Chinatown ’89: Surviving in America
October 31, 1989
EVERY SUNDAY MORNING, hundreds of Chinese garment workers, waiters, and cashiers spend their only free time of the week attending English classes. Squeezed into makeshift classrooms organized by various community groups and churches in Chinatown, they struggle with basic words and simple dialogues. At the end of class, a few frustrated students will fret that they are too old and forgetful to ever learn English. Ying Jian Xia, 42, attended classes like these when she first arrived here from Hong Kong four years ago. But after three months she had barely mastered the alphabet. Discouraged, Ying gave up, convinced that “for a person of my age, it’s hard to learn. You’re set in your ways.”
Ying is not alone in this predicament. According to the 1980 census, 55 per cent of the city’s Chinatown residents — many of whom have been here more than 10 years — don’t understand English. Some observers blame the Chinese themselves for this situation. They argue that all immigrants should learn English and make the difficult transition of assimilation, rather than keep to their own kind. Ying, too, believes that “you just have to speak English to get a good job.” She knows that the ability to speak English might have landed her a job as a hotel cleaning woman, which, she was told, would pay more than $10 an hour and offer good benefits.
But Chinatown residents, unlike those of many other transitional immigrant enclaves, end up getting caught in their community because they can get jobs there. Chinese immigrants not only live in Chinatown but work for and with other Chinese. They don’t use English among themselves and don’t come into contact with many “Americans.” Ying’s inability to learn English, then, has more to do with her lack of opportunity to hear and speak it than with her age. Ying’s efforts were further hindered by her having had only three years of formal education in mainland China — to this day, she has problems reading Chinese. Again, her lack of education is not unusual; the 1980 census reported that 71 per cent of the residents of New York’s Chinatown had not graduated from high school. They occupy the opposite end of the social spectrum from the well-educated, upwardly mobile Chinese professionals — engineers, doctors, and scientists — at whom Americans enjoy marveling.
Ying is no longer studying English and has accepted her life as a seamstress at the Fashion Enterprise factory, which is located on the fourth floor of a 19th-century bank building on Canal Street. Fashion Enterprise, a medium-sized factory, is a family-run business: The mother of the man who owns it supervises the hemming section, one of his wife’s sisters is the floor manager, her other sister sews and monitors the work of the other seamstresses, and one of these sisters’ husbands is a steam presser.
Typically, a Fashion Enterprise seamstress works from eight in the morning to seven at night, six days a week, and makes about $200 per week. Wages of hemmers and cutters are even lower, about $5000 a year — just above the cutoff point for eligibility in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union health insurance plan.
Although New York’s garment industry suffered a 40 per cent job loss between 1969 and 1982, the number of factories in Chinatown increased. The availability of factory and service jobs has encouraged thousands of people with minimal skills and no English to emigrate from Asia directly to American Chinatowns. In New York’s Chinatown, close to 20,000 Chinese Americans are employed; the population has grown from 15,000 in the ’60s to well over 100,000 today. The main reason for this boom is that Chinatown’s wage rates are competitive with those of the Third World. Most of the Chinatown owners are “cheap,” says Ying, using out-of-date machines, deliberately confusing or failing to inform workers about piece rates before each job is done, and refusing to pay overtime. To survive in New York on piece rates, workers put in as many hours as possible. Some even work on Sundays, and others will not take breaks during work, eating plain bread for lunch so as not to have to stop their machines. One of Ying’s coworkers describes her work as involving ying lee — “feminine exertion,” an intense, exhausting type of labor that does not require brute strength.
YING, HER HUSBAND TING AN, and their three daughters, Jenny, 16, Eunice, 14, and Pauline, 11, arrived in this country from Hong Kong in 1985. Ying and Ting An speak only Cantonese. The couple had to start working as soon as they “got off the boat” in order to pay back the $9000 they had borrowed, interest-free, from Ying’s brother and Ting An’s sister to resettle here.
Although Ying has accepted her lot here, her 52-year-old husband is having trouble accepting his. In Hong Kong, Ting An was a wicker-furniture maker, but here in the U.S., he has had to work as a dishwasher in Chinatown and, now, as a food preparer at a Chinese restaurant in the Hamptons. For $1200 per month, he works 11 hours a day, six days a week, in a kitchen where he sees and talks to only his Chinese coworkers. After work Ting An retires to a rooming house that he shares with his colleagues. As the restaurant is located two hours away from his family’s apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Ting An visits just once a week.
He would prefer a job in Chinatown but, except for those of waiters, the wages there are much lower than what he’s receiving now. Being a waiter, though, requires some comprehension of English, of which he has none. As a matter of fact, Ting An does not even know the English name of the town where his restaurant is located. Feeling stuck and humiliated, he will not discuss his situation with anyone.
Tired and beaten, Ting An assumes a peripheral role in his family, seeing himself as simply one of the breadwinners and an occasional visitor. “He doesn’t call at all — even when the kids are sick,” Ying says matter-of-factly. The kids seem to be as adaptable as their mother. They like their father and enjoy having dim sum with him in Chinatown on his day off and getting him to “buy things we don’t need; like lead pencils,” as one daughter puts it. But they don’t know him or miss living with him. They have only the faintest notion of what his living and working conditions are like. On his part, Ting An hasn’t forgotten that he never wanted to come to the U.S. in the first place; it was Ying’s idea to move here for their children’s education.
Even Ying admits that she and her husband are having a difficult time adjusting to this country. Since they can’t read a map or ask for directions, their mobility is severely restricted. They are lost as soon as they leave Chinatown or the immediate area around their apartment. Ying is dependent on her English-speaking daughters to negotiate the affairs of daily life, such as filling drug prescriptions and writing out money orders to pay the rent and phone bills. Ying does not read newspapers or watch TV, and she has no American friends. She has ventured out of the city only twice in her four years here — to a New Jersey apple orchard and to Belmont State Park — both times on day trips organized by a Chinatown community group.
WHEN ASKED WHETHER she regretted having emigrated, Ying, with tears disturbing her usual composure, answered, “I know my life was fated for hard work. It’s the only kind of life I ever knew. But we did not come to escape hardship. We did it for our children.” Ying was born into a poor family in the Guangdong province. In 1959, partially as a result of the failed Great Leap Forward, a severe famine struck the country, and Ying’s family emigrated to Hong Kong. She was only 11 and was not able to resume her schooling, which she had been forced to abandon while in the third grade in China. In Hong Kong she went straight to work in a factory making plastic flowers. As Ying passed through her teens, her parents talked about marrying her off to ease the family’s financial burden; her chances, however, were not great because she had suffered from a heart murmur since childhood. At the age of 25 she agreed to marry Ting An, a man 10 years her senior, who appeared simple, trustworthy, and unfazed by her health. In addition, he had experienced a similar life of poverty and hardship. Ying ended up caring not just for Ting An, but also for his blind father and his brother who had cancer. Soon, with the addition of her three children, Ying’s household consisted of seven people living together in a tiny studio apartment. “Seven people had to eat,” she says, and they could not live on the HK $1600 (US $230) a month that her husband brought home as a producer of wicker products. Ying supplemented their income with her seamstress work. “I had to work from morning until night — I cooked for them, cleaned house, waited on them, and worked all day at home sewing,” she recalls. It was only after her father-in-law and brother-in-law died and the loans incurred during their illnesses were paid off that Ying and her husband had the chance to think about their own futures.
WHEN THE FAMILY FIRST ARRIVED in the U.S., they piled into the small Chinatown apartment of Ying’s parents. For 10 months the two couples and three children shared the cramped two-bedroom apartment. Ying, Ting An, and their daughters then found a place for $460 a month in a run-down neighborhood in Flatbush; Ting An was mugged soon after they moved there. But luck came their way. A friend of Ying’s told her about a homesteading project sponsored by Rehabilitation in Action to Improve Neighborhoods that had an opening in a 16-unit building in the Lower East Side. Undaunted by the fact that her family was the only Chinese participant (most of the others were Latino), Ying joined the project, taking her daughter Jenny every Saturday for more than a year to help clean up rubble, mix cement, and put up walls. The surrounding neighborhood is depressed, but the family is living in a two-floor unit with five bedrooms and two bathrooms, for which they pay $480 a month.
The kids are enjoying their home. After dinner and before finishing up their homework, they can be found hanging out in the living room, which is furnished with a Sony TV, a Quasar VCR, and two couches and an armchair covered with clear plastic. One wall-hanging proclaims “Fortune” in Chinese; another calls for “Joy, luck, and longevity.” One evening, the girls watch a rented Hong Kong–made movie called The Arranged Marriage, set in China at the turn of the century. It’s a love story that, although they’ve seen it already, transfixes them. Then it’s time for Jenny to pop a tape of Raidas, a Hong Kong disco group, into the Toshiba Bombeat cassette player. Eunice and Jenny sing along with the Cantonese lyrics. The songs, says Jenny, are “about friendship and social issues — about how to deal with people.”
Despite the appearance of material comfort, there are signs here and there of barely making due: The towels in the bathroom, for example, are worn thin and gray with use, and the living room and kitchen light bulbs hang stark and naked. All of this, however, does not matter much to Ying, who says that “we decided to come to America for the children’s future.”
THERE ARE EXCELLENT SCHOOLS in Hong Kong. In fact, in Ying’s mind they are better than those in the U.S., which she thinks are “not strict enough.” But the school system in Hong Kong, starting at the elementary level, is extremely competitive. Opportunities for young people to go to college are few. Average students from working-class backgrounds are at a disadvantage because their parents cannot afford to hire private tutors or send them to tutorial schools to get ahead. Immigrating to the U.S. offered Ying’s kids the chance to attend college — something she deeply wants her children to have, something that she missed out on herself.
Ying is making every possible sacrifice for her children. She does not want her kids to work — they are to devote themselves to education. In Hong Kong, Ying would shut the three girls in the apartment and padlock the TV until their father came home. “I wanted them to study,” she explains. Today she continues to apply the same kind of pressure. The girls are instructed to come home as soon as school lets out, and are rarely allowed to go out with friends. Ying periodically visits her daughters’ teachers (“so my children will be afraid”), taking along an English-speaking friend. And though she can’t help her kids with their homework — in fact, since she can’t read, she can’t even tell whether they’re doing it — she often warns them that “if you trick me, you’re just cheating yourselves.” When their report cards arrive, Ying has them translated by a friend.
While education is the top priority for Ying, her children aren’t the super-accelerated Asian kids celebrated in the media. All three daughters agree that American schools are less rigorous than those in Hong Kong. Jenny observes that “it’s easier here. You don’t do as much homework.” Still, none of the children are having an easy time in school. And, contrary to a prevailing myth, none of the three excels in math, and the younger two don’t like science.
But the three sisters become animated when discussing their dream careers. Eunice, who is in the ninth grade at Chinatown’s I.S. 131, wants to be an astronaut, even though she doesn’t do well in science. But she and Jenny, a sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School, also describe the thrill of being undercover detectives. One soon realizes that their impressions are shaped by their favorite TV shows, including Moonlighting, 21 Jump Street, and Miami Vice.
Aside from school and TV, the girls don’t have much contact with the outside world. Even in school their friends are mostly recent Chinese immigrants who speak Cantonese. The girls have a sole acquaintance in their apartment building, a Greek man who takes them to Yankee games. Jenny often breaks away from the family on Sunday mornings to attend services at the Protestant Chinese Alliance Church in Chinatown. It is the social, not the religious, aspect that draws her there; after the service, members of the congregation have lunch together and the children and teens play games. A self-described “tomboy,” the laconic Jenny likes to play sports with the boys. She is glad that her mother doesn’t go to church with her because she knows that Ying doesn’t approve of this kind of play. Jenny’s fantasy is to be able to “go all around the world. I’d just go find a job, get some money, then go to another state, then another. It would be fun.”
The girls’ attitudes toward jobs and college are ultimately formed by the experiences of their parents. Eunice says that she wants to go to college so that she “can find a good job,” which in her view means one in which “you don’t need to work very hard — like teachers, who don’t have to work as hard as people who work in restaurants. They get home early and have many holidays.” Pauline chimes in with “working in a bank — my mom says it’s a good job.” The girls have never visited their parents’ workplaces, but they have been told of the conditions and warned repeatedly of expecting that kind of future if they don’t study hard enough. “She has to work 24 hours a day — or 18,” says Pauline of her mother’s job in the garment factory. “No, she works from eight to seven,” says Eunice. “It’s boring and hard. And it’s ugly and dirty, with all the material on the floor.” Jenny says she wouldn’t want to work as a seamstress because she doesn’t like to sew, but she concedes that her mother probably doesn’t, either.
YING AND HER DAUGHTERS are engaged in a strained balance of power involving language and culture. The kids know English as well as Cantonese, and thus have access to mainstream American society. They aren’t interested in teaching English to their mother, and she does not ask it of them. When the girls speak English among themselves, Ying is closed out. Ying, however, wants to maintain tight control over her children; she is afraid of losing them to a world with which she cannot communicate. Moreover, they are Ying’s only expression of hope and the future.
But such an acknowledgment would never come from Ying herself, for it has no place in her pragmatic world. She aggressively pursues concrete goals to maintain her family. She talks about being fated to a hard life, but she takes advantage of opportunities that present themselves. It was Ying who found the family’s good apartment through the homesteading project, and she who applied for emigration. (She told Ting An that she and the kids were going to the U.S. — he could join them if he wished.) As the mainstay of the family, Ying tends to its every aspect. She works to bring in money, takes care of the bills, maintains the family’s apartment, directs and disciplines her children. Even her dreams are about being responsible for the care of her family. She entertains no illusions about her husband, their marriage, and his role in the family. “He never has any opinions about anything, and he doesn’t make any decisions,” she says. Sometimes Jenny tires of her mother’s stories about how hard she’s worked for the family, but Ying forges ahead. She describes her philosophy: “As long as I’m honest and do things according to what’s right, I have nothing to be afraid of or to regret.”
She has no sophisticated beliefs, no formulated political ideas, but she seems to have a sense of the limitations inherent in her class as a worker. “There is absolutely no future for people like me,” she says. Still, as strongly as Ying feels about education, she seems unsure of its ultimate value. Sometimes, her attitude is almost Confucian: “Education is not for a good job,” she says. “It’s something for yourself.” At other times, she is less lofty: “Education helps one get a good job. I don’t know enough to know what jobs are good. I guess a good job is a job that pays well.”
When asked about her future, Ying says, “I don’t plan for the future. I deal with what I need to do now.” It’s likely that her daughters, armed with their knowledge of English and at least some education, will move on to mainstream jobs and assimilated lifestyles. Ying will have accomplished her objective. But her own prospects are not as promising, despite some material improvements in her living situation. She left behind a dreary life in China to make her way to this land of opportunity, only to find herself trapped and isolated in Chinatown. ■
Editor’s note: Names and some identifying characteristics in this article have been changed.
Research assistance by Wendy Lau
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 29, 2020