Detroit’s former Chinatown in the Cass Corridor was not big, but it meant a lot to the people who lived and worked there. It also means a lot to their descendants.
When Detroiters got wind that a noteworthy historical building in the neighborhood would come down, many past and current residents with connections to the site spoke up about preserving it. Today, the building at 3143 Cass Ave. is owned by the Ilitch family’s Olympia Development of Michigan, but at one time, it housed the Shanghai Cafe, the Chinese Merchants Association and other community groups.
Sandra Lee is the granddaughter of one of the Shanghai Cafe’s early owners. (It changed hands several times during its many decades in operation.) She said the building was significant to her family and that they were distraught by its demolition.
We spoke with Lee about the history of the building and what could be done to acknowledge the history of a neighborhood that has few indicators of the Chinese community that once lived there.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your family’s connection to the building?
My grandparents owned a restaurant inside of 3143 Cass Ave. called the Shanghai Cafe. They operated it from the early 1940s to (about) 1963. We don’t really know the exact date.
My grandfather immigrated to the U.S. probably in the 1920s. He lived in San Francisco for about 10 years, working and sending money back to China, which was very common back then. The Chinatown there was very large, but he had a brother in Detroit. And he was told, “Come out here, there’s a lot more opportunity.” So then he came to Detroit maybe sometime in the late 1930s. Later, my grandmother immigrated to the country and joined him in Detroit. And my father was born in 1942.
I don’t think we were the original owners, but that’s also unknown. All I know is we had it for about 20 years when my grandmother sold it.
The restaurant sent my dad to college, supported our family and allowed us to prosper. Later on, my parents eventually moved to the suburbs, and they got their own restaurant (in Livonia). And I ended up going to college based on a lot of almond boneless chicken. But if it were not for those early days (in Detroit’s Chinatown) that allowed my father to grow up in a safe environment, I would not be here today.
Do your parents talk much about the building and neighborhood?
This is where the history is really important. So I grew up hearing about the Shanghai Cafe and the Chinese Merchants Association, which was on the second floor, from my father and my grandmother. The restaurant was central to my family, obviously, because it was their sole source of income. And (since) they’re immigrants to this country, my grandmother didn’t speak English. So it was so important for her to be in this Chinese enclave. She needed to be around people who she could speak with, and that’s what that community was all about. And that building was the central hub of Chinatown.
This Chinese Merchants Association was important. It was a governing body and also a place for social gatherings: There were Chinese operas, there were weddings held there, language schools, etc. But it was more than that. A lot of life-changing decisions were being made there. What my dad told me was, if there were disputes between businesses, you didn’t get a lawyer to settle your disputes. They went to this Chinese Merchants Association. They also helped new immigrants find housing and jobs.
The reason I know so much about this is because of a family dispute that involved the association. My grandfather passed away unexpectedly in 1949. My grandmother wanted to keep the restaurant, but her brother-in-law challenged her ownership of it. He said, “That’s my brother’s property, and therefore it’s now my property.” Which, quite frankly, back in China, that might be a viable argument. But they’re not working within the laws of the United States or Michigan or Detroit. They’re working within their own laws.
They took this dispute to the Chinese Merchants Association to resolve it. They gave my grandmother the ownership of the restaurant, but gave her brother-in-law my grandfather’s life insurance policy payout.
This is what I mean by life-altering decision-making. It was more than cultural norms — it was the law. And it was their law.
What does the rest of your family say about the demolition?
We’re all heartbroken.
My father is 81 now, and he’s upset. He literally grew up in that restaurant. If you know anything about Chinese restaurants, you know how central they are to the owners. I grew up in a restaurant, too. I had a different house, but I spent 15 hours a day at that restaurant, as did my dad and his restaurant. And he actually lived across the street from (the Shanghai Cafe).
What would you have liked to have seen done to the building instead of demolition?
Obviously, the building was completely neglected and it was not in good shape. But there were some urban planners who said it could have been saved. I would have liked to have seen the facade or some part of the physical structure retained to acknowledge that hub of Chinatown. And by demolishing it, they’re erasing our history. For the second time, I should mention.
(Editor’s note: The original Chinatown was located near Michigan and Third avenues, on the current site of the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters. Much of the neighborhood was razed to make way for the Lodge Freeway.)
It would break my heart if it gets turned into a parking lot or even a plaque. One of the speakers at the recent press conference (following the demolition) said, “Plaques are for cemeteries.”
How would you like to see the building or neighborhood acknowledged?
I think there is an opportunity, with the broader revitalization of Detroit, for this to be an area where there are cultural activities, like an art center, to acknowledge the history of this place. Or maybe a multiuse space with different types of businesses, with an acknowledgment that we’re rebuilding the Detroit Chinatown.
This isn’t my area of expertise, so I can’t really be more specific, but Detroit is such a creative place. So whether it’s from an art, restaurant or music standpoint, to be able to take that Chinese history and morph it into something more interesting — I think there’s a real opportunity.
Does your family plan on staying involved in this cause?
Certainly, yes. I’m committed though I’m far away from home. But this has kind of sparked connections between the grandchildren of Detroit’s Chinatown. We’re talking about how we can continue to come together.