The Story of Gin Chan and the Power of History

by ursavoice

Denny Chan
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

As I sat in the very first class of Race and the Law listening to students introduce themselves and share what they wanted out of the class, I scrambled through many thoughts. Instead of just rambling through random points, I desperately wanted to piece together a cohesive introduction, especially since these topics mattered so deeply to me. After the first class and upon reflecting on the flurry, at least one major theme stood out to me: family. My family’s choices in large part determined so much of my life today, and our tale seamlessly fuses themes of race, ethnicity, class, and immigration.

The story begins about 80 years ago. In the 1930s, my paternal great-grandfather Gin Chan immigrated to the U.S, leaving behind his wife and children in Southern China. Precisely how he entered the country remains a mystery among family members today, for at the time, the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively banned almost all Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. After arriving in San Francisco, Gin eventually made his way to America’s Midwest, working his way up Lake Michigan in Chinese restaurants in Chicago and St. Joseph, Michigan. Gin settled in Muskegon, Michigan and established House of Chan, our family’s first Chinese American restaurant. He later petitioned for his son (my grandfather) and his two grandsons (my uncles) to come to the U.S. and help him run the family business.

The remaining Chan family members immigrated in batches after my grandfather and uncles. My parents, both born on Mainland China, immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s. Unlike many other immigrants at the time, neither of them went to college (largely a result of the societal instability from China’s Cultural Revolution), so they did not immigrate to the U.S. as professionals. They are blue-collar laborers. After coming to the States, my father and some of his brothers took over our family’s second restaurant, Chan’s, which is still open for business today.

I provide a brief synopsis of my family’s history because it dawned on me during Race and the Law that so much of my life was pre-determined before I was born; the decisions of those who came before me continue to resonate with who I am and the values for which I stand. I was born into a working class Chinese immigrant family in the Midwest, to parents who in many ways fight to retain the culture of their country of origin, and these factors saliently affected my socialization. For example, living in suburban Michigan deeply shaped my views on racial and social justice, as I was often “the only” (both in a racial sense as well as a religious one) in my classroom. My family’s long history with Chinese restaurants dictated my socioeconomic reality growing up, an increasingly unpleasant reality as time progressed and more Chinese restaurants opened in the area. The immigrant experience, fueled by a sense of sacrifice, also pushed my parents to set sometimes stringent expectations for my sister and me; after all, they did not come to a completely foreign country only to have their children not meet traditional standards of success. The language and cultural barriers that separated them from the rest of the community often meant that my sister and I served as translators, and, later, advocates for our immigrant parents.

As much as I complain about growing up in a small and sheltered Michigan town, I truly have nothing but gratitude and respect for the choices my ancestors and parents made and the struggles they endured. Encountering daily incidents of racism and xenophobia is never enjoyable, but at least for me, the outside world’s animosity balanced with a very strong soul, one rather proud of his cultural and ethnic identities. When I sat in Race and the Law as my classmates unraveled bits and pieces of their life stories, I realized that we all have fascinating stories like these to tell. As our community strives to become the innovative law school of the 21st century, our narratives must find official fora, whether through uRSA Voice, our classes, or somewhere else. I strongly believe that understanding others and ourselves will empower us to be more competent and diligent lawyers of the future.