Successful Life of an Inner-City Chinatown Kid: Curtis Chin

Brad Shreve [00:00:00]:
Curtis Chin. Welcome to Queer We Are.

Curtis Chin [00:00:08]:
Thank you for having me.

Brad Shreve [00:00:10]:
It’s a pleasure to have you. And I want to start out first, I want to tell you I am very envious.

Curtis Chin [00:00:15]:
Really? For what?

Brad Shreve [00:00:17]:
Several guests on this show received invitations to go to the White House when President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, and you are one of them. You went with your husband, and I am very jealous. I bet it was a great experience.

Curtis Chin [00:00:32]:
Well, I have to say that Cindy Lauper Was amazing. The speeches were great, too. It was also fun seeing all the politicians that were there, both the Democrats and the Republicans. And I think that the White House really wanted to be a fun atmosphere because there’s this sense that this is going to be the last party for the next two years. There aren’t going to be a lot of opportunities to celebrate. So they really wanted to make it fun. So I think so. It was a good time.

Brad Shreve [00:00:58]:
They had Cindy Lauper, for God’s sake. They wanted to have it fun, so that’s awesome.

Curtis Chin [00:01:02]:
Yeah, it was fun. I also had been invited when Obama was president, and that was actually inside the White House with a giant disco ball and everything. They had a real big party for gay pride once.

Brad Shreve [00:01:15]:
I had no idea because I know you worked on a committee with Obama, and I want to talk about that in a little bit. Your resume is pretty amazing. You’re co founder and served as executive director for the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York City. You were a television writer. You’re an award winning social justice documentary filmmaker. You worked as director of outreach for the Democratic National Convention, or Committee. You served on Barack Obama’s Asian American Leadership Committee. And I could go on, but it’s exhausting. But there is one more important thing. This podcast is about success and overcoming obstacles, and your memoirs going to take us on that trip. It isn’t out yet, but we’re going to talk about that before we take that ride from where you were. I want to start talking about where you are. I’m your host, Brad shreve.

Curtis Chin [00:02:06]:
I’m Curtis Chin.

Brad Shreve [00:02:07]:
And Queer We Are.
You’ve had that goal of accomplishing your dreams someday, and maybe that someday is today. I’m Brad Shreve, and each week I sit with successful LGBTQ entertainers, activists, politicians, and average folk, and we learn what success means to them, how they made their goals a reality so that you can do the same for all that, plus entertainment and more, you are in the right place, because Queer We Are.

Curtis anyone who follows you on social media will know that you’re a gay man. You don’t keep it a secret. You have a rainbow flag next to your Twitter name. In December, you wrote an excellent opinion piece for CNN about your excitement for the Defense for Marriage Act and the concerns about what it didn’t include. But something I noticed that really jumped out at me is in the bio you sent me on your website and the different BIOS that I’ve seen on the numerous articles that you’ve written, you don’t mention any of those that you’re part of the LGBTQ movement. And I’m going to guess that’s a choice, am I right?

Curtis Chin [00:03:21]:
No, that’s the challenge of being someone with such a diverse background, or I guess they’d call it intersectional. Being Asian American, being gay, being Buddhist. I check off all these minority boxes, and I just don’t list all of them all the time. As you mentioned, I don’t hide being gay. I’m very comfortable being out and proud. It just doesn’t fit in, I think, sometimes with the bios that I’m writing. But I’ll think about that.

Brad Shreve [00:03:50]:
Actually, I was impressed with that because most of your work is dealing with the Asian American community and not necessarily having to do with being gay. And why should it if it’s not what you’re doing at that particular moment? I don’t think we always have to wave the rainbow flag. Sometimes we do just to let people know we’re there. But I was impressed with that.

Curtis Chin [00:04:10]:
Okay. I did put some thought into this many years ago, because while I’ve been very active doing Asian American and more racial justice work, my husband was the opposite because he did a lot more LGBT stuff, life. He worked at the Gay and Lesbian Center. He was very active in those issues. And I wondered if maybe part of the reason I was more gravitated to Asian American issues was because I felt it was impacting my family more. There was life. A bigger stake for me, as opposed to LGBT rights would have just been for myself. That’s the only thing I could think of as to why I was gravitated more towards that. And also being in Detroit, one of the things that happened when I was a kid was a very high profile hate crime murder where one of our family friends was murdered. And I was 14 at the time, and I think that really helped shape my identity more so than maybe if it had been a gay person that had been murdered.

Brad Shreve [00:05:01]:
And I believe that was your first documentary you wrote was about that incident, isn’t it?

Curtis Chin [00:05:06]:
Yeah. Well, the documentary is called Vincent Who? And it looked at the Vincent Chin case, which was a very influential case for Asian Americans. It was the first time that we really thought about our civil rights, where we organized. The basic story is that there was a man named Vincent Chen who was out celebrating his upcoming wedding. He goes to the strip club. He runs into these two people, these two white auto workers who say, basically, it’s because of you, motherfuckers, that we’re out of work and get kicked out of the bar. And eventually these two guys get in their car and they drive around Detroit and they find Vincent sitting outside of McDonald’s, waiting for his own ride to pick him up, and they take a baseball bat out of their car and they bash his head in and kill him. To make matters worse, the judge only fined these guys $3,000. They never served a single night in jail. And when you’re 14 years old and you have a family friend like that’s been murdered like that, and it really makes you think about your placement, and particularly growing up in a city like Detroit, which is already so racially polarized between blacks and whites. And I had thought previously that as an Asian American, we’d somehow figured out how to straddle that divide. It was clear that, oh, well, maybe we are more on the minority side. Maybe we are more of the people of color because that’s how the justice system treats us. We’re not treated equally well.

Brad Shreve [00:06:23]:
Earlier, you did some activist work early on, and then you did some TV work. You were a writer for several networks Disney, ABC, Fox and some others. And that was right about the same time that you served on a committee for Obama. But then you took a new direction and started making documentaries. And I’m curious, that incident is horrific, and I can’t believe that the way they got off. Was that part of your motivation to go that direction?

Curtis Chin [00:06:49]:
Well, the actual motivation to switch from being a TV writer was I was actually working on a Disney Channel at the time was my dad was killed in a car accident back in Detroit. My parents are both in the car. I had to go back home to Detroit to sell the family business, sell the family home. And I really was wondering, do I just go back to Hollywood at this point and just go back on another TV show? Because the network wanted to put me on another show. But I just wasn’t in the mood for pitching jokes and laughing as much. And so I thought, like, okay, well, let me try to do something with a little more gravitas. And that’s when I thought back to the Vincent Chin case. If something had really impacted me growing up, and because my dad was friends with Vincent, I just thought that would be a project that my dad would be proud of. And so that’s what I did. I switched. And that’s something about my career. And that’s the gist of your podcast here is I’ve always been a bit fluid in terms of my career choices. I’ve just sort of followed whatever was interesting me at the time, whatever format that took. I wasn’t strategic about it. I just sort of followed where my heart was, and that’s sort of how I made that transition from being a TV writer to doing social justice documentaries.

Brad Shreve [00:08:08]:
So it sounds like you’ve reinvented yourself several times throughout.

Curtis Chin [00:08:11]:
Yeah, it certainly wasn’t planned. And so when I made that first documentary, I ended up going to over 600 places in about a dozen countries. Everybody from Amnesty International in London to the government of Norway was flying me out to screen the film. And so it’s not that I wanted to leave TV writing. In fact, the network actually wanted to staff me up again. But I was on the road. I just wasn’t in Hollywood very much, and so I couldn’t really take any jobs. And similarly, I had this memoir coming out, and that sort of came about because I was traveling around to all these places, and I would do a Q and A after each screening, and people would just ask me the same questions about, like, oh, what was it like growing up in Detroit? That must have been really interesting. And so I just started jotting these answers down and trying to figure out, like, oh, okay, well, what are some talking points that I could come up with? And eventually I just felt like I had enough materials that I thought, why don’t I try to publish this as a book? And that’s how the book sort of came about. I wasn’t planning to be a memoir writer. It just sort of happened. And I was very lucky that I was able to find an agent that really believed in the book. She helped me craft the proposal. We went out to publishers in March, I think the last week, in February of 2022. Last year, my agents told me that this process usually takes three to six months. So don’t bother us. Just trust that we’re doing our job. We’re trying to book out there. But literally by the end of that first week, they said, oh, somebody wants to talk to you next week. And so they set up the interview for me with this publisher, and they set up a second one because someone else got back. And that day, that Tuesday, I did both interviews. And the next day, at the end of the day, they said, hey, we need to talk to you as early as possible tomorrow. When can you take a call? And so I woke up early that next morning and they said, you have a big offer and you have basically 3 hours to decide, though. And I was, like, scrambling around trying to oh, well, who do I know at this publishing company? And then an hour into it, they said, oh, you have another big offer. And I end up having to turn down both offers, because my agents were like, well, at this point, what happens is that you go to an auction. And these were six figure offers, so I had to turn them all down. And then we went to auction the following week. And, yeah, there was a couple more companies. Publishers came on, and over two days, they just kept outbidding each other. So that was a bit nerve wracking, but I’m pretty happy with who I signed with. The publisher is Little Brown, which is a major publisher. It’s one of the big five. They’ve got big names there. Like David Sadaris. Is there J K Rowling? Is there James Patterson? I mean, this is the big leagues with some of these authors, and so I feel very lucky and very fortunate that it’s happened, but I didn’t have a plan for it.

Brad Shreve [00:11:03]:
Yeah, you definitely are in good company there, that’s for sure. And I independently publish my books, but I know plenty of people that are in the publishing industry, and I can tell you based on how quickly that went and how well it went, I know quite a few authors that are hearing this, and I’m sorry, they hate you right now. These are extremely envious, I’ll tell you that. And don’t say it was luck. You have to earn to get that.

Curtis Chin [00:11:30]:
Yeah, I did work on the book for years beforehand. It’s not like I just picked up the pen because, like I said, I’ve been traveling around thinking about this stuff for years. I actually sent myself an email nine years ago with the first thoughts on what I would write as the book. It took me nine years to sell it, so it seems like it’s an ideal situation because you’re just hearing the last year, and the last year has been wonderful. The publisher bought it as a summer 2024 book, and then they moved it up to fall 2023. And the other thing that I keep saying is that the copy editor and I guess copy editors have a reputation of not being the most friendly people in the business because they’re the ones who are just nitpicking over everything. But my copy editor actually said, and this is a quote from her she said, this is a fascinating, well written, eye opening memoir. Please tell Mr. Chin how much I enjoyed reading it, and I just hope that’s a good harbinger for things to come. So it’s exciting, but there was a lot of work that went into that you don’t see. So those people can hate me, but you know what years well, it’s like.

Brad Shreve [00:12:35]:
They talk about stars that are overnight successes. They didn’t see the 10,000 commercials that they actually made for dog food.

Curtis Chin [00:12:43]:
And all the bad drafts.

Brad Shreve [00:12:46]:

Curtis Chin [00:12:48]:

Brad Shreve [00:12:49]:
So you were a TV writer and you mainly wrote comedies. Actually, everything I saw was a comedy, and there’s honor in that. I love people that can make others laugh. I think that bringing joy to other people’s life is a great thing. But you took another direction to do documentaries. A lot of that is motivation, is to help make the world a better place. So I have a question. What is your best tip for making the world a better place?

Curtis Chin [00:13:14]:
Being kind to people, I guess it starts at a very small level, doesn’t it? I mean, just having compassion for other people, just trying to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and having more empathy.

Brad Shreve [00:13:26]:
I love that answer, that it has to start small and work up. Now, since Vincent who, which you talked about in pretty horrible situation, have you seen progress and acceptance and opportunities for Asian Americans?

Curtis Chin [00:13:41]:
Oh, yeah. No, definitely. I’m an eternal optimist. I feel like our country definitely is moving in the right direction. And a lot of this is actually in the book because so my memoir is called “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant,” and it’s about growing up Asian in Detroit, a very black and white city, but also coming out to my working class immigrant family again for anybody, any listeners here who grew up in the 80s? You’ll know what that was like, right? That was the era of Reagan and greed is good and all that stuff. And I actually was a Republican back then. That’s because when you grow up in the inner city and one things I say in the book is my family had a Chinese restaurant, but three doors down, there was the welfare center. At lunchtime, their line always seemed longer than our line. And I was like, that frustrated the hell out of me. I was like, Why are all these people standing there expecting a free lunch when we’re busting our butts trying to make a buck? And it’s sort of that journey of being having that compassion and understanding. And in the book, I talk about how there are basically when I got to college after being the most horrendous person in high school, where I called myself the Asian Alex P. Keaton. I don’t know if people get that reference or not, but yeah, I was not a very nice person politically anyway. And so when I finally got to college, I call it the three A’s that sort of converted me over to being more progressive. The first was apartheid. Ronald Reagan supported that policy. I did not understand that because it was clearly discriminatory to me. The second one was AIDS, actually. As a closeted gay man, I did follow the party line, right? And they were espousing this thing called compassionate conservatism back then, and I really bought into that. As a Buddhist, we’re taught compassion, and so it seemed to really align with my values. But the party clearly did not practice what they preached. I mean, it was just branding. They showed no compassion towards gay people at all. And so that was the second A, and finally the third was abortion. As a gay man, I didn’t think I’d ever face that issue, right? I’m never going to get a girl pregnant, so what does it matter to me? So I was anti choice. I was pro life at that time. And it was only after two of my friends in college who I’d met my second year in college, these two women were talking about the idea of it just being a choice, the ability to control their own bodies, that it clicked to me that, oh, that’s the same thing I’m trying to do as a gay man, trying to come out. I want to control my own body. I want to be able to make choices for myself. And it was only after I made that connection that I switched over. So I think that it’s that moment of just thinking about other people and yourself too. And that makes for, hopefully a kinder pace.

Brad Shreve [00:16:26]:
I’m glad you mentioned that because I think I read like one sentence where you mentioned Republican and that was all I saw, so I didn’t think much of it. But it is interesting how we change over time. I’ve always been liberal. “All in the Family” when I was very young was my favorite show and I loved the way Archie was made to look like a buffoon. But my dad was very, very anti union and I was extremely anti union up until I was working in the corporate environment and I worked in the hotel industry, but I didn’t actually work in hotels. I worked in corporate well, I started in hotels, but I worked in a corporate office. And much of my job was service training, customer service training and skills and that sort of thing. But eventually it morphed into a monitor where it showed me that somebody was off their phone and in the bathroom for too long and I had to call one of the managers and say, you need to check on Susie. Something’s wrong. I started seeing those things happen and I started to realize history has shown that without regulation, companies are not kind. So that whole perspective changed. So we do change with time as we start to look around and see things with different eyes.

Curtis Chin [00:17:31]:
Yeah, I mean, I was born in America, my dad was born in America, but my mom was an immigrant and she really brought that immigrant spirit to our household of just that old Horatio Elder story of just pick her up by your own bootstraps. You can do whatever you want just by your own sheer force. It’s about these lessons that you learn from your family and which ones you actually adopt. And one of them was this idea of being able to work hard. But then as you get older, you understand that you’re actually living in a larger system, that there are all these other infrastructure that’s already been built up. And so you have to tackle both, right? You have to make sure that the playing field is fair for everybody, but then you have to work hard to be able to achieve that success.

Brad Shreve [00:18:16]:
Do yourself a favor right now. It’s quick, easy, and you won’t miss 1 second of the show, whether you’re on the phone or on the computer. Look at the app where you’re hearing me now and find the button that says Follow or subscribe and click it now. You’ll be notified when a new episode publishes, and you won’t miss a single one.

The restaurant was part of your family. And hearing you talk about that hard work mentality is very Asian stereotype. But a lot of times stereotypes come out of nowhere, and other times they exist for a reason. Would you say there’s truth to that stereotype in general?

Curtis Chin [00:18:56]:
I think that’s an immigrant mentality, and because a lot of Asians are immigrants, so you see that there are a lot of lazy Asians out there. They’re just not moving to America to achieve the American dream. But I think that you look at African immigrants, immigrants from Europe, immigrants from South America, immigrants generally come here and work their asses off, right? And so maybe that might be a little bit skewed, but I do agree with you that sometimes there are some things that we call stereotypical, which actually do have a basis in culture and sometimes a basis in history. Right? So one of the stereotypes is that Asians are very good at math and science, right? But maybe the reason that a lot of the Asians that come to this country go into those fields of math and science is because there’s this perception that those fields are a little bit more objective, that there’s a little bit less discrimination in those fields. Right. Because I know that’s what I was taught as a kid is that, look, you don’t want to be a writer, you don’t want to be a lawyer, because you’re going to be discriminated against. It’s going to be harder for you as an Asian to achieve there. But if you went into the sciences, you just have to solve the problems correctly, and you will get that promotion. Right. You cannot dispute if somebody if the math solution is correct or not. And so there’s a little historical aspect to some of these things, too, that play into these decisions that we make.

Brad Shreve [00:20:20]:
One of my guilty pleasures was watching Glee. And for those that did watch Glee, the first season was fun, and then it went downhill really fast. And I’m one of few people I’m one of few people that hung on hoping that it would someday get bounced back. But there was an episode called Asian F, and there were Tina, and I can’t think of the boyfriend’s name, but they were both Asian.

Curtis Chin [00:20:44]:

Brad Shreve [00:20:44]:
Mike. Okay. And Mike’s father wanted him to drop out of the Glee cub. Actually, he was demanding he dropped out of the Glee cub. And Tina’s like, why? And Mike said, I got a B. And Tina was like, you got an Asian F? And you sound like you’re saying there’s some truth to that.

Curtis Chin [00:21:01]:
Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure. I mean, I know that with my mom this is something I’m paraphrasing here, because I remember exactly how I said this in the book, but I said that my parents never told us we were gifted and talented. In fact, they always told us the opposite. They said that we were no better than any other kids. And they weren’t trying to be mean. They were just trying to tell us that we could do whatever we wanted as long as we worked hard, we could achieve it.

Brad Shreve [00:21:27]:
I do have a daughter and her mother and I have always tried to avoid saying, oh, you’re so smart. We’ve always tried to focus on you’ve worked so hard, great job.

Curtis Chin [00:21:37]:
Yeah. I think that if you’re a kid that can take that responsibility, then it frees it up because your fate is in your control. Right. And I definitely felt that. I mean, going back to invited to the White House, when I was standing there, I had this really, this epiphany, or I don’t know what you’d call it, but as I was standing in the White House, I thought to myself, I’m a kid that grew up in the inner city of Detroit. I knew four people that had been murdered by the time I was 17 years old. But I’m here are standing about to shake hands with the President of the United States. That’s why I’m an eternal optimist about this country and I still believe in a lot of these things. You can and I understand that I had certain advantages because I did have a nuclear family. My family did put all their emphasis on our education, every dollar that they had went towards it. So I did have some advantages. But with that said, yeah, I did work hard to get there too.

Brad Shreve [00:22:36]:
Now, you’re currently working on a film, I don’t know if it’s still in production, but it’s going to be coming out called “Chinatown” or “Our Chinatown.”

Curtis Chin [00:22:44]:
No, that was a film that I was in production of, but we abandoned it because of COVID It was a film that looked at gentrification and its impact on the Chinatowns of the United States, because a lot of them are under a lot of pressure right. With gentrification and aging population, overcrowdedness things, life that and I wanted to look at that because as someone who has fond memories of the Chinatown that existed in Detroit, which no longer exists anymore, I wanted to see what is that future?

Brad Shreve [00:23:11]:
The reason I brought up Chinatown is because you said it is about the gentrification and assimilation of the Chinatowns throughout the United States. And I think that’s a nice segue to your memoir, which, as you said, is “Everything I learned, I learned in a Chinese Restaurant.” and let our listeners know that is available on preorder. I am certain that Curtis will have no problem if you choose to go preorder immediately after this interview. And in fact, if you’re sitting on a laptop, you can actually continue to listen and go and purchase it. But anyway…

Curtis Chin [00:23:44]:
I will make a shameless plug. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are parts of book clubs and I’ve already convinced them to hold your book club in your favorite Chinese restaurant as a nice, fun thing to do. And so a lot of them started taking me up on that offer. So that’s my thing. Maybe I could work out a deal with Panda Express and give me life egg rolls for writing this book.

Brad Shreve [00:24:03]:
Well, that’s where you find the most authentic Chinese food, so why not?

Curtis Chin [00:24:10]:
I don’t knock Panda Express, especially if I’m out in Kansas or Nebraska. It’s pretty good Chinese food for Middle America.

Brad Shreve [00:24:17]:
Hey, I don’t know if that’s true, but I had a good friend, grew up in Mexico and he said, we love Taco Bell. It’s very popular. He said, it’s very popular in our town. We don’t consider it Mexican food, but it’s good.

Curtis Chin [00:24:33]:
I think that’s the same thing, the debate over Chinese versus Chinese American food. I definitely grew up with what I call Chinese American food. And would people in Asia like our food? No, I mean our customers. We didn’t have very many Asian customers. They were mostly black and white. But the start that I always tell people about our restaurant is that so the restaurant was founded by my great grandfather in 1940 and we kept it up pretty much until my dad died like 60 years later. And over that course of those six decades, guess the number of egg rolls that we sold. And mind you, these were all handmade by my grandmother, including the skin and the sauce.

Brad Shreve [00:25:11]:
Oh, I’m not even going to try.

Curtis Chin [00:25:13]:
Okay. We sold over 10 million egg rolls.

Brad Shreve [00:25:15]:
Oh, my God.

Curtis Chin [00:25:17]:
That’s a lot of Egg Girls. But it just shows you it was a really popular restaurant. We were selling over 4,000 egg rolls every week. And that’s why I think the book is being so well received right now. So many people back in Detroit are excited about it. Part of it is because I teased them and said that I’m going to try to do a pop up restaurant when the book comes out. So they’re all like, okay.

Brad Shreve [00:25:40]:
I’m thinking your poor grandmother rolling those out. And actually I’m curious. I know pizza became popular in the United States somewhere around the 50s. When did Chinese restaurants among the population, when did that become popular? Do you know?

Curtis Chin [00:25:56]:
Chinese restaurants have existed since Chinese Americans or the first Chinese immigrants came, right? They were just serving it, particularly to themselves. I mean, the first community was actually the Jewish community that came in because both being non Christians, they had a lot of similarities. Plus, we didn’t have dairy on our menu. There was a lot of things and they lived side by side. But as a larger thing that went more mainstream was in the 40s when China and the US. Became allies during World War II. Because prior to. That you saw a lot of anti Chinese laws in the United States, things like the Chinese Exclusion Act. But with World War II, there were two things that happened. One is that now that you had this friendship, the government was trying to push the allyship between China and America, and that also had this trickle down effect of Americans being more kind to their fellow Chinese Americans. Right? The second thing was the idea of women going into the workforce. And because of that, you needed cheap, affordable dining out options. And Chinese restaurants took off in the 40s because they became a really accessible place for oftentimes white working class people to go. For African Americans who started getting jobs working in factories, they finally had a place where they could spend that money without being discriminated against. And so in some ways, Chinese restaurants became popular because we welcomed everybody. I mean, as I jokingly say in the book, we took anybody’s money.

Brad Shreve [00:27:23]:
Yeah. And the reason I asked about the popularity of Chinese restaurants is you live in Los Angeles now. I just recently moved from LA. And Chinatown there is pretty small right now. But to me, what I see, the only thing holding it still together is the Chinese restaurants and people loving to go, especially the tourists loving to go into Chinatown and hitting those Chinese restaurants, because other than that, it’s been gentrified quite a bit. Do you think a lot of the Chinatowns that exist or only recently have vanished did hold together longer because of the Chinese restaurants?

Curtis Chin [00:27:56]:
Oh, yeah, definitely. And like you said, the tourist aspect of it, because Chinatowns per se is what you’re talking about. But there are Chinese American or Asian American communities that exist. Like if you specifically look at Los Angeles, all you have to do is go to San Gabriel Valley, right, where you have giant swaths of businesses which are owned primarily in Chinese script. So that’s a different type of existence. But the older, traditional Chinatown like you see that are in the core of the city. Yeah. Those have really become more of a tourist trap in some ways.

Brad Shreve [00:28:28]:
Yeah, there’s a lot of trinket shops there, too.

Curtis Chin [00:28:31]:
Yeah. And I have mixed feelings about it. As someone who grew up in a Chinatown, I have very fond memories, but I’m also an open minded person who feels that change is inevitable. And if Chinatowns have run their course, then they’ve run their course. Maybe it’s time for a different immigrant population, because even if you look at the actual Chinatowns, they’ve changed because it went from being someone like my family, which came from Southern China, and a lot of the Chinatown in America now are coming from different regions of China or Southeast Asia or other parts of Asia. So even Chinatowns themselves, if you look at the micro level, are changing themselves. And I’m always open to change, but I would like to analyze that change. I would never want to hold on to Chinatowns just for the old sake. If they’ve run their course and they’re no longer useful, then maybe their time is gone. Maybe they do deserve to be a relic of society. But in doing so, let’s at least examine why these things are happening. And if there is a case to be made that Chinatowns are still relevant and still important, then let’s try to see what we can do to save them. But if not, it was fun when it lasted.

Brad Shreve [00:29:36]:
To piggyback off you saying they’ve run their course. For my books, I do a lot of research on Los Angeles, and I was quite surprised. I don’t know if Chinatown is just the same way why it existed, but Koreatown now is mostly made up of Latino and other communities. Koreans tend to be a minority, but the reason Koreatown existed is it was a city ordinance that that’s where they had to live, which I was in shock when I read that.

Curtis Chin [00:30:02]:
Yeah, I mean, so many of these things that you grew up with, you don’t understand why they came about in Chinatowns, too, where they are. The Current Chinatown in LA Was there because it was moved to make way for Union Station. And there’s a long history of Chinatowns because they were oftentimes poorer neighborhoods, the city would just take eminent domain and move them around. And that’s the interesting thing about why Chinatowns are under a lot of pressure now, is because they’re such old populations, they actually staked out very centrally located property. Right. And a lot of people trying to gentrify cities are looking that as a prime area. You look at Boston, you look at New York City. They’re all by Wall Street. Right. Or the financial course. Why wouldn’t an upwardly mobile, college educated professional want to live there? Plus, there’s also stereotypes of I mean, the old stereotype where Chinatowns were dangerous has probably not existed for decades. It used to, that used to be the stereotype of Chinatown, but for many decades now, like you said, it really was, oh, Chinese food trinkets. Asian people are softer. They’re not as dangerous as moving to, say, like, another community of color, which might be lower income. Living by low income Asians has a different stereotype than living amongst low income blacks or Latinos.

Brad Shreve [00:31:23]:
Well, it’s interesting you brought up Boston for those that aren’t familiar with The Combat Zone. It actually still exists on paper, but it doesn’t really exist. It was the only, and actually, I still think the only ever American city to have a zoned community for adult entertainment, basically strip shows and that sort of thing. But not surprisingly, they stuck out right next to Chinatown, and it had a negative impact on that community.

Curtis Chin [00:31:48]:
Yeah, and it’s not that Asians or Chinese people are more sex crazed than other communities, but it was just it was convenient. It was yeah. And if you historically look at where the Chinatowns are in the United States, they were oftentimes very close to the red light district. And it’s not just because Chinese people think red is a good luck color. It was because there was political forces to get that to happen.

Brad Shreve [00:32:15]:
The history of Boston is a lot of the strips, clubs, and that sort of thing were they decided to build city hall, and so all that started to disperse, and so the city said, it’s going to exist, let’s put them all in one place, and it just happens to be right next to Chinatown. I know the folks in Chinatown were not real thrilled that that happened. So I’m curious, growing up as a gay man or as a gay youth in the Chinese community, how was that? Do you think it was a different experience than others?

Curtis Chin [00:32:45]:
I can only speak to my own personal experience about that and being in the inner city. And my parents are a bit more open minded about these things. They never said anything homophobic or anything. If anything, there was an assumption of heterosexuality. It was more of an unspoken of, go, well, you’re eventually going to get married, you’re going to have kids, and stuff like that, right? So there was that pressure, but there was never anything like, oh, you’re going to go to hell, it’s a sin, because as Buddhists, we don’t have that concept. And so I do think that a lot of my struggles of coming out had more to do with my own fears than anything that my parents actually said to me. And I would test my parents out constantly to see how they thought about this stuff. I mean, obviously, like with AIDS, when an AIDS report came out, I would ask my mom, well, what do you think? And my mom actually surprised me by criticizing Reagan. And I said, well, and she was like, you know, I said, why are you criticizing Reagan? And she’s like, well, he’s your president. Because I was Republican at that time. Yeah. And he says, well, you know, he’s everybody’s president. And then my mom said something, well, then he should act like it and help, you know what I mean? And that made me think like, oh, well, maybe my mom isn’t as traditional as I thought she she was, or, you know, when, when she would talk to some of the prostitutes that would come to our business because it was in the red light district. And I would ask her mom, you know what those girls do for a living, right? And she was just like, well, we all have to put food on the table somehow.

Brad Shreve [00:34:17]:
Good for her.

Curtis Chin [00:34:18]:
Well, my connection was that, you know what, my parents had an arranged marriage. To her, relationships were transactional. It was a cost benefit analysis in some ways. I’m not saying my mom was a prostitute, but in terms of relationships and stuff, like that. There is that calculation to some degree. So I think your parents can surprise you sometimes in terms of their thinking. My parents certainly surprised me. I really think it was just my own fears of disappointing my parents, of letting them down, because I knew how much their parents had sacrificed. I knew what difficult lives they were leading. Oftentimes God knows how many hours a week, you know what I mean? We’re open seven days a week. I mean, sometimes they’d work open to close. And I just felt like with all the sacrifices they were making for me, it’d be really selfish of me to not give back and not to honor that and not to respect that. So I think that pressure to stay in the closet probably had more to do with me wanting to please my parents more than anything.

Brad Shreve [00:35:16]:
I totally can relate to that, and I’m sure many others as well. I don’t necessarily consider myself Buddhist, but I have for years practiced Buddhism. I believe in the Buddhist practice. I believe in the Buddhist philosophy. And I can tell you, my husband says when I go to Sangha and I chant regularly and do those things each day, he can definitely see a much better personality than when I don’t. But what’s interesting, my past relationship my partner was from Burma, and I remember we went to the temple, and his mother had talked to the monk there. It was a very small temple, so there was one monk, and he sat down. It was never said that we were a couple, but it was pretty obvious. And he sat down with my partner, and it wasn’t mean, but just this kind of casual conversation about maybe it’s time to get married and have children. So, like you said, it wasn’t mean. That’s the way things should be.

Curtis Chin [00:36:27]:
A very heavy emphasis just on the family and honoring the elders and keeping that family tradition going on again to them. They would never think that they hate gay people. Right. Even though they I mean, I would guess that if you had to ask them, it’s a lower priority in their hierarchy. Yes, but it’s not a negative, hate thing. I was luckily, I wasn’t exposed to that type of feeling. I never grew up with this idea I was going to hell or anything like that. But I guess I did grow up with this. I don’t know if my parents would have disowned me or not, but I didn’t want to take that chance.

Brad Shreve [00:37:05]:
No, I totally understand. I grew up in the south, where it’s all about appearances. My family wasn’t originally from the south, but we still had that attitude, and we didn’t go to church. But it was all about me feeling like it would bring shame upon my family.

Curtis Chin [00:37:21]:

Brad Shreve [00:37:22]:
I relate to that entirely. So with all that you’ve done, which is pretty amazing, and where you’ve come from, would you say you’ve had your I’ve made it moment yet?

Curtis Chin [00:37:34]:
No, but I also don’t think I’m looking for an I’ve made it moment. I mean, I’ve always just been someone who’s been curious, and as long as I’m learning, I’m happy. I don’t think I’m trying to achieve anything in life. I just want to keep learning. This is important to me. And to be engaged and to feel like I’m a positive force in this world, those are the things that matter to me. I don’t think there will be an AHA moment of like, okay, now I can rest, or now I’ve achieved what I’ve set out to do, because I feel like I’ve always, you know, I don’t know, I’ve always just had really cool, fun things have happened in my life, and it’s just like, even stupid things. Like, when I was in high school, I was on the Wheel of Fortune. My life has just been filled with these moments where just like, oh, you did that, you know? You know, I was in Newsweek, you know, oh, they featured you. It’s like, yeah. So I’ve never set out for these things. That’s not what drives me. It’s again, the small details of like, oh, am I doing interesting stuff? Am I learning? Am I feeling I’m a good person? That makes me happy?

Brad Shreve [00:38:43]:
Well, I don’t want to answer for you, but I’m going to tell you from my perspective, you have had your I’ve made it moment, but you’ve had many of them, and I think you will have many more.

Curtis Chin [00:38:56]:
I hope so. I hope this book really does help. I mean, life. I said it was cathartic for me, but it was also nice because I spoke to my mom a lot in writing the book. I would constantly call her, like, two or three times a week just to make sure I was getting all the details right. And also the book, I think, is a vindication for her because she’s always there’s a funny story I like to think is a funny story in the book, where it’s like when Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club came out, my mom instantly thought her life was also worthy of a book. And so she would just follow me around the restaurant constantly telling me all these stories, put this in a book, put this in a book. And I was like, fine. Like Mom, I can’t write your story. You have to write your own story. We each have to write our own stories, right? But in some ways now, 30 odd years later, I have written her story because she is such a main character in the book, and a lot of it is about her struggles because obviously that impacts my struggles, right? And so I have, in some ways written. And so I fully expect my mom to insist on being as part of the book tour in as many locations as she will be allowed to show up. But thank you for saying that. Thank you for saying those nice things. As long as I’m helping, as long as I’m being a good person, that’s all that matters to me.

Brad Shreve [00:40:17]:
The book sounds both fascinating and wonderful. And again, my guest is Curtis China. The book is “Everything I Learned, I learned in a Chinese Restaurant.” And you will find a link to that in the show notes so you can do a pre order and also link to the website where you can learn a whole lot more about Curtis because there’s way more than I can put in the show notes and he’s a pretty fascinating guy. Curtis, I want to thank you very much for being my guest. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

Curtis Chin [00:40:45]:
Yeah, it has been. Thank you so much. And I’m curious to learn more about the work that you do, too, so I’m sure I’ll be reading your books.

Brad Shreve [00:40:52]:
Thank you.

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