Chinatown Interview: Interviewee
Chinatown Interview: Interviewer
Chinatown Interview: Date
Chinatown Interview: Language
Chinatown Interview: Occupation
Chinatown Interview: Interview (en)
Q: Today is May 21st, and I am sitting with Agnes Wong at #193 Centre Street. Ms. Wong has 30 years of experience working in the garment industry in Chinatown. Let’s start our conversation with Ms. Wong’s background. Where are you from, Ms. Wong?
WONG: I immigrated to America from Hong Kong.
Q: Were you born in Hong Kong?
WONG: I was born in mainland China. When I was about 3 or 4 years old, we came to Hong Kong because my parents were fleeing the Communist Party.
Q: Where in mainland China was that?
WONG: I was born in Guangdong’s Boluo, in mainland China.
Q: So you moved to Hong Kong when you were very young.
WONG: We came to Hong Kong when I was about 3 or 4 because mainland China was going through chaotic political changes, and it was being ruled by the Communist Party. So we came to Hong Kong. I grew up in Hong Kong, studied in Hong Kong, and lots of my relatives had already moved to Hong Kong to live.
Q: What did your parents do in Hong Kong?
WONG: My father helped manage a church. He worked at the church, and my mother was a housewife.
Q: So why did they decide to immigrate to America?
WONG: My parents didn’t immigrate to America. After I finished my education in Hong Kong, I worked for a few years, and by luck I met my husband. Originally, he had known my uncle, and had come to Hong Kong to seek him out. We were lucky in that everyone met each other. I became friends with him. Later, my aunt strongly encouraged us to start dating, and we finally fell in love and got married. Because he came from New York, in America, and had a job, after we got married and had some children, we immigrated to New York.
Q: So your husband had been in New York for a long time?
WONG: He worked in New York with my uncle.
Q: Around what time did they arrive [in New York]?
WONG: They came in the 60s, very early. On the other hand, my children and I came over in 1973, no, it was Easter of 1974 that we came.
Q: Did you work in Hong Kong?
WONG: Yes, I did. I did some different jobs. In the beginning, I was a secretary for a weaving factory, as a counter. Those yarn factories produced lots of yarn every day, and I calculated the workers’ wages, and kept track of how much product they produced each day. Later, the number of factories in Hong Kong increased a bit. The Japanese started establishing factories in Hong Kong, and some electronics factories were created. At that time, one of my classmate’s brothers acted as a trainee in a Japanese electronics factory because he was a good student, and later he advanced up to the position of engineer. I worked for several years at his factory. This brother of my classmate was extremely advanced in electronics, and later on he did a joint venture with the Japanese, opening a factory in China. He did a great business there, and was able to financially establish that business.
Q: So you came to New York on Easter of 1974. At that time, how old were you?
WONG: 27 or 28 years old.
Q: Did you understand English?
WONG: You could say I understood English. I had finished high school and had studied at an English-language academy, a women’s academy.
Q: So as soon as you came to America, you went straight to New York?
WONG: That’s right.
Q: What were your thoughts of New York before coming to America?
WONG: I originally didn’t have any opinions about America, just that I would be changing my surroundings. As soon as I came to New York, I saw that it was a huge city, and that it was prosperous, just like Hong Kong, and that I could study things here, start a new life, a new environment, learn new things, like that.
Q: So your husband was always in New York. Did you ever think of moving to another city, like in California or some other state?
WONG: I never thought about that.
Q: When you first arrived, where did you live?
WONG: When I first arrived, I lived for about a year at #125 Henry Street in Chinatown. I thought the place was pretty small. Later we bought a place to live in Brooklyn.
Q: What were your impressions of Chinatown when you first arrived?
WONG: At that time, I thought that Chinatown was far behind, it wasn’t as advanced as I had imagined, there weren’t as many people and it wasn’t as flourishing. There was work, but it still wasn’t my ideal location. Hee hee!
Q: So it wasn’t what you had imagined.
WONG: It wasn’t the kind of place I had been hoping to find.
Q: What had you imagined America to be like before you came?
WONG: When I was in junior high school, we had an English teacher from Britain. He was also an assemblyman in Hong Kong, and he said: “When you grow up, if you have a chance to go to any cities in America, then go see the Hudson River while you are in New York, and the skyscrapers. You are young enough that, if you have that kind of chance, it would be great to develop in that environment.” Maybe it was what he said, because I thought that if I had the chance, it would be great to develop myself over there. So I had envisioned America as being very advanced, very prosperous, with lots of job opportunities, and that it was a pretty good place. But after I came, I only saw Chinatown, and I realized that it wasn’t the New York I had imagined.
Q: So you didn’t have any chance to see other cities?
WONG: No. Of course, later on I changed my views, and I saw that New York was a very prosperous and advanced place, that it was an economic and fashion capital, that the population and opportunities to travel were all very good, and at that time prices were very cheap and the work opportunities were good, the hours were really good, everything was great. It was just a little bit foreign to me.
At that time I had thought about doing some job for [non-Chinese] Americans, but they didn’t want to accept my diploma. They insisted on a college diploma. Or else they asked if I was a citizen, and how long I had been in America. I went to a number of American jobs and didn’t succeed. But it wasn’t an option to sit around and not work.
I thought about going to study, to increase my knowledge. At that time, Chinatown only had two organizations where you could study. I asked around at both places, but neither seemed to match my level. It was all very basic English, and it didn’t match my level, considering that I had completed Form 4 in Hong Kong. So I didn’t pursue studying at any other school.
Q: How did you start work in the factory?
WONG: A relative of mine on East Broadway opened a garment factory. It’s a little past today’s 888 Restaurant, and he had started the garment factory on the second floor. He said: “If you have free time, how about coming to work at my garment factory?” I said, “But I don’t know sewing, and I have never sewed before in my life!” He said, “You’re this smart, you’ll learn quickly.” I said, “How can I count on sewing to make a living when I don’t even know how to hold a needle! How can I sew?” He said, “You’re fine, you’re fine, you’ll learn quickly.” Later on, I tried it. At that time the working hours were very good. We started at nine and left at six, and if we worked on Saturdays, we earned overtime pay, there were long vacation times, and there was special holiday money on top of it. At the time the standard of living was very low.
Q: But your husband also worked?
WONG: Yes, he was a cook in a restaurant. He was the head chef, and his income was really good. So we were only in Chinatown one year, and then we bought a place in Brooklyn. And at the garment factory, I learned very quickly to make pants, and immediately joined a union. While I was working at the factory, an agent came to the factory and said, “If you work in this profession, you have to join the union.” I said, “OK.”
Q: Why did you want to join the union?
WONG: Because the agent told me, if you’re living in America doing this kind of work, you have to join the union. Once you join the union, the union will protect the workers’ benefits. So all my fellow workers joined, and there was nobody who didn’t join. Just as long as you were a worker or colleague, then you could join, and if you manufactured clothes you joined the union for clothing manufacturers. So I joined the 105 union for clothing workers.
Q: Did you always do sewing?
WONG: I never understood how to cut it, because when the clothing material came, it was already cut into pieces, and Westerners [i.e. non-Chinese] sent it over, and we just did work on that.
Q: Was your boss a Chinese person?
WONG: All of my bosses were Chinese.
Q: So how did you feel about the environment, working in a garment factory?
WONG: Back then, the conditions in the garment factories were passable, but they didn’t provide air conditioning, they had fans. The boss treated the workers well, very friendly. The boss appreciated your feelings. Of course they were good to me, and they were also very good to the average worker. Even outside of the relationship between the employer and the employees, there was a special kind of good feeling. It was great.
Q: So did pretty much all the people working with you join the union?
WONG: 100% joined the union. There was nobody who didn’t join the union. Everyone joined it.
Q: Did the boss like you joining the union?
WONG: He supported it. It was the boss who told the workers to join the union, not the workers who said they wanted to join the union. The boss called for the workers to join the union, saying, “You should join the union. Having a union is good. The union will give you Blue Cross, you’ll get pay if you take days off, and there’s lots of things that are good for you.”
Q: So the boss encouraged you to join?
WONG: Yes, the boss encouraged us to join.
Q: Speaking from the boss’ perspective, did he have to pay you more money after you joined the union?
WONG: Oh, at that time the money for worker’s benefits and protection was partially paid by the employee and partly paid by our boss. But at that time the boss was doing very well, and so the boss was willing to share some of the money with us. He wasn’t stingy, he was happy about it. We produced lots of clothing every day, so he felt he ought to give the workers a share.
Q: How much did you make every week?
WONG: At that time, we worked 36 hours a week, five days a week. We usually didn’t work on Saturdays. At most we’d work 40 hours, because we did piece work, rather than being paid by the hour. If you work by the hour, then in one week you could make 300 to 350 dollars, depending on how much work the boss gives you, all according to the hours worked. But we didn’t have a minimum salary, we didn’t have minimum pay, we got paid according to how much we did.
Q: In your case, were you a fast or slow worker?
WONG: I did piece work, and at that time I was still young, and my hands and feet were fast, so every week I made between 200 and 250 dollars. I was asked by Mr. Wang, a friend of mine who worked in a bank, “Would you like to get a job? You can come work at my bank.” I asked, “How much salary will the bank pay me each week?” He said, “When you first start out, you can make between 150 and 160 dollars a week. I thought, “That’s all? Working in the garment factory is better.”
Q: Was it very difficult working as a seamstress? Your hands, your feet, and sitting while doing all those movements?
WONG: At first I really wasn’t used to it, and so it felt very unpleasant, but because every Friday, after I got my pay, I could buy so much with just fifty dollars, that made me very happy and I didn’t even think it was hard. While I was working I could chat very pleasantly about personal things with my colleagues next to me, and it didn’t seem so difficult, not like at first, when I felt I didn’t understand anything, and wondered how I was going to make it.
Q: But together with your husband, your income was quite good?
WONG: We really had a wealthy lifestyle then. Every month I made over a thousand dollars, and together with my husband, we made about 1400 or 1500 a month. It was really good.
Q: Did you keep doing it, or did you change careers?
WONG: I kept at it. In 1979, I switched to work at the union in Lafayette. That union was different, because at that time a number of the seamstress unions were separate. The seamstress unions included the 23-25 branch, the 105 branch, and the 199 branch. My old branch was the 105, and after I changed work, my union switched from 105 to the 23-25 branch. Now it’s UNITE.
Q: About how many members are in UNITE today?
WONG: UNITE has about, well, nowadays they have only about 1,000 members in Chinatown to be accurate. Before, when they were at their peak, they had about 10,000 members.
Q: Do most of the new immigrants join the union?
WONG: New immigrants go half and half. When they start work at a garment factory, about half join, and about half decide to think about it first, think about whether or not they should join. Because the economic situation is very difficult at first, and they feel they want to save everything they can, they don’t want to pay the union dues. Or they might just want to think it over more clearly, understand whether it has a benefit for them, before making a decision about whether or not to join.
Q: Can anybody join, or do you need to have legal status before you can join?
WONG: Anybody can join, there are no restrictions, and you can join even if you don’t have legal status, because the union protects not just the rights of those with status, but also protects the rights of those without it. A lot of workers nowadays, especially those without legal status, they don’t understand that you can join even without status, and so they don’t dare join the union. They’re afraid of government connections, and they’re afraid of creating trouble. That’s a big mistake. Actually, they are also immigrants. To put it another way, just last week, the members of the union’s political committee met with senators and we presented five demands. The first was a New York Health Plan. The second was a minimum wage, that is, to increase the minimum wage.
Q: [Are you referring to the English phrase] “minimum wage”?
WONG: Yes, the minimum wage. We want it increased from a little over five dollars to seven dollars per hour. The third demand was the “Empire Zone.” If business move from wealthier areas to older communities, then they should gain tax breaks, and this would create a lot more employment opportunities.
Q: How much is the monthly union membership fee?
WONG: The monthly membership dues are $23.20, and the dues for a half year are $139.20. Each time people pay the union dues, I write down how much they paid. I pay half a year at a time, but some people prefer to pay every month.
Q: You said that people without legal status in this country fear that if they join the union then the government will come and look for them?
WONG: Actually, it’s not like that. Actually, if someone without status joins the union, then the union will demand on their behalf that the government pass laws, that they should change the laws, saying that new immigrants to America are also living and spending here, and that we wish the government will pass a law that allows them to gain legal status, to gain a green card or temporary residency which they can later change to a green card. We are also constantly meeting with congressmen to discuss these issues. You know how it is with making laws -- you need many years of demands and battles before you can “reap the rewards.” Like right now, the battle for children’s health insurance, it’s been a matter of going to representatives and senators many times, calling upon them and repeatedly making requests, before we finally got a result.
Q: You said that one of your demands to Washington is an increase in the minimum wage. Do you fear that right now -- so many of the garment factories in Chinatown have already closed because they can’t compete with the labor in third world countries like China, because it’s so cheap there – do you think that if you raise the salary of the American worker, these factories might not be able to continue existing, and that the opportunities to work will decrease even further?
WONG: This is also a problem, because frankly, the workers’ salaries in China are very low. Most businessmen look for cheap labor, in order to reduce their costs. In America, labor is expensive, and it’s impossible to deny that we lose some work opportunities. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue in this line of work, that they can’t operate any more. The ones that want to leave have already left. But New York still needs some garment factories producing here in New York. It seems that some seasonal clothing needs to be sent to market quickly, and sometimes things produced abroad aren’t up to standard and can’t be sent back to China to be fixed. Sending it back and forth costs a lot of time, so they have it done right away in New York. So the garment factories still have a future, they can still make it. If you say that the high wages in New York will impact the garment industry, well, lots of American cities have wages higher than those in New York. Why does New York have such a high cost of living, rent, food, phone, gas, everything all together, and I’ve also heard that after Labor Day, it’s going to get even more expensive. And the wages are always low, and don’t match the cost of living, and if it can’t match the cost of living, people will all move to other places; if people move to other places, there are no workers, and there’s no businesses, and without business, there’s no work, so where will the business opportunities come from? Where will the businessmen and their businesses come from? New York is a place where people are clustered together, so it’s easy to find workers. If people are looking for workers, it’s easy to find them in New York. And actually, it’s also easy to find work in New York, especially manual labor or low-level work. It’s much easier to find that. A lot of organizations and such don’t even ask you if you have legal status when they’re looking for workers, and they’re willing to hire you. This is a great benefit for those who have just arrived in this country.
Q: When 9/11 took place, you were still working in Chinatown?
Q: Then did 9/11 influence your factory?
WONG: Yes, the impact was huge. The factory simply didn’t have any clothing materials coming in, because the vehicles weren’t allowed into New York. They weren’t allowed in. The workers had already cut the fabric but they couldn’t send in the clothing material. We stopped work, and only collected unemployment.
Q: How long did you stop work?
WONG: For 3 months.
Q: So at that time, you didn’t have any income at all?
WONG: We didn’t have any income at all. We just collected unemployment.
Q: Did you collect any of the 9/11 economic assistance money?
WONG: Personally, I didn’t go get any. A lot of my colleagues went to apply, because after 9/11 there were many months, about 3 or 4 months when there was no work, and later, when the factories opened, there was still very little work to do. They would typically be open only one or two days a week. A lot of time they were just sitting doing nothing, and whenever a small order arrived, they immediately began production. You couldn’t do anything about it. You just sat there not doing anything for so long, and so when I saw that there were things to study, I went and signed up for them, for the 9/11 courses. I studied computers and English.
Q: Why didn’t you go apply for some of the economic assistance?
WONG: I thought, since I immigrated to this place a lot earlier, I thought that I could get by. If I could support myself financially, then don’t worry about it, and just leave this opportunity to others. Maybe there are some people who have just arrived and don’t have any economic foundation and need to pay rent, and who have young children. They should try to get help, and if the factories aren’t open then they don’t have any income. As far as we go, we already have our own home, we worked for many years, and we could get by and survive, so we didn’t feel like going to too much trouble. So I didn’t seek anything of the economic nature [i.e. economic assistance]. Later on I saw that a lot of people were taking courses, and other coworkers said to me, “Why don’t you go study? You can go study, and it won’t affect anything else.” So I went and studied the final group of classes, it turned out to be the last one.
Q: When was that?
WONG: In July or August of 2003, I finally went to study, and altogether I studied about 6 weeks.
Q: I heard people say that the classes were for 13 weeks.
WONG: I studied for 6 weeks, then studied again for 6 weeks, and the entire length of time was 13 weeks.
Q: What did you choose to study?
WONG: I choose computers and English.
Q: Why did you study English? I see that your English is already very fluent, isn’t it?
WONG: No, my English is of no use. Lots of times I can’t express what I want to say. Lots of times I have to think about it first, and I often need to ask someone good at English to help me, ask them “Is this the right way to say something? Is that OK?” I finally force myself to express a little of my thoughts, but my English isn’t that good.
Q: Then do you feel that 13 weeks of classes were useful?
WONG: They were very useful. First I learned some simple computer functions, and learned a little English. They taught very simple superficial stuff, so we couldn’t learn a lot.
Q: Where did you study?
WONG: I studied at City Hall.
Q: And which organization arranged it?
WONG: I’m not really clear on which organization it was. I think they said it was the 9/11 Fund.
Q: And did you see information about it in the newspaper?
WONG: No. One of my coworkers was studying there, and introduced me. I think they said it was the 9/11…
Q: What kind of people were most of the teachers?
WONG: The majority was White, but there were also one or two Chinese. They were Taiwanese students, studying in the university here.
Q: Do you think they understood your circumstances?
WONG: They all understood really well. During classes they asked us some questions, and my colleagues all answered very honestly.
Q: Do you think that those 13 weeks of studying were useful, outside of getting a little money?
WONG: Of course it was useful. My fellow workers had spent their whole lives without ever studying, and they didn’t even know the alphabet. After studying for 13 weeks, at a minimum they could write their own names, their address, to say their own address and where they work, their phone number, and so on.
Q: You learned very basic English, so it wasn’t useful to your work…?
WONG: I think that it was useful to me personally.
Q: So it wasn’t useful towards your work, but it was useful to you personally. Have you ever thought of changing careers?
WONG: Up until now, I have never thought about changing careers.
Q: Is that because you feel that you are too old and no longer have that chance, or is it because you like your work now?
WONG: I still like the sewing work that I do now, and that’s one reason. The second reason is because I’m older. Going to look for work when you’ve already reached the age of retirement – people will want to use someone younger, they won’t consider using someone who’s about to retire. So I didn’t think about changing careers.
Q: And your factory closed for four months, is that right?
Q: And later, did it return to normal?
WONG: Later the factory was continuously open. Recently it’s become a bit busier.
Q: And have you always worked at the same company?
WONG: No. During my time I’ve changed garment factories many times, and during these decades the change has been huge. I’ve worked in about four or five factories. I’ve had a good, friendly relationship with every boss. When some bosses stopped [running the factories] and took up some other business, they were succeeded in the management by their children.
Q: And do you hope that your children will follow you in this career?
WONG: Of course not. But I have two sons who are working in the restaurant business, but they’re not doing it in New York, they’re working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Q: What do you think is the biggest change in Chinatown?
WONG: The biggest change is the change in population. Back then, rent in Chinatown was really cheap. The rent in 1974 was 120 dollars, and that was for a place with two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom, even though the rooms weren’t that big. Back then I rented a place for 135 dollars, and then after a year the price was raised to 150 dollars. The monthly rent for a place with two rooms or more reached 180 dollars, and nowadays of course, it is many times more than that. Back then, there weren’t so many people selling vegetables and groceries on the roadsides. Back then everything was sold inside stores. There weren’t so many teahouses and restaurants, not to mention the great extent to which it has expanded, Chinatown has expanded as far as Delancey. Few people went that far, even Bowery, some workers selling jewelry there, at night they didn’t want to go by, they were afraid to go past there, and some workers said, “Hey, don’t go there, those non-Chinese will grab you, there’s people who drive cars to come and grab you and take you away!” Back then the women really knew nothing. They told these stories and got so scared!
Q: You’ve been here for such a long time. Are you satisfied with your life here?
WONG: Oh…. I think that I didn’t make the wrong choice. I think that in America, especially life in New York -- New York is a place with very convenient transportation. I can have a car, but also I have the freedom to not have a car, because public transportation goes everywhere. As far as family life goes, personally, I have a home, I live very comfortably, because I entered a career in the sewing union, and at the union I’ve constantly been learning new things, met a lot of friends, and I’ve learned a lot from my friends, the school and from my union organization during the summer. I’ve participated in lots of different activities, I joined the Chinese Labor Union of Women, the Asian Pacific Association of Labor Alliance, the worker’s organization, and I’ve also joined some political activities. I really like listening to other people talk. I think when I was younger I wanted to study more but didn’t have the chance. After coming to New York and entering a career as a seamstress, joining the union allowed me to take lots of different classes. Even though I spent quite a bit of money and time, my knowledge of society has increased a lot. So I am very satisfied, and I feel very happy.
Before I arrived, I had thought that once I got old I would go back to Hong Kong and live out my life there. However, my siblings now tell me, “Hong Kong housing prices are very low now, so go back! In America, housing prices have become very expensive, so if you sold your place and went back there to live, you could retire already.” No way, I answered, I want to return to New York to live. At that time, when I was on the airplane going on vacation, I heard the song, “New York, New York, I love New York.” I really liked it. When I came back here, I felt that this is really my home, and I’ve already got lots of friends here.
Q: Thank you very much. You told us so many of your stories and experiences in Chinatown.
WONG: Thank you very much, Ms. Lan, you’re too kind to me.
Q: Thank you very much, Ms. Wong.
WONG: Thank you.
[end of session]
Chinatown Interview: Interview (zh)
<p>王：我有位親戚在East Broadway(東百老匯)開衣廠的，在現在的怡東酒樓再過去一點，在二樓開衣廠，他說：「你有空，不如到我的衣廠做工。」我說：「我不懂車衣，從來未車過衣的！」他說：「你這麼聰明，一學就會。」我說：「我怎可靠車衣揾食，我甚至連拿針都不懂，怎麼會車衣呢？」他說：「行行行，你很快會學會。」後來即便試一試。當時工作時間都很好，返九時，放六時，星期六開工有overtime pay(超時工資)補薪，有大假期，有特別的假期錢加上去，當時生活水平很低。</p>
提出五項要求。第一項是New York Health Plan，第二項是最低工資，增加最低工資。</p>
<p>王：對，Minimum Wage。由5元多加至7元多。第三是，將Empire Zone(帝國轄區)，如商業從旺區搬到舊區，可獲稅務減免，製造更多就業機會。</p>
<p> 問：你說其中一個要求華盛頓的，是增加minimum wage (最低工資)，你怕不怕因為現在在唐人街很多車衣都關閉，因為不能和第三世界國家的人工相比，如中國等，那些國家太便宜，你覺不覺得如提高美國工人薪金，這些工廠不能生存下法，工作機會還會更少呢？</p>
以前我未來時，我想我老了要返回香港養老，但現在我的兄弟姐妹說：「現在香港的樓平，你回來吧！美國的樓咁值錢，如果你賣了樓回來住，你可以退休了。」我說不行，我要回來紐約住。當我去旅行時，在飛機聽見，「紐約，紐約，I Love New York(我愛紐約)。」我很喜歡。回到這裡，我覺得這是真正的家，現在已經有很多朋友在這裡。</p>
<p>王：Thank you. </p>