Curtis Chin is a Motown-born, New York-bred, Los Angeles-based writer, producer and community activist. He’s proud to have co-founded the Asian American Writers Workshop and Asian Pacific Americans for Progress and for writing and producing the documentary Vincent Who? He’s less proud of having started the Young Republicans Club in high school. He’s currently working on a new website with a former ABC and HBO exec, widelantern.com, and developing a teen comedy with director Quentin Lee and producer Chris Lee.
Last week, my friend, Arthur Dong, sent me an email asking, “are you related to this person?” He was referring to a photo that was being auctioned on ebay. Arthur had accidentally stumbled upon it while doing research for another film project.
Anyway, I clicked on the link and was shocked. The caption read, “You are bidding on an original 8 x 10 Wire Photo of Detroit’s Chinatown store owner Allen Chin. Photo is dated May 27,1961 showing Allen Chin store Owner in Chinatown.” It was my dad and he was standing in the store that my great grandfather had opened in the 1930’s. Talk about a blast from the past.
My dad was born and raised in Detroit in the small Chinese community there. Our family owned and operated several businesses there including the popular Chung’s Restaurant. I had heard stories of my dad’s wild adolescence, driving from Detroit to New York on weekends, just to get good Chinese food and meet pretty young Chinese girls. But here was living proof of a time gone by. (My dad unfortunately died a few years ago.)
All sorts of questions popped into my head: first, what the hell was ebay doing with a picture of my dad and who took the photo? The back of the photo referenced the Detroit News and some editor notes. Was there an article attached to this picture and if so where was it? And were there other photos out there, other potential gaps in my memory of my dad that could be filled in?
I immediately emailed my family. We had long left Detroit and had settled in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Shanghai. But they were all just as excited as I was, but with even more questions, mostly to do with securing the photo. The photo was being auctioned with a deadline of five days and there was already one bid for $9.99. We wondered if there were other potential bidders out there? And who had already bid on a picture of our dad? Over the next twenty-four hours we traded emails, strategizing on how we could secure the photo.
We ultimately decided to go sniper, a last-minute bid just as the auction was about to close. The auction was opened until Sunday, so we spent all weekend monitoring ebay checking on the current highest bid. (I guess I can see how it could be addictive if you were a collector.) Fortunately, no other bids came in. And while we had put in a maximum bid of $300, we were able to secure the photo for $31, a total steal for a big piece of history.
After that, I did what anyone would do in this day and age, I posted the pic to facebook with a quick story of how it all happened. The response from my friends, families and former co-workers was immediate. People were astounded. But why such an outpouring of response? Was it because of the age of the photo? The randomness of life? Was it because they had lost a parent, too, and could identify with the loss?
With the picture secured, it was now time to figure out why the picture even existed in the first place. I posted up to a newsgroup that I belong to, seeking advice. My friend Kai Ma responded back by connecting me to her friend, Walter Middlebrook, the Assistant Managing Editor at the Detroit News. Walter remembered our family restaurant referring to it as “Chung’s Restaurant fame,” as he reached out to the librarian at his paper, Linda Culpepper. Linda was able to go through the digital archives and come up with the article that the photo was taken for.
Perhaps the reason my father never mentioned being in the newspaper was because the picture never made it into print. According to Linda, there was just the article, which she sent me. (It was about the demolition of old Chinatown and how the residents were being displaced.)
Anyway, we are now trying to see if there are any more photos that came with the roll. Even if nothing else comes up, it was great to have this trip down memory lane, to remember our connection to Detroit and its amazing past.
In the end, my friend Moy Eng summarized it best on facebook, “you brought him home.”