Detroit’s Chinatown was filled with old spinsters.
Most of them worked in the catering industry as waiters and cooks – grueling jobs but the best they could get with their limited English skills. After long days, they would arrive at my family’s restaurant, Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, and practically run down a rickety staircase to the gambling den below. From the top of the landing, I could hear them swearing in Cantonese as they tossed their worn dominoes and chipped mah-jongg tiles. Occasionally, players would come by for a pair of our made-from-scratch imperial cabbage rolls. If they won big, they’d splurge on a jumbo shrimp cocktail.
The disproportionate number of men seemed strange to me until my parents explained to me how American immigration policies had long prevented Chinese women from entering the country. Why? Probably out of unfounded fear that their America will be replaced by hordes of scabs. Although the United States attempted to correct this imbalance beginning in the 1940s, gender disparity persisted in cities like Detroit well into the 1980s. In search of kinship, these dozens of South American men China formed their own chosen family, a tong-centric singles society, an organization that oversaw the safety and well-being of the local Chinese community, but was sometimes associated with organized crime. Despite the negative stereotypes, these guys seemed like more like harmless, grumpy uncles to me.
Meanwhile, around Chinatown was Detroit’s gay community, filled with young single white men.
These men faced no laws preventing them from being with women. They simply preferred the company of other men, those with neat haircuts, six-pack abs and Burt Reynolds mustaches. Plus, they ran businesses I had never seen in Chinatown, like a pet store, dog grooming service, and an antique store full of Life magazines. They even had a bar with a sign touting their “impersonator” entertainment – I had no idea what that was, but it sounded really intriguing.
As a curious 12-year-old, I often snuck into Birdtown, the colorful pet store. Through rows of blue-tinted lights illuminating 10-gallon tanks filled with black-and-white angelfish and orange swordtails, I listened to the pet store boys as they chattered around the register, flipping their Hollywood gossip magazines.
At that age, I had already recognized that a part of me belonged to each group of men. But I also knew that I had to keep these worlds separate. It’s not that either disparaged the other – no one in Chinatown said anything homophobic and no one in the gay district said anything anti-Asian. But having grown up in our segregated town, steeped in pervasive and occasional bigotry on my schoolyard, I didn’t want to create unnecessary drama in either community. I felt at home in both worlds, but I was afraid of what might happen if they collided.
It was late night and Chung had hosted a large table of visiting VIPs, old men in ill-fitting suits from the Boston chapter of the flip-flop. My grandfather was the head of the Detroit chapter, making him responsible for welcoming dignitaries from out of town. In their honor, our chef had concocted some fancy plates that weren’t on the regular menu at our Americanized chop suey joint, including crispy, succulent gai lan and salt-infused fish hom yu.
Although we were past our posted closing time of 11pm, dinner was still as good as ever. Papa, the consummate host and waiter, dressed in his red uniform, would never kick the diners out, no matter how long it took them to finish that last bite.
The gathering was actually serious business. A mini crime wave had hit the Chinese restaurants in our area. The owners were held at gunpoint and stripped of all their day’s money. Leaders of the more established tong chapters across the country had flocked to town to make sure my grandfather and his friends had things under control. The long faces of our guests suggested that they had doubts.
Around midnight, while the old Chinese were playing and scheming, four young white men in tight T-shirts and even tighter jeans knocked on our large window. Surprised to see our lights still on, their faces lit up with smiles.
Even at 12, my gaydar was fully operational; it sounded like a broken down car alarm. Before I could even plead for the men’s dismissal so we could end the night without awkward clashes, my father opened the door and issued his warm greeting, “Welcome to Chung’s!”
Newcomers sat down and scanned our menu, but they kept leaning over and watching the food spin on the lazy Susan at my grandfather’s table. My father explained to me that these dishes were not on the menu and that since the restaurant was technically closed, the cooks could only prepare something simple and quick. The men accepted the restrictions with grace. Our chefs have whipped up some of our most popular dishes: savory plates of shrimp fried rice and chicken chop suey. As usual, the staff prepared a little extra for us children, as well as plates for my grandfather and his guests.
But when my father, the super host, went to serve the quartet, he surprised them. “Turns out we had a little extra,” he said, dropping off free samples of the off-menu items.
Watching from the back table, near the coat rack and high chairs, I felt super nervous. Even as a Chinese child born in the United States, I didn’t like some of these hot dishes. How would these white people react?
With careful forks and spoons in hand, they looked around their group, wondering who would make the first move. The guy with the tank top and the biceps who seemed to be the leader nodded before doing a quick taste and smell test.
One little nibble led to another. Soon they were destroying just like Jabba the Hutt.
When my father went to clear their plates, they joked, “Where can we find these recipes?
My dad winked. “I guess you’ll just have to come back.”
As the young men came out laughing, they swayed at the old Chinese table. The gays talked about how much they liked these new and unfamiliar dishes, pointing to their favorite starters on the table. And the elders smiled.
After the quartet left, the tong members seemed to lighten up a bit, leaning back in their chairs and taking sips of their Hennessys. It looked like they relished their food even more than before, as if they were proud of the compliments. At that moment, I realized that I had been holding my breath the entire encounter.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so scared. The Chinese and gay communities shared something in common: In a union town full of Midwestern nuclear families, both groups were outliers. After being marginalized, attacked and, in some cases, murdered, everyone had developed their own support system. Each community had learned to take care of itself. Was it so hard that they could also take care of each other?
I had the same desire to sit at both tables. At the time, even though I knew I was gay and Asian, I didn’t think anyone else fit that profile. I thought I had to choose. But seeing how the two groups of men were able to connect, albeit briefly, gave me hope that these two sides of myself might just be compatible.
It could have been a coincidence, or something I hadn’t noticed before, but after that night it seemed like our gay customers started eating more, instead of ordering takeout. My dad started having longer conversations with them about developments in the neighborhood, including the latest real estate deals and crime reports. Eventually, my dad and some of our gay clients even set up an informal neighborhood watch, although that’s another story. This one tells how, thanks to a few shared plates of gai lan and hom yu, our table got a little bigger.
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Originally appeared on Bon Appétit