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VOA Asia Weekly: Detroit's Chinatown History

VOA Asia Weekly: Detroit's Chinatown History
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Deadly Papua New Guinea landslide. Chinese astronauts set spacewalking record. US-China panda diplomacy returns. Thai American teen aims to break into professional soccer.

The U.S. city known for car making has a history that's about more than autos.

Welcome to VOA Asia Weekly.

I'm Chris Casquejo in Washington.

That story is just ahead, but first, making headlines:

“In this year, we had extraordinary rainfall that has caused flooding in river areas, sea level rise in coastal areas and landslides in a few areas.”

Papua New Guinea’s prime minister James Marape blames extraordinary weather for a landslide that the UN says killed 670 villagers. Rescue teams have evacuated thousands of people. The government estimated that at least 2,000 people have been buried alive.

Cyclone Remal left millions of people without power in Southern Bangladesh and India. With winds measured at 70 miles per hour, Remal left a trail of destruction, damaging more than 35,000 homes across southeast Asia.

Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra will be indicted next month on charges of insulting the monarchy. The charges are based on an interview he gave to South Korean media in 2015. Thaksin is due in court June 18th. Thailand’s lese majeste law is one of the strictest in the world.

Two Chinese astronauts set a new spacewalking record as they completed their first one. Astronaut Ye Guangfu and Li Guangsu spent eight and a half hours installing a space debris protection device and performing tasks outside of the Tiangong space station.

Wahington’s National Zoo will welcome back panda diplomacy.

“Join us! It's official! The pandas are coming back to DC.”

Bao Li and Qing Bao will arrive from China by the end of this year.

The Midwestern U.S. city of Detroit is known as the home of American automakers.

What's less known are the contributions of the Chinese residents throughout the city's history.

Detroit may be known for its car industry, but there is something else famous among locals that can be found in the city and suburbs of Detroit.

This signature dish: almond boneless chicken.

“Detroiters really know almond chicken. It’s something that’s true and dear to a lot of Detroiters.”

While its exact origins in the new world are unknown, local lore claims the dish is the product of Chinese immigrants from the early 1900s. It's hugely popular in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs – a region with some 70,000 Chinese Americans. There used to be a centralized Chinatown here.

Now, Detroit’s Chinatowns are only remembered in this museum exhibit.

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in 1872, and established laundry businesses, which attracted more migrants from China. Some opened restaurants. Most of them were from Guangdong province in Southern China.

“People come from this area, called Taishan, in Guangdong, China, and make it over to the U.S. in order to escape the level of poverty that they were dealing with at the time.”

Many Cantonese-speaking immigrants faced new obstacles in their new home. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. with only a few exceptions. Those already living in the U.S. had to get permission to re-enter if they left the country. Chinese immigrants could only live in certain neighborhoods, but they kept coming.

“This is my father. He came in, this is 1939.”

Four years later, the U.S. repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Wing Lim Wong and his sister grew up in Detroit’s second Chinatown after the first one was forced to move for a new freeway in the 1960s. Their father worked in a restaurant, which he later bought.

“At the age of like maybe 11 years old, you start learning, maybe you help out with waiting the tables.”

The second Chinatown was in a rough part of Detroit, remembers Curtis Chin. He wrote about his family’s restaurant.

“The red light district. Yeah, it was terrible. I mean, it was tough. We were exposed to a lot of things growing up as a kid. You would see the prostitutes on the road all the time and coming into our restaurant, too.”

Most of the businesses in Chinatown closed due to rising crime, including Wong’s. The area eventually revitalized with new businesses, but this no longer feels like Chinatown.

“It's not a Chinese community anymore down there and that's the sad part.

Similar to many U.S. cities, the nexus of the Chinese community in Detroit assimilated into the suburbs and strip malls. But the memories of the Chinatowns live on out here and inside Chinese restaurants where almond chicken is still served.

To see more of our special series on Chinatowns across the world, visit

And finally, meet Madison Casteen, a Thai American who aims to be one of the few Asian Americans to break into professional soccer.

The 16-year-old played for Thailand’s national team in this year’s Under 17 Women’s Asian World Cup Tournament.

Thanks for watching VOA Asia Weekly.