Unveiling a tapestry of forgotten tales, the Detroit Historical Museum’s latest exhibit, “Detroit’s Chinatowns,” navigates the 150-year journey of the city’s Chinese community. Assistant Curator Lily Chen and Chief Exhibitions Officer Tracy Irwin have woven together the narrative of a once-thriving but now vanished community in the heart of Detroit. The exhibit, on display in the Community Gallery through January 7, 2024, chronicles the immigrant experience from Ah-Chee’s arrival in 1872 to the vibrant businesses and communal life that characterized the 1970s and 80s. 

Visitors can interact with artifacts, photos, videos, and oral histories that vividly recreate the restaurants, laundries, and stores that once flourished there. Attendees can engage with a Chinese mahjong table, mark their family’s roots on a world map, and delve into the Detroit Historical Society’s video collection in a dedicated screening area. The exhibit not only traces the geographical evolution from the original enclave on 3rd Avenue to the relocation in the Cass Corridor, but also delves into the daily lives of immigrant families who built a bustling community. 

Detroit's Chinatowns exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum

Assistant Curator Lily Chen (left) and Chief Exhibitions Officer Tracy Irwin (right) walk through the Detroit Historical Museum’s exhibit “Detroit’s Chinatowns,” which chronicles the 150-year history of the city’s Chinese population. | Photo by One Detroit

From church and Chinese school attendance to weekend picnics on Belle Isle, the exhibition captures the rich traditions and challenges faced by Detroit’s Chinese residents. The exhibit serves as a poignant testament to resilience, illuminating overcoming adversity, cherished traditions, and the profound sense of home within Detroit’s Chinatowns. One Detroit contributor Chien-An Yuan talked with Chen and Irwin about how the exhibit connects the Chinese immigrant community to Detroit’s larger history.

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