Curtis Chin was practically raised at Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, his family’s restaurant in Detroit. It was a restaurant that served everybody, from the mayor (who was a regular) to sex workers to business executives. Within the walls of the restaurant, the Chin family saw the rise of Detroit as a multicultural, industrial city, and its decline in the wake of white flight and the crack epidemic. Chung’s was also the place where Curtis started to figure out his own identity and sexuality — while also learning how to make the Detroit Chinese-American specialty, almond boneless chicken.
Curtis’s memoir is Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant. If you want to win a copy of the book, sign up for our newsletter by October 23. If you’re already subscribed, then you’re already eligible to win.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, Jared O'Connell, and Julia Russo.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Kenny" by Hayley Briasco
- "Saturn Returns" by Ken Brahmstedt
- "Mouse Song Light" by Ken Brahmstedt
- "Loud Instrumental" by Bira
- "Lucky Strike" by Erick Anderson
- "Silhouette" by Erick Anderson
- "Mellophone" by James Thomas Bates
Photo courtesy of Michelle Li, Studio Plum Photography.
Dan Pashman: This episode contains a reference to a derogatory slur.
Curtis Chin: A lot of parents will tell their kids not to talk to strangers, right? My parents actually gave us the exact opposite. Instruction. They said talk to strangers. And who they were talking about were the people sitting in our dining room. They didn't really know what opportunities existed for us outside those walls of that Chinese restaurant, but they knew that there was this dining room full of people that had experiences, right? And so anytime my dad met somebody that had an interesting job, he'd like call all six of us to run over [LAUGHS] and barrage these people with questions, like, well, what do you do for a living, how did you get your job — you know, what I mean? How much money do you make? And because of that, you know, I loved meeting people. And so, I feel like that is something that I take with me.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it's for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Curtis Chin is a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on Asian Americans who have left important legacies, but who might not be well known in the broader culture. One of his documentaries is about Corky Lee, a photographer who chronicled New York’s Chinatown for over 50 years. He made another film about Vincent Chin, who was murdered by two white autoworkers in Detroit in the '80s, an event that galvanized Asian Americans across the country.
Dan Pashman: Now, Curtis is telling his own story, in his new memoir entitled Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant. Curtis’s family opened this restaurant in Detroit long before he was born. As he grew up, it would be the lens through which he saw much of the world around him. And in fact, there’s a lot we can all learn about America through the story of this restaurant. From the Chinese Exclusion Act, to the rise of Detroit as a multicultural, industrial city, to its decline in the wake of white flight and the crack epidemic. Add to that Curtis’s own story, trying to figure out his identity and his sexuality in a tight knit, immigrant family.
Dan Pashman: The first member of Curtis’s family to come to the U.S. was Gong Li, who arrived in the late 1800s.
Curtis Chin: My great great grandfather came from Canton, China to Canton, Ohio before realizing there weren't Chinese people there. So he moved up to Detroit.
Dan Pashman: Gong Li got a job there at a laundry, and a decade later, he opened a dry goods shop. He wanted to bring other family members to the U.S., but the Chinese Exclusion Act barred nearly all immigration from China. There was an exception, however, for merchants. People from China could come to the U.S. if they opened their own businesses. The thinking was they wouldn’t be taking jobs from union workers at existing companies this way.
Dan Pashman: So over time Gong Li was able to bring more of his family members over to work at the dry goods shop. Then in 1915, that exception in the law for merchants was expanded to include restaurant owners. This policy change led to an explosion in Chinese restaurants in America. In fact, it’s a key reason why today, there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald’s, Burger Kings, KFCs and Wendy’s combined, according to the Chinese American Restaurant Association.
Dan Pashman: In 1940, Gong Li’s grandson, who was Curtis’ grandfather, opened Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine in Detroit’s Chinatown.
Curtis Chin: It was your typical chop suey joint. They, you know, focused a lot on, like, chow mein, chop suey, egg foo young, um ... And, you know, at that time, America was going through a lot of changes, right? Women were entering the workforce. People were looking for cheaper options to eat. And Chinese restaurants suddenly became this really popular thing because you could go out for a cheap meal and think that you're in some place completely different.
Dan Pashman: When Chung's first opened, just describe the neighborhood a little bit more, describe the clientele.
Curtis Chin: The old Chinatown was located next to Corktown, the Irish part of Detroit. And so, you know, there were a lot of Irish customers. There were a lot of Jewish customers. Particularly because there were so few Asians in Detroit, my family knew that they had to appeal to other people.
Dan Pashman: But in the 1960s, the city of Detroit built a four-lane highway through that part of town, forcing many communities to relocate.
Dan Pashman: The highway that they built that destroyed those neighborhoods, that was sort of a result of white flight.
Curtis Chin: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: They basically wanted to make it easier for white people who had moved to the suburbs to get between their homes and their offices without having to drive on any local roads.
Curtis Chin: [LAUGHS] Without having to actually see people who lived in Detroit.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Curtis Chin: Yeah. Or interact with them. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Curtis’s grandparents were living above the restaurant during this time. When they were forced to move, they tried to buy a house in a better neighborhood, but a white developer refused to sell it to them. So one of their Jewish customers helped them out. He bought the house and sold it back to Curtis’s family. Curtis says he was repaid with free egg rolls for years.
Dan Pashman: Meanwhile, the restaurant moved to another part of town, known as Cass Corridor. This was becoming home to the city’s new Chinatown, as well as Detroit’s bohemian and arts scene.
Dan Pashman: The new restaurant was now double the size of the old one. Curtis’ grandmother convinced her son Allen, Curtis’ father, to drop out of community college and join the family business. She also arranged for him to find a bride in Hong Kong. He went there to meet her, only to find out she had a secret boyfriend. With help from a matchmaker, he met someone else, Shui Kuen. They got married and she moved to Detroit with him, and they both began working in the restaurant.
Curtis Chin: We had all this really beautiful, gorgeous artwork that my dad had brought over from Hong Kong when he went back to Hong Kong to meet my mom. [LAUGHS] And so, we had these really, really gorgeous teakwood paintings, you know, a lot of Chinese mythology. It was very comforting, very warm colors.
Dan Pashman: While most of Curtis’s family took pride in the restaurant, his dad, who was known as Big Al, made the restaurant a big part of his identity.
Curtis Chin: Oh, he loved being there. I mean, he would spend countless hours there. Like even when we'd closed up, he'd always find some excuse, some little thing to do. It's like, "Oh, you know, just another 10 minutes, just another 20 minutes. I just got to do this one thing," because I think part is because the customers loved him. Right? And it really was like that show Cheers, where everybody knew your name. People would come in. They'd be like, "Hey, Al, Big Al, how are you doing?," you know? And they'd sit down and a lot of times, my dad would disappear for like 15, 20 minutes. And it's like, where is he? And we'd find him sitting in the booth just, you know, talking with the customers. Yeah. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Curtis Chin: Yeah, my dad was incredible in that sense in that — I think about it because he is a person that, you know, really grew up in Chinatown, but yet he could have these conversations with anybody, you know, that was different from them. And always find a way to connect with people. And, you know, I feel like that's something I've tried to take with me as I've grown up, is always trying to meet people where they're at, trying to hear their stories. Trying to connect, I think. I think, I'm essentially a Chinese waiter my whole life. [LAUGHS] That's basically what I'm doing. You know, are you happy? Do you have enough tea?
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Curtis Chin: That's kind of how I've lived my life. You know? [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Curtis was the third of six children, and he was basically raised in the restaurant. When he was entering fifth grade, his family moved out to the suburbs, which meant transitioning to a very white school, in a very white neighborhood. But after school, he went back into Detroit to help out at the restaurant. So he had to do a lot of code switching.
Dan Pashman: On top of that, Curtis says he spent his pre-teen years trying to understand a feeling that he had when he was around certain other boys. He struggled to figure out what it might mean for him, and the people around him. One day, he was opening the restaurant and the radio was playing Diana Ross’s hit song “I’m Coming Out.”
Curtis Chin: And then I'd blast the radio because I can do that because nobody's in there. And then, you know, one of our waiters came in and caught me singing and dancing with it, you know, to the song. And he comes in and he does the universal hand wrist thing for fag, which is like the limp wrist thing, you know? And I knew what that was because kids were doing it at school.
Dan Pashman: And how did that feel?
Curtis Chin: Well, I didn't understand the feeling. I didn't know what the implications were about that. So I was more confused. And so, okay, well, I better hide this. Right? So I immediately straightened up. I, immediately, you know, turned down the radio and just tried to act normal. Thankfully, Derek never saw me doing again. And thankfully, he had the memory of a goldfish because he never brought it up again.
Curtis Chin: You know what I mean? So it seemed like maybe that was just an anomaly and he was just flippantly being, you know, homophobic and not necessarily knowing my secret. Right? I think that's the way I reinterpret it now as an adult. It's like, oh, he was just saying, oh, you know, you're acting so silly, you're acting whatever.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Curtis Chin: You know, not saying, haha, I know your secret.
Dan Pashman: But at that age, you thought maybe that is what he was saying?
Curtis Chin: Yeah, or he knew something about me that which made me vulnerable to being teased, to being picked on, to being treated as that outsider. Right? I immediately "straightened up". I tried to carry myself a different way. Like, I tried to talk in deeper voice. At some point, I switched my name from Curtis to Kurt because I thought that was more manly. You know, there are all these little things that you try to do to just sort of, you know, make you less vulnerable to being picked on.
Dan Pashman: Still, as a middle schooler, Curtis continued to have these feelings. At one point the restaurant hired a new cook, Mr. Mah. Looking back, Curtis says he had a major crush on Mr. Mah.
Curtis Chin: Yeah, he was our fry cook. So he actually was really quite busy because a lot of the fried dishes that we had were very, very popular. You know, including egg foo young, fried shrimp, things like that. But the most popular was almond boneless chicken, which at the time, I just thought this was a staple of every Chinese restaurants because, certainly in Detroit, every restaurant had it. But I didn't know that restaurants on the coast and other places didn't necessarily have this dish.
Dan Pashman: Then what was almond boneless chicken?
Curtis Chin: So almond boneless chicken is a very simple dish to make. It's just breaded white meat chicken, battered and fried, and then it'd be like a brown gravy on it, and served with a side of white rice. Where the almond comes in is really just a crushed garnish, along with some slivers of peapod and water chestnut. So a very, very simple dish to make, very quick to make, but very, very popular. And that was one of the dishes that he made.
Dan Pashman: And you were sort of secretly hoping to convince him to teach you how to make it.
Curtis Chin: I was just looking for any excuse to be around him. I mean, even thinking about him now, like these many decades later, I still get the little, you know, excitement. Like, oh God, that guy was so cute. Uh ... you know? [LAUGHS] You know, and again, at that age, I'm not really sure what my sexuality is. I just knew I wanted to be around him because he made me laugh. You know what I mean? And he made me feel good. And because I grew up in a big family, like with six kids and, I don't — I never felt like I was really noticed a lot. But he always seemed to notice little things about me. You know, and that made me feel good. At the same time, I was also trying to figure out how to be a better cook because I was disastrous. And my dad had already been trying to teach me and I'd been failing miserably. And I thought, like, hey, I'm going to kill two birds with one stone. And so I approached Mr. Mah for private lessons.
Dan Pashman: Curtis asked Mr. Mah to teach him how to make almond boneless chicken. Here’s Curtis reading from his book, telling the story of what happened next:
Curtis Chin: Mr. Mah stared straight at me. His eyes were the color of Kona coffee with a blend of milky cream. I could tell from his indifference that Mr. Mah wasn't keen to play Julia Child, but I didn't care. I was going to make it happen, even if I had to get on my knees and beg. To my relief, it didn't come to that. The door to the dining room swung open. It was Alfred, one of our surly waiters. He shouted, "Two ABCs!", which is often short for American Born Chinese, but in this case meant almond boneless chicken. I couldn't believe my luck. I clasped my hands together, "Please!". Mr. Mah grabbed four pieces of fillet all lightly breaded, “Taiji ngaw.” Which means, watch me.
Yes, that was my green light. And I was going. I stepped in closer. My eyes stayed glued to his sinewy forearms as he slipped the meat into the hot oil. The sizzling Vesuvian heat raised my temperature. A thin layer of sweat glistened on Mr. Mah's skin. I could practically taste that chicken. A minute later, he scooped out the pieces and dropped them onto the wooden chopping board, which he kept immaculately clean.
The anticipation built as the warm familiar smell wafted into the air. He slid the pieces onto the bed of finely shredded lettuce on the first tray. The arrangement looked perfect, full, and fetching. The first bite was always with the eyes. He held out his knife. Thoughts of my past kitchen disasters flashed through my head. What if I messed up like I had with my dad? Would Mr. Mah ever speak to me again? I gave him my best puppy dog face. Me? Mr. Mah nodded and again offered me the knife, hilt first. We traded places. He wasn't much taller than me, so our bodies were evenly matched.
Curtis Chin: Feeling confident, I lifted the knife above my head. Suddenly a hand cradled mine. It was small and rough. I froze. Outside of wrestling in gym class with a sweet dimpled boy named Steve Kramer, this was my first not so innocent physical contact. But this time, there were no giggling classmates making innuendos about me being gay that I had to pretend not to hear. As my body stayed frozen, my eyes spotted a scar on his wrist. I recognized it as the result of splashing oil. I knew because I had one like that too, from when I threw a half eaten Snickers into the deep fryer.
I wanted to tell him about our connection, but I was too smitten to speak. Mr. Mah tightened his grip. His voice tickled my neck, "Go!". I closed my eyes and brought the knife down. I waited for the clash of elements, metal on wood, but the sound never came. My blow was too soft, too weak. Mr. Mah released his grip, but I didn't want him to let go. I wanted him to hold me, to stay exactly where he was, to never move. I considered screwing up so he could swoop in to rescue me, but I chose to show him that I was strong and mature, that I could handle myself. I brought the knife down again, this time with purpose. The fowl split perfectly. Several more chops and the meat was quartered.
I felt manly on the verge of adulthood. My persistence had paid off. All it took was a bit more confidence and clarity. After I ladled on the gravy and sprinkled on the slivers of snow peas, water chestnuts, and the eponymous crushed almonds, I showed my masterpiece to Mr. Mah. He gave the dish a once over before winking his approval. I was desperate for a kiss on the lips, or at least a pat on the back, but all I got was a nod of his head.
Dan Pashman: How does it feel reading that, reliving that moment today?
Curtis Chin: Oh, I could still see and smell him.
Curtis Chin: Yeah, he was really cute. He really, really was cute. Very, very cute. So, yeah. That's all I can say. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Curtis begins opening up to others about his sexuality. And, as crime in Detroit gets worse, Curtis’s parents have to decide whether to keep the restaurant, or close it. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. School’s back in session, so in last week’s show, we hear stories about the triumph and tragedy of school lunch. For the lunch period, it's about much more than just food. It’s one part of the day where kids have a little less supervision, where you can be yourself. So I’ve often been curious about what my daughters talk about during lunch. But of course, if I showed up at their cafeteria, I don’t think it would go over well. So I did the next best thing. I went to P.S. 216 in Brooklyn and talked to some fifth graders there.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): What do you guys talk about at lunch?
CLIP (WILLIAM): We usually play this game called Minecraft.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): I hear some of the girls at their lunch table, they talk about the future and what they're going to do with their lives. Do you guys ever talk about that?
CLIP (WILLIAM): Nope.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): [LAUGHING]
CLIP (WILLIAM): Because none of us know what we're going to do.
Dan Pashman: So here, a school lunch is also a big deal for parents. I talk with my old friend Kenji Lopez-Alt, who shares his secrets to packing lunch for his kids. It involves a device with a long history that lately has gotten a lot of attention, and a little pushback: the bento box. That episode's up now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: Okay, back to my conversation with Curtis Chin, whose new memoir is entitled Everything I Learned, I Learned In A Chinese Restaurant. In the mid '80s, as Curtis went through high school, he became more of a manager at Chung’s Cantonese. Meanwhile the neighborhood, Cass Corridor, continued to change.
Curtis Chin: It was the red light district and so a lot of times people would come down to explore, you know, their adult pleasures and things like that. And so I had —I have this joke. It's like, you know, growing up as a kid, it's like, you know, the only bookstores in our area were, like, adult bookstores. [LAUGHS] you know, it's like, hey, we're kids. We like to read too. So it's like there was so many sex industry things, like the bars, the prostitutes ... Three doors down from our restaurant was a bar that was labeled female impersonators. I guess, you would call it a drag bar. And so that's the type of neighborhood it was. So you know, because our customers were the local citizens, we did have prostitutes and pimps and drug dealers coming in after hours, like around after six, after white collar workers oftentimes left the city. In the evening, it would become the people that lived around that area.
Dan Pashman: Curtis’s dad worked hard to maintain Chung’s welcoming environment. But that was hard, because Detroit was also in the middle of the crack epidemic. Sometimes Curtis would go into the restaurant bathroom to clean it, and find someone passed out in there.
Curtis Chin: Yeah, we'd have to call the ambulance and stuff like that. So as much as my parents tried to keep us safe in those four walls, they couldn't always be successful. I mean, we tried different things. We hired a security guard. We installed a buzzer system. But you just never know sometimes, right? Like people get through. Oftentimes those elements of that inner city oftentimes came into our our front door.
Dan Pashman: Over time, despite the difficulties, Chung’s became an area institution, thanks to its late hours, low prices, and long history in the neighborhood. People also just loved the food. One regular customer was the city’s mayor, Coleman Young. His favorite order was egg foo yung with lobster. He ordered it so often that they changed the spelling of the dish on the menu to “Egg Foo Young” — Y-O-U-N-G, which was how Mayor Young’s last name was spelled.
Dan Pashman: One day, the mayor was eating there with some associates. Curtis’s mother took the opportunity to raise an issue with him.
Curtis Chin: Yeah, my mom was very good with the customers. She was very pretty, very friendly, but she was also very smart. And so, you know, if there was something she wanted, she wasn't shy about using her charms. The city had removed a lot of the free parking in front of our stop to extend the bus lane.
Dan Pashman: They had replaced the free parking in front of the restaurant with a bus stop so that your customers couldn't park right in front of the restaurant anymore.
Curtis Chin: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But so like what issue did that create for the customers?
Curtis Chin: Well, it was a crime issue, right? Because in Detroit, a lot of people would break into cars that were parked. And so if you had to park across the street, if you had to park that not directly in front of us, where you could watch your car — because we had our windows open, right — when they removed all that, that became an alarm because, you know, some of our customers were now getting harassed and robbed on their way. You know, my mom felt like we can't have this happening.
Dan Pashman: Right, but this kind of illustrates just just how dangerous the area around the restaurant could be. I mean, the fact that it made such a difference to be able to park your car right in front of the restaurant versus across the street was the difference between getting mugged on the way in or out of the restaurant or not.
Curtis Chin: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. That was Detroit in that era.
Dan Pashman: So the mayor comes in and your mom says, "We need those parking spaces back."
Curtis Chin: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And what happens?
Curtis Chin: Well, the mayor looks over at his, [LAUGHS] you know, assistants that are sort of sitting at the next table over and the next morning — voila. The sign was removed and the parking spaces were returned. They were now available to our customers again.
Dan Pashman: So running Chung’s in that neighborhood at that time was a constant challenge. But there was another facet of the location that further complicated life for Curtis. Detroit’s gay neighborhood was right next to Chinatown, and sometimes young gay men would come to eat at the restaurant after a night out. As a teenager, this always made Curtis uncomfortable, like their mere presence might somehow give away his secret. But their visits also gave him a little bit of hope.
Curtis Chin: Seeing this world collide, these two parts, which I thought, you know, were always going to be separate, it offered a glimpse to me that maybe, you know, they wouldn't have to be so separate. And maybe also just seeing my parents, because they were very nice to everybody — you know, they never showed any homophobia. I mean, they had gay friends. And even when it came to things like sex workers, right? They were so friendly to these people who worked there. And they understood the difficulties that these people's lives were. They didn't judge them. But yet, yet as kids, we always hold on to that fear, of that one percent fear of like, maybe ... you know, maybe it could go wrong.
Dan Pashman: After high school, Curtis went to college at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. That’s when he started coming out to friends, and found a supportive queer community. He was going out to gay bars, spending summers in San Francisco. He was finding his way. Meanwhile his parents were still in Detroit, running the restaurant. The summer before his junior year of college, he went back to visit.
Curtis Chin: Someone had broken these gorgeous windows that we had. It was the highlight of our restaurant. So many customers came in because they wanted to sit by the window with this gorgeous lights and stuff like that. And I came one night and it was the night where I was thinking of possibly coming out to them. And instead I see cinder blocks. And I entered the restaurant. It really seemed like a tomb, right? Because all that natural lighting was gone.
Dan Pashman: Cinder blocks completely covering the windows, like a wall.
Curtis Chin: Yeah, it's completely dark. It just seemed like a dead space. And it was really depressing and also fearful because like, who did this?
Dan Pashman: Curtis’s mom explained that someone had thrown a rock through the front window. The landlord fixed it, but then it happened again. So the landlord decided to cut his losses and put up a wall of cinder blocks.
Curtis Chin: When my mom told me that this had happened twice in the matter of like a couple weeks, I got even more worried. I was like, what if they come back? Right? And at that point, I really, really tried to get my parents to close up. One of the other lessons my parents always taught me was loyalty. Right? Always stand by the people that are good to you. And, you know, I felt that way about our customers in that area. But for the first time, I thought like, well, maybe this is time to abandon Detroit. This is maybe the time to leave. Like, we can't — you know, as much as you want to be loyal to Detroit, you don't want to get killed. Right? You don't want to give up your life or something like that.
Dan Pashman: And what did your parents say to that?
Curtis Chin: No. I mean, that's all they knew. That was their life. And at some point, I just sort of had to accept it
Dan Pashman: After college Curtis moved to New York, to pursue a career as a writer. I asked him if he ever came out to his parents.
Curtis Chin: Oh, that’s in book two.
Dan Pashman: Oh.
Curtis Chin: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Save it for the sequel.
Curtis Chin: Yeah, save it for the sequel.
Dan Pashman: His parents continued running the restaurant for over a decade after that cinder block wall went up. Then, in 2000 …
Curtis Chin: I remember my dad, casually mentioning it to me on one of our check in calls, and he just, "Oh, we're closing next week."
Dan Pashman: The restaurant needed major repairs, it couldn’t continue operating as it was. The landlord wasn’t willing to foot the bill, so Curtis’s parents had to close up.
Curtis Chin: And I was shocked, because I'd always grown up thinking that this restaurant would be there forever. I mean, it survived so much, right, and been around for so long. But after I accepted the fact that, okay, my dad was not going to change his mind, I said to him, "You need to at least delay it a month so that you can announce it and let all your former customers know, so they can come back. You know, even if it means coming from afar, some of them might want to do that, right? Because we always had people coming from Florida or North Carolina or Texas and say, "Hey, we used to live in Detroit and whenever we come home, we always want to make a stop," right? I just felt like he needed to offer that opportunity because the city had given us so much, right, to give those people an opportunity to also say thank you or to have a last meal at our restaurant. But my dad just didn't want to do that. And I think that the way I — the only way that I could interpret that is that my dad maybe he felt a little ashamed that the restaurant had closed underneath his watch. Maybe it was just too emotionally hard for him. Maybe he recognized that it would have been too hard to see all these people coming in and saying goodbye, knowing that, you know, these people that he literally grew up with, right, people with families that he'd seen, people giving birth to their kids, and then watching their kids go off to college, that he would no longer be able to see these people.
Dan Pashman: Was part of it also that you wanted that moment for him?
Curtis Chin: Yeah, to celebrate it. I mean, it was a success and it had its run, you know? I knew it was up to his decision. I didn't think I would ever be in a position to move back there and like, take over because I was living in New York and just starting my own life there. Not just for him, but for our family. It's a grieving because it was a big part of our family, right? And it just defined us so much. It really comes to identify who you are.
Dan Pashman: Did you ever tell your dad that you didn't think it was a failure?
Curtis Chin: Are you going to make me cry? Like ... [LAUGHS] No, I ... No, it's weird. No. I never told my dad I was proud of him. I never told him that he did a great job in life. I actually was really kind of rough on my dad before his passing, and he passed away in a car accident.
Dan Pashman: I’m sorry to hear that.
Curtis Chin: You know, so it was sudden and shocking and — yeah, I could have been nicer to my dad because at that time I was being frustrated with him and some of the decisions that he was making about the business again. So yeah, no. I don't know if I've ever completely processed that, you know, when someone's taken away like that. But in terms of the business, no. Sadly, I never told him. But I think ... I feel like sometimes I did thank him for giving me a great life because by that time I was working in Hollywood, I was a TV writer, you know, having a really good life. You know, coming from the inner city of Detroit, getting more than what would have been reasonably expected from most of the other kids that were around there. I did thank him a couple of times, but I never said I was proud of him. And I think there's a difference, right?
Dan Pashman: I mean, you devoted a lot of yourself to that restaurant too. I mean, obviously, I wasn't there. I don't know your relationship with him, but as a parent, I feel like, I think parents know their kids better than sometimes the kids realize.
Curtis Chin: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And I suspect he knew that you were proud, even if you didn't say it.
Curtis Chin: I hope so. I mean, I think just the fact that I engaged with him — you know what I mean? And I know that he was definitely proud of us. I mean, everything that we did, whenever — oh, my God. It was almost embarrassing how much he would brag about his kids to all the customers. It's like his customers knew so many details about us. Like whenever I'd come back for the weekend or whatever, it's like, they'd say like, "Oh, so how's this going?, and I’d be like, "What?!," look, because I knew my dad had like, you know, blabbed about, you know, [Dan Pashman: Right.] what was going on in my life. So, no, he was definitely proud. I knew that. And, you know, I think that that made me feel good. Right? Because in that sense that he felt like he was success in life.
Dan Pashman: But at the time that his dad decided to close the restaurant, Curtis couldn’t persuade him to keep it open even a little longer.
Curtis Chin: I can only imagine the grief and sadness and all these emotions that he must have gone through to make that decision that no, we have to close. Because business was still good, right? It was still viable, its just that we didn't have the money to do the capital improvements.
Dan Pashman: Right, the repairs.
Curtis Chin: Yeah, because at that time my parents still had multiple kids in college, do you know what I mean? That’s where the money was going, so it was really quite sad for me. I never got a chance to go back and have a last meal at Chung's either, myself.
Dan Pashman: What would you have ordered?
Curtis Chin: Almond boneless chicken. [LAUGHS] Because, because I was living in New York and I couldn't get in anywhere. I would have almond boneless chicken.
Dan Pashman: You would have brought back Mr. Mah to cook it for you?
Curtis Chin: Invite Mr. Mah to come back.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Curtis Chin: You know what I mean? Yeah ... yeah.
Dan Pashman: That’s Curtis Chin. His memoir, Everything I Learned, I Learned In A Chinese Restaurant, comes out October 17th, it’s available for pre-order now wherever books are sold. And if you want to win a copy of the book, sign up for our newsletter by October 23rd. We'll tell you what everyone on The Sporkful team is eating and reading and being on that list gets an entry into every one of our giveaways. So if you're if you’re already subscribed, you're already in the running. If not, sign up now at sporkful.com/newsletter.
Dan Pashman: Also, Curtis is embarking on a big book tour. He’s hitting 40+ cities and towns across the country. So there’s a good chance he’s gonna be somewhere near you. For all the info, go to CurtisFromDetroit.com.
Dan Pashman: Next week’s show, the Salad Spinner returns! This is our food news rapid fire roundtable discussion. We’ll be talking about weird food collaborations, why Bass Pro Shops are kind of like supermarkets these days and also Taylor Swift’s concert riders. It’s going to be fun, don’t miss it. That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: While you’re waiting for that, make sure you check out last week’s show, where I find out what kids are really talking about during school lunch, and Kenji Lopez-Alt shares his tips for packing school lunch with a bento box. That one's up now.