Information About Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" and Hmong in Detroit

Bee Vang, Clint Eastwood and Ahney Her of 'Gran Torino'

Albert E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

As a result of the tax incentive passed by the State of Michigan, star sightings in the Metro Detroit area are getting old hat. Of course, we were spoiled by the first feature film shot here: Gran Torino, a movie by Clint Eastwood.

The Plot of Gran Torino

Gran Torino is about Walt Kowalski, a retired Ford factory worker, who is a long-time resident of a declining neighborhood. The heart of the story revolves around the prejudiced Kowalski’s relationship with his Hmong next-door neighbors.

Detroit Locations

So where was Kowalski’s house? Did you recognize the church or the hardware store? According to an article in the Detroit Free Press on December 21st, 2008 -- Watching Grand Torino? It might look familiar -- the locations used in Gran Torino were as follows:

  • Kowalski’s house is located on Rhode Island Street in Highland Park
  • The church where Kowalski attends his wife’s funeral is St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park
  • The hardware store is Pointe Hardware in Grosse Pointe Park.
  • The house in which Kowalski’s son resides is located on Ballantyne Road in Grosse Pointe Shores.
  • The barber shop is Widgren’s Barber Shop on 11 Mile in Royal Oak. posted an in-depth article about its use as a location on January 7th, 2009.
  • The place where Kowalski meets with his buddies for a drink is the VFW Post 6756 in Centerline.
  • The Hmong gang house is on Pilgrim Street in Highland Park.

The movie was shot over 33 days and the production crew spent more than $10 million while they were in town.

Setting in the Script

While the locations used in Gran Torino were in Detroit, was the story centered here? Was the story based, even in part, on a real person’s struggle in a Detroit neighborhood?

The short answer is no. The original setting for the story was Minneapolis, Minnesota, home to screenwriter Nick Schenk, as well as a sizeable Hmong population. In fact, most of the 250,000 Hmong in the United States live in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. According to an ​article in the Los Angeles Times, first-time screenwriter Schenk wrote the script in a bar during his time off from his job in construction. In fact, the story unfolds around a Gran Torino because Schenk lived by a Ford plant and wanted the car to be a Ford model, not as an ode to Eastwood’s famous Dirty Harry role.

Setting in Movie

Eastwood used the Detroit area instead of locations in Minnesota because of the new tax incentives are given by Michigan. It helped that Detroit has a Hmong population, although not as sizeable as in Minnesota. The metro area is also home to several Ford plants. While Eastwood used locations throughout the Metro Detroit area that might be recognizable by locals, the setting in the movie is not heavily referenced. We know Kowalski lives in the Midwest and is a former Ford factory worker, and, at one point, a “Charlevoix” street sign is seen. A drive along Lake Shore Drive in Grosse Pointe Farms at the end of the movie seems telling because of Lake St. Clair in the background, but the most direct reference comes from a scene involving Kowalski’s son wherein he tries to use his father’s connections to get Lions season tickets – the scene may have come across as more realistic if the movie was set in Minnesota, where Vikings tickets are still in demand.

Hmong in Detroit

The truth is that the characters in Gran Torino could have resided in Detroit. The metro area does have a large Hmong population. According to an article in The Detroit News, the number of Hmong residing in Michigan in 2005 numbered 15,000. The Hmong live mainly in the poorer neighborhoods of Detroit, Pontiac, and Warren.

According to the article, the Hmong in Michigan relocated here from southeast Asia, where they lived as farmers in the mountains of Laos. They were recruited by the U.S. in the Vietnam war and had to flee to refugee camps in Thailand when the U.S. withdrew. The first Hmong arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s and 90s. More arrived in the early 2000s when the United States opened restrictions. As might be expected, the Hmong experienced culture shock upon their arrival in the United States as they struggled to deal with American culture and tried to find work in spite of transportation and language difficulties.

Gran Torino Actors

Thirty actors and over 500 extras in the film were recruited locally by casting agents Pound & Mooney. To find Hmong actors, Pound & Mooney scouted a Hmong soccer tournament in Macomb County. As a result, 75 local Hmong actors appear in the film. The principal actors in the film, Bee Vang (Thao) and Ahney Her (Sue), however, hail from Minnesota and Lansing, Michigan respectively.

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