What’s in store for Detroit’s long-idle Chinatown?

Former Chinese Merchant's Association, 425 Petersboro

A few blocks south of Wayne State University are the remnants of Detroit’s Chinatown.

It’s small and easy to miss. A few signs still cling to vacant storefronts on Peterboro and Cass. Fading murals celebrating diversity go largely unnoticed.

And gone are four decades of grocers, retailers, restaurants and Chinese Americans, chased out by drugs, prostitution and violent crime two decades ago.

Vacant property on Petersboro at Cass
Vacant property on Peterboro at Cass

Now Peterboro, which served as the heart of Chinatown from the early 1960s until the last restaurant, Chung’s, closed in 2000, is on the verge of new life. Key to the transformation are a tattoo artist and Midtown Inc., the influential nonprofit that has revived the city’s art and cultural district.

Matt Hessler
Matt Hessler

Matt Hessler, a Detroit resident who owns a tattoo shop in Rochester, purchased one of two popular Chinatown properties on the west side of Cass Avenue at Peterboro for $225,000. He plans to open a tattoo shop where retailer Mantra had operated. Hessler evicted Showcase Collectible, a vintage and curio shop, after the pair couldn’t reach an agreement on a new lease.

“I wish they could have stayed,” Hessler told me, saying he really liked the store.

The plan is to provide space for four businesses in the 8,000-square-foot building.

“I’m going to restore it to the Chinatown era,” he said. 

The tenants of this building were evicted to make way for tattoo parlor.
A tattoo parlor will fill the vacant Mantra space.

The adjacent corner building on Cass and Peterboro – formerly Chung’s restaurant – is now owned by Midtown Inc., which hopes to preserve the building. Its president, Sue Mosey, said there are no specific plans yet for the building.

Before Chinatown was established in the Cass Corridor in the 1960s, it was located downtown at Third, between Michigan and Howard. The original Chinatown was larger, with more than 2,000 residents.

The original Chinatown was demolished in the early 1960s for so-called urban renewal and slum clearance.

Chung's restaurant, 1960-2000.
Chung’s restaurant, 1960-2000.

Of the Chinese Americans who decided to stay in Detroit, most moved north to Cass and Peterboro. Chung’s opened in 1960, followed by grocers, retailers, a residential community for seniors and a school. Thousands would turn out for parades during Chinese holidays.

The Burton School was informally known as "the Chinese School" at the corner of Cass and Petersboro.
The Burton School was informally known as “the Chinese School” at the corner of Cass and Peterboro.

But the honeymoon was short-lived as crime began to devour the Cass Corridor in the mid-1960s.

“Flowerpots! The pimps and the hookers and the drunks will just fill them up with trash,” complained one resident, Hayne Leung.

In 1970, Tommie Lee, owner of Bow Wah restaurant at Cass and Peterboro, was shot to death during a hold-up.

The relentless crimes led to a rapid decline in the population until most of the Chinese Americans had left by the mid-1980s.

The area has been largely dormant since. But investors and city boosters believe the former Chinatown site is ready for a revival.

Much of the area around Chinatown is still vacant.
Much of the area around Chinatown is still vacant, including this area at Peterboro & Third, looking south.

To its south is the 45-block entertainment district to be anchored by a new home for the Detroit Red Wings, estimated to produce more than $200,000 million in other development. To its north is Wayne State University and the blossoming entertainment and cultural heart of Detroit.

The Cass Corridor is considered the missing link between downtown and Midtown.

Who buys the vacant land likely will determine the new identity of Chinatown.  

Vacant Chinatown storefront on Peterboro
Vacant Chinatown storefront on Peterboro.
Mural by Detroit Asian Youth Project.
Mural by Detroit Asian Youth Project.
Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University
Chinatown, Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • Tommee Lee

    Thanks for the article on my grandfather I never knew but some say he lives through me (r.i.p. Tommie lee his given name yu wah lee I am his grandson tomwah Leung he never got to meet because I was born the year he was murdered I only have one question I hope you can answer was the robber ever caught?

  • Tommee Lee

    Thanks for the article on my grandfather I never knew but some say he lives through me (r.i.p. Tommie lee his given name yu wah lee I am his grandson tomwah Leung he never got to meet because I was born the year he was murdered I only have one question I hope you can answer was the robber ever caught?

  • writestuff

    Thanks for the article. My family owned and operated Chung’s. I still have a lot of fond memories. I’m working on a new memoir, “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant.”

  • Diana Cooper

    After condeming Irving School on Canfield west of Woodward in the late 1960s, all of us kids were split up and transfered to other schools.I was starting 5th grade. And went to Burton ,every culture was there. There were Chinese children but also children from all over the world and United States.Haveing a friend that did not speak english was not as strange for me as meeting someone from Texas. We may not have had tree’s and grass but we had culture.

  • dirtydog1776

    While I applaud the efforts of Mr. Hessler to help revitalize the city, I do not think that the opening of a tattoo parlor will do much to accomplish this goal.

  • Gunnut2600

    Wow…white people are now co-opting ethnic neighborhoods along with just culture? Some hipster spreading hep c from two properties are not going to being back an entire community.

  • Willy

    Okay, so let me get this straight. “Chinatown” actually consists of two bumf**ked buildings and a couple steam vent kiosks with dubious looking chinese characters smack in the middle of the lower midtown bumville area?

    This is a belated April fools joke, right?

    • bebow

      I’d face all of that and more just to get another eggroll from Chung’s.

  • Dust Buster

    so they were chased out by drugs violence and prostitution? did they outlaw that now or did the drugs dealers hookers and jackers agree to stay away now?they need to hire some of those guys that do kung fu and let them clean up the vermin like in the movies.

  • Lindsay k

    I dont understand how two shops opening up in the cass corridor is going to change the area, there were two shops there before (mantra and showcase) and it was still a pretty run down neighborhood.

    • Lindsay k

      But i will say I hope it does make a come back. I used to work at the Burton Theater (inside the burton school) and there are so many beautiful buildings in that area.

  • Steve Dibert

    If Detroit wants to revitalize it’s Chinatown, city leaders need to come to NYC and see what they did here. Chinatown in NYC has quintupled in size since 9/11. Within the next 2 years it will be absorbing Little Italy.

    • Smartest OneHere

      Pizza rolls!