Fighting Displacement and Cultural Erasure in Detroit’s Chinatown

by Peggy Gwi-Seok Hong, Shane Bernardo, and DAY Project Members

Last November, Detroit Asian Youth (DAY) Project, took down the Chinatown mural that had been on Peterboro Street in the Cass Corridor since 2003. We chose to take it down because the building on which it was installed had been sold and was slated to become a high-end restaurant. We were concerned that the mural might be damaged, particularly if developers were not informed or interested in the history of the mural and Chinatown.

What? Chinatown? Detroit has a Chinatown? Detroit Asian Youth Project? Are there Asians in Detroit? Although only two percent of the population of Detroit, Asians have a history here, beginning in the 1870s. They established the original Detroit Chinatown at 3rd and Bagley, where the MGM Casino stands now. They ran laundries and restaurants, and built families and churches. In the 1960s, after the neighborhood was demolished as part of a development project, the city of Detroit relocated Chinatown to a proposed “International Village” that never came to be, leaving thousands of Chinese empty-handed and nearly homeless.

DAY Project began on the 20th anniversary of the killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, who was murdered in 1982 in a horrific racial hate crime, by angry autoworkers who blamed the Japanese for the decline of the US auto industry. The acquittal of the perpetrators ignited a protest movement locally and nationally, raising the country’s consciousness concerning the civil rights of Asian Americans.

The most visible Asian in Detroit has no doubt been Dr. Grace Lee Boggs, the Chinese American activist, philosopher, author, and visionary, who passed away in 2015 at age 100. For most her life, Grace worked as a community organizer and leader in Detroit’s African American community. Later she played a major historic role in inspiring radical consciousness among young Asian Americans. In fact, Grace helped initiate the formation of DAY Project.

Relations among Asians of different nationalities in Detroit have not always been smooth. Nor have Asians been accepted and embraced by the majority population, whether White or Black. Additionally, not all Asians identify with Black issues or choose to be in solidarity with other people of color.

The nature of White supremacy is to oppress through hierarchy, to pit one group against another in order to keep both from attaining power. Anti-Blackness among Asians is painfully real, and explains why Asian communities in greater Detroit tend to be concentrated in the suburbs these days. It’s an insidious form of internalized racism, in which people of color are taught to fear each other. As long as we see each other as enemies, we leave the system of White supremacy untouched, and may even see Whiteness as salvation.

Asia has long been seen as a place to plunder, and practically every Asian nation has been colonized by Europeans and/or US Americans. This results in a mentality among Asians of valuing ourselves, our histories, and our cultures based on our capital potential. We’ve been trained to put ourselves on the auction block of White culture, willing to sell ourselves to the highest bidder. Many Asian Americans have been brainwashed to embrace the sham of the American Dream, wanting to believe we really do have boots with straps whereby to pull ourselves up. Meanwhile, White capitalists are free to buy, take, or steal virtually anything from Asia.

Courtesy of Soh Suzuki

In Detroit, we have Asian fusion restaurants like The Peterboro, the “sushi bar” at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and the “Thai-inspired” Katoi ( recently damaged by arson). These are trendy Asian restaurants owned and run by Whites.

While we’ve reached enough racial consciousness in American society for White people to refrain from, say, opening an African restaurant in Detroit, Asian culture is not viewed the same way. Asians are the perpetual outsiders, always the Other, thus totally available for appropriation. In today’s current anti-immigrant climate, we will never be able to assimilate, and our physical traits will betray even multi-generation Asian Americans as “foreigners.” Upholding the racist myth of Asian Americans as the “model minority” creates a wedge between us and other people of color. This wedge is used to promote both anti-Blackness and anti-Asianness and pit racial groups against each other.

Because of this wedge and the absence of solidarity, some Asians in Detroit report feeling “othered” at the same rate by Blacks as Whites. When Blacks express anti-Asianness, it’s because they have been conditioned by White supremacy to do so. Asians are universally seen as fair game to dominate, harass, fetishize, sexualize, and exoticize. Being cat-called is not a compliment, but rather an act of aggression and violence, an act of dehumanization.

Similarly, when Whites open an Asian-themed restaurant, this is not flattery, but also an act of aggression, violence, and cultural and economic exploitation. In the case of Katoi restaurant, it’s doubly offensive that the owners made the name of their restaurant a transphobic Thai slang term, roughly translated as “ladyboy.” While katoi could be considered an insider term, like the use of the N-word within Black culture, when outsiders appropriate it for commercial use, this is deeply hurtful and offensive. The unfortunate fire on February 17 could be an opportunity for the restaurant owners to reinvent themselves and correct the offenses that have been pointed out to them by DAY Project and others, and to reopen with a new identity.

Courtesy of Soh Suzuki

The Peterboro restaurant, in the heart of the former Chinatown, saw fit to hire a hailed Chinese American chef, who, along with traditional dishes, throws in some creative fusion twists, prepared for a predominantly white clientele. However, like other businesses popping up in Detroit, The Peterboro could do more to be a useful and relevant presence in the neighborhood, engaging the immediate community that was left behind by urban renewal.

These are some of the questions we raise regarding the new and proposed developments on Peterboro Street:

– How do you practice respect for a culture and its rich and complex history, instead of appropriating it?

– How do you enter a neighborhood of color, especially one whose residents have been marginalized, and who are largely low-income, and instead of displacing, exploiting, and profiting, become a welcome and useful presence?

– When you build a business in a low-income neighborhood, what can you do to benefit the actual residents?

– What can you do as a local business to see that you are not displacing anyone, but rather supporting the residents and improving the neighborhood for everyone, not just the newcomers?

When DAY Project took down the Chinatown mural, we did it not as an act of capitulation, but as a statement of resistance. The event was held as a community speak-out about the development of Peterboro Street and the Cass Corridor, and was preceded by weeks of canvassing and conversations with residents, business owners, and members of the Association of Chinese Americans Community Center in Hannan House on Woodward Avenue. DAY Project also did a series of workshops on honoring the cultural histories of cities and demanding equitable urban development that does not displace, appropriate, or exploit. We continue seeking to amplify the voices of the residents of Peterboro Street and Cass Corridor.

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