Tack Yong Kim had just finished an interview at a Detroit television station in fall 2011 when he received a call from an unexpected source – the South Korean consul general in Chicago.
Kim, the editor and owner of the Michigan Korean weekly newspaper, was surprised to hear the consul’s request: Did he have an in with the Detroit mayor’s office? Because the consul wasn’t getting anywhere on her own.
The consulate was trying to arrange a visit to Detroit, and a meeting with then-Mayor Dave Bing, for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who wanted to visit a General Motors plant. The consulate was being discreet in revealing who, exactly, would be coming, Kim said, but told the mayor’s office “someone very important” would be visiting Detroit, and Myung-bak was in Washington D.C. at the time.
“They were told the mayor didn’t have time,” Kim recalled. “They gave her to the deputy mayor.”
As diplomatic missteps go, it fell short of causing an international incident. Myung-bak ended up meeting with Bing, in the company of his host in the nation’s capital – Barack Obama. But it took the White House to make it happen.
To Kim, the story underlines the lack of affection between Asians and Detroit.
While Kim said the Korean-American community has not had bad relations with the city, he is not surprised that most Asian immigrants choose to settle in the city’s suburbs rather than on the other side of Eight Mile Road.
“(Asian) people coming here are well-to-do. They’re not coming to Detroit to live, that’s for sure,” Kim said.
Michigan’s single largest foreign-born population group is Asians, according to U.S. Census data, and it includes everyone from Chinese students enrolled at the state’s colleges and universities to Indian-born auto engineers living in suburban four-bedroom houses in Troy. It’s the reason Michigan’s immigrant populations are better-educated and better-off than its natives. And like most well-educated, middle-class southeast Michigan residents, they choose the safety and security and good public schools of suburban Detroit.
The western suburbs and exurbs form a sort of Asian crescent that runs through Oakland, Livingston and Washtenaw counties. Indians abound in Troy, Farmington Hills, Rochester Hills and West Bloomfield; Chinese in Canton, Troy and Ann Arbor. Large numbers of Japanese support sushi and specialty markets in Novi, and Koreans thrive in Farmington Hills, Novi, Troy and elsewhere.
Kim doesn’t consider Asians hostile to Detroit, but believes some specific initiatives would have to take place to lure them there.
“My suggestion is, we need to put aside some land for an industrial park, so we can bring Asian companies to build their factories and hire the local people,” he said. “Maybe build a new Chinatown.”