, Chin is adamant about the fact that Detroit was his first, and truest, home. Even after they moved, Chin and his siblings spent the vast majority of their time in the city, helping out at the restaurant.

Curtis Chin spent his childhood years at his family’s eatery in New Chinatown in Detroit’s
Cass Corridor. // Photograph by Beth Price.

As a whole, the book is full of both pathos and humor, sweetness and salt. There is a playfulness to the prose that is wonderfully enticing, and Chin isn’t above a pun or two. “When you grow up in a bilingual household, you understand the importance of
words and word choice,” Chin says over a Zoom interview from Los Angeles.

In addition to his work as a writer — both in print and for television — Chin has worked as a filmmaker and an activist and is well known for co-founding the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City, which champions the work of Asian American writers.

“In some ways, the memoir is a culmination of all the creative endeavors I’ve been doing,” Chin says. “It’s all about finding a voice and helping others find their voice as well.”

For him, Chin says, the restaurant itself was instrumental for finding his voice.

“People would come down and spend time with our family, and it was just amazing to feel like all of Detroit was there,” he says. “Whether they were white-collar people, doctors, lawyers, the government workers from downtown, the media workers, the professors and students from Wayne State to the pimps and the prostitutes literally working the street corner — I got to see all of Detroit.”

He didn’t just get to see it. Chin’s parents encouraged their children to speak to customers — often, and at length. “I learned so many different lessons about not being afraid of talking to people that are different from you, not being afraid of asking questions, and, most importantly, not being afraid to ask for help when you need it.

“Even though I don’t work in a Chinese restaurant anymore, I still feel like I’m a Chinese waiter,” Chin says. “I go through life asking people, ‘Can I get you something? How can I help?’”

Last November, the author returned to metro Detroit for readings at Oakland University and the Detroit Historical Museum. He will be returning this month for readings at “a bunch of libraries,” including the Detroit Public Library and the Troy Public Library.

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This story is from the February 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.