Inside a modest garment factory at 202 Centre Street in Chinatown, sumptuous organza gowns in the rich colors of eggplants and plums hang on a rack, destined for a chain of bridal shops. These fairy-tale frocks, once purchased, will make their debuts at weddings and parties all around the city this winter, while the workers who pressed the silk and stitched the hems may lose their jobs if their factory is evicted.
The owners of Fortune Gardens Fashion Inc., formerly MJM Fashion Inc., are facing a lawsuit filed by the owners of the building at 202 Centre Street for payment of back rent. If the court decides in favor of the landlords, Fortune Gardens’ owners will have to pay $24,000, a huge financial blow that will probably shut down the company, because the factory is now bringing in only half the earnings it made last winter. At a time when the local economic outlook is poor and Chinatown’s situation even worse, and after years of competition from cheap foreign labor that have seriously hurt the domestic market, the 40 workers at Fortune Gardens who stand to lose their livelihood will be hard-pressed to find other garment jobs anytime soon in Chinatown. They are more likely to become part of the growing number of unemployed Chinese immigrants in New York.
Tao Bai, a middle-aged woman with a shag haircut that, combined with her round face, gives her a guileless appearance, hems a long piece of yellow silk at a sewing station. As she works, she chatters loudly in Cantonese over the noise of the sewing machines and the competing strains of Chinese pop music coming from a stereo. Bai immigrated from mainland China eight years ago and has worked in the garment industry for three years. The holiday season is usually the busiest of the year in the garment industry, and Bai knew that the ever smaller orders trickling in from manufacturers last month were a bad omen.
Her only professional skills come from the garment industry. Speaking through a translator, Bai says that if she loses her job, she can’t leave New York to look for another because she doesn’t know English; she doesn’t want to leave Chinatown, and she “doesn’t know how to take a train.” Manhattan’s Chinatown is famously insular; immigrants like Bai can live and work there for years without needing to learn English, an advantage that becomes a liability when the job market tightens in the ethnic enclave.
Judy Wu, secretary of Fortune Gardens, says the workers are on good terms with the manager, unusual in an industry notorious for workers’ rights abuse. Wu says that even though their workweek has been downsized from five days to one or two days a week, the workers “still come in. They don’t want to leave. That’s why they don’t want my boss close the factory.” Their loyalty is pragmatic—when there is no other work, long lines of unemployed garment workers wait to take their place.
Jimmy Shek and Hung Luk, two of the owners of the building, say this case is simply a matter of owing rent payment. “Actually, this is a tenant and landlord relationship. We know them for long time. And we have no intention to try to push them out,” Shek says. “We have mortgage to pay. We have a budget. Suddenly they short pay, so what we going to do?”
Shek and Luk claim that the total monthly rent of the building’s fourth floor, where Fortune Gardens is located, is $5500, while Danny Tsui, the factory manager, says that it is only $3800. Fortune Gardens had paid $5500 monthly from September 1997 to October 2000, whereupon the lease was examined by a lawyer, who told Tsui that the business was overpaying. Now Shek and Luk say that Tsui owes the additional $1700 monthly from last October, and are suing for collection.
Activist groups involved in the case see this as an attempt to capitalize on the post-September 11 economic downturn and force garment factories out of Chinatown buildings so that the space can be rented out at a higher rate. They see it as a collaborative effort at gentrification involving Lower Manhattan landlords, businessmen, and policy makers. Hyun Lee, program director of the Chinatown Justice Project and part of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, points to a recent displacement trend in Chinatown: “Right after Giuliani took office in 1994, we started seeing heightened surveillance and harassment from the police. Street vendors and small-business owners . . . were getting a lot of tickets from the police. We started realizing that what was the driving force behind a lot of this harassment was real estate,” she says.
“New York City is really trying to position itself as a global financial capital,” says Lee. “There’s been an influx of young professionals, mostly white, moving into the city from the suburbs. So what that means for low-income tenants and also places like garment factories is that there is tremendous pressure in terms of evictions and harassment from landlords.” Lee says that the September 11 attacks have only escalated the rate of evictions in Chinatown, as many low-income and/or underemployed tenants are now unable to meet rent.
Building co-owner Luk doesn’t believe that September 11 has had any real impact on the industry, and cited the global economy and free trade as the real reasons for the troubles of factories like Fortune Gardens. “Import is hurting the economy. As far as the economy of the United States, you’ve got a booming economy until very recently. The garment industry itself has been fighting a downhill battle probably for the last decade,” he says. “It’s not a 9-11 issue; it’s like any other company that was downsizing. 9-11 did not force them to downsize or lay off people—it just triggered a quicker effect. It’s a world situation. You name it, everyone is being affected worldwide.”
The landlords, tenants, activist groups, and workers do have one common complaint—they all say that the city has done little or nothing to help Chinatown’s economy. Wing Lam, director of the Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association, says that while relief aid is now available for those who are located south of Canal, he estimates that 80 percent of garment factories are located north of Canal and thus ineligible for help from all but a few nonprofit agencies. Kwong Hui, who recently ran for City Council in District 1, says of government benefits that “there’s not much there. I think most garment factories are pretty much on their own. You have a whole manufacturing base that’s already in decline, but now it’s going to be driven out.”
Even Shek says, “We wish government can do some things to help the garment industry, but unfortunately looks like the government don’t care about the garment factories. They more care about the cars. They more care about the high tech.” Lee finds the city’s “rebuilding rhetoric” alarming in that “it’s so concentrated on giving a boost to the real estate industry, giving a boost to the finance industry, and it’s all focused on the West Side of Lower Manhattan. What worries me is what that’s going to do to property values on the East Side, and it will just escalate gentrification even more.”
Lam, Lee, and Hui all feel that without some kind of intervention, Chinatown will be obliterated in a matter of years. Hui says, “Chinatown is going to be pretty much wiped out as a self-sustaining economy. I won’t be surprised if in the next three to five years, one-third of Chinatown will be gone.”
For workers like Bai who make up the human face of Chinatown, however, the next three to five months are going to be tough enough.