Asian-American community calls for recognition of Detroit’s former Chinatown district

By: - August 1, 2023 10:16 am

James Lee, who was born in the area, would like to see the site reflect Asian American heritage in some form or fashion. | Ken Coleman

Detroit’s Asian-American community and allies on Monday urged the city of Detroit and Olympia Development of Michigan to work with them to create a visual presence that recognizes the former Chinatown district after a building there was demolished.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), Detroit City Council Member Gabrielle Santiago-Romero and the group Rising Voices issued the call after the demolition of a building located at 3143 Cass Ave., which was owned by Olympia Development of Michigan. 

“There are so many possibilities of what can happen here whether it is an art exhibit or some kind of community center or something that recognizes our history,” Chang said during a news conference. 

Members of the Association of Chinese Americans and American Citizens for Justice also attended the news conference.

Chang told the Advance that she plans to be part of a group that will develop an idea to preserve the history of the building and present it to Olympia Development of Michigan, which is operated by the Ilitch family, owners of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers. 


In recent years, the area has been redeveloped and many parcels there are owned by the Ilitch family. An email to Olympia Development of Michigan was not returned. 

The building that was constructed in 1883, had been vacant for years and was cited for demolition by the Detroit City Council in 2018. 

A unanimous vote by the Detroit City Council on July 25 had delayed the demolition. The nine-member body wanted to allow for review by the city’s historical advisory board. However, the city’s corporation counsel allowed the demolition to go ahead. 

James Lee’s late grandparents owned Shanghai Cafe, a restaurant that operated out of the building beginning in the 1940s. Lee, who was born in the area, would like to see the site reflect Asian-American heritage in some form or fashion. 

“A historical review of the building has not been done. I believe that’s the first thing that we need to do to find the truth,” Lee said.  


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.