Detroit’s Chinatown and Gayborhood felt like two separate worlds. Then they collide

Detroit’s Chinatown was full of old single men.

Most of them worked in food service as waiters and cooks – tough jobs but the best they could get with their limited English skills. After long days, they arrived at my family’s restaurant, Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, and then practically ran a rickety flight of stairs to the gambling den below. From the top of the landing, I could hear them swear in Cantonese while throwing worn out dominoes and broken mah jong tiles. Occasionally, punters would come up with a pair of made-from-scratch cabbage egg rolls. If they win a lot, they splurge on a jumbo shrimp cocktail.

The disproportionately large number of men seemed strange to me until my parents explained how US immigration policies had long prevented Chinese women from entering the country. why? Presumably because of the unfounded fear that America will be replaced by hordes of yellow people. Although the United States attempted to correct this imbalance starting in the 1940s, gender disparity persisted in cities like Detroit until the 1980s. In pursuit of kinship, these dozens of men from southern China formed their Chosen Families, a celibate community focused on the Tong, an organization that oversees the safety and well-being of the local Chinese community — but has sometimes been linked to organized crime. Despite the negative stereotypes, these guys seemed like harmless and eccentric uncles to me.

Meanwhile, the surrounding Chinatown was Detroit’s gay community, filled with single white men.

These men did not face any laws that prevented them from being with women. They preferred only the company of other men, who had good haircuts, six-pack abs, and Burt Reynolds mustaches. In addition, they ran businesses I had never seen before in Chinatown, such as a pet store, dog grooming service, and a stacked antique store. life magazines. They even had a bar with a sign on it promoting their amusement with “female impersonators” – I had no idea what that was, but it sounded very interesting to me.

As a curious 12-year-old, I would often sneak into Birdtown, the colorful pet store. Through rows of blue lights illuminating 10-gallon tanks filled with black and white angelfish and orange swords, I eavesdrop on the boys at the pet store chatting about the register, browsing their Hollywood gossip magazines.

At that age, I had already realized that a part of me belonged to every group of men. But I also knew I had to separate these worlds. It’s not that either of them underestimated the other – no one in Chinatown said anything about homophobia and no one in the gay district said anything anti-Asian. But growing up in our secluded town, bathing in fleeting fanaticism rampant in my school’s playground, I did not wish to create any unnecessary drama in either society. I felt at home in both worlds but I was afraid of what might happen if they collide.

It was the end of the night and Chung’s restaurant was greeted by a large table of visiting dignitaries, old men in ill-fitting suits from the Tong branch in Boston. My grandfather was the head of the Detroit branch, which put him in charge of hosting dignitaries from out of town. In their honor, the chef has cooked up sumptuous dishes not on the usual menu of American chop suey, including crunchy and succulent jai lan and salted fish.

Even though we were past the announced closing time of 11pm, dinner was still going strong. My father, the distinguished host and waiter, dressed in his red uniform, would never fire diners, no matter how long it took them to finish that last bite.

Gathering was actually serious business. A small criminal wave hit Chinese restaurants in our area. The owners were held at gunpoint and all their daily cash was stolen. Leaders from the more established Tong chapters across the country were flocking to town to make sure my grandfather and his friends were under control. The long faces of our guests indicated that they had their doubts.

As midnight approached, while the old Chinese men were drawing and plotting, four white young men in tight shirts and even skinny jeans were tapping on our large glass window. They were amazed to see our lights still turned on, and their faces smiled.

Even at the age of twelve, Gaydar was fully functional; It was moving around like a broken car alarm. Before I could even make the case to turn the men away so we could end the night without any awkward clashes, my father opened the door and issued his characteristic heartfelt salutation: “Welcome to Chung!”

The newcomers sat down and scanned our menu, but kept leaning and staring at the foods spinning on lazy Susan at my grandfather’s table. My dad explained that those dishes weren’t on the menu – and since the restaurant was technically closed, the chefs could only do something quick and easy. Men accepted the restrictions with grace. Our chefs prepare some of our most popular dishes: delicious bowls of shrimp fried rice and chicken chop suey. As usual, the staff did a little extra work for us kids, along with paintings by my grandfather and his guests.

But when my father, the great host, went to serve the Quartet, he surprised them. “It turns out we had a few extras,” he said, putting free samples of dishes off the menu.

Staring from the back desk, near the coat and high chairs, I felt very nervous. Even as a Chinese child born in America, I He didn’t like some of those pungent dishes. How will these white men respond?

With careful forks and spoons in hand, they looked around their party, wondering who would take the first step. The biceps-top shirt man, who seemed to be the leader, nodded before taking a quick smell and taste test.

One small bite led to another. Soon they were covering everything like Jabba the Hutt.

When my parents went to clean their dishes, they joked, “Where can we get these recipes from?”

wink my father. “I guess you just have to go back again.”

As the young men walked outside laughing, they were swinging by the table of the old Chinese men. Gay men were gossiping about how much they liked these new and unfamiliar dishes, pointing out their favorite appetizers on the table. The old smiled.

After the quad left, the tongs members seemed to hide a little, leaning back on their seats and taking a swing from Hennessy. It seemed as if they were enjoying their food more than before, as if they were taking pride in the compliments. At that point, I realized I had been holding my breath throughout the confrontation.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so scared. The Chinese and gay communities have one thing in common: In a union town filled with nuclear families in the Midwest, both groups were radical. Marginalized, attacked, and in some cases killed, each has developed their own support system. Every society has learned to take care of itself. Was it so intense that they could take care of each other too?

I had an equal desire to sit at the two tables. At the time, even though I knew I was gay and Asian, I didn’t think anyone else would fit this profile. I thought I should choose. But seeing how the two groups of men managed to communicate, albeit briefly, gave me hope that these two aspects might be compatible.

Maybe it was a coincidence, or something I hadn’t noticed before, but after that night it seemed like our gay customers started eating in more, rather than ordering takeout. My father began to have longer conversations with them about developments in the neighborhood, including the latest real estate deals and crime reports. In the end, my father and some of our gay clients set up a casual neighborhood watch – although that’s a story for another time. This is about how, thanks to a few shared dishes of gai lan and hom yu, our table got a little bigger.

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Originally appeared on Bon Appétit

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