September 11 Digital Archive

Winifred C. Chin


Winifred C. Chin



Media Type


Chinatown Interview: Interviewee

Winifred C. Chin

Chinatown Interview: Interviewer

Lan Trinh

Chinatown Interview: Date


Chinatown Interview: Language


Chinatown Interview: Occupation

writer/garment union

Chinatown Interview: Interview (en)

Q: Today is January 8th, 2004. I am sitting in the Brooklyn, in the home of Winifred. Just for the record, would you tell us your full name?

Chin: My name is Winifred Chun-Hing Chin, and I am a visiting scholar with NYU, Asian-Pacific-American Studies Program. And I also am an adjunct assistant professor at NYU for Far Eastern Civilizations.

Q: Okay, we’re going to start in reverse, and go back to your childhood, and if you could just tell me where you were born, and where your parents came from.

Chin: I was born in Brooklyn, and spent most of my life in Brooklyn. My parents are from China, my mother from Hong Kong, and my father from Guangzhou, in China, in Guongdong Province.

Q: And when did they come to America?

Chin: My father came in 1934. He was a paper son, as described in the book Paper Son, and he went back to China, he went back to Hong Kong in 1949 and married my mother, and my mother came in 1950, and they settled in Brooklyn.

Q: And why did they choose to come to New York?

Chin: Well, my father came first because the situation in China was economically very poor. And at that time it was still the exclusion era, south China, the south China economy was failing, and like other people who wanted to make a better life for themselves and to be able to send money back home, he came to America. With my mother, my mother, in her case, she came from a very well-to-do family in Hong Kong, but during the Japanese occupation they lost everything, so right after the war, her parents were eager to marry off as many daughters as they could, and in her case it was three daughters and four sons in her family, so two of the daughters were quickly married to Gold Mountain, Chinese-Americans, so she came here for that reason.

Q: And how did you father come to America?

Chin: He was a paper son, which means that he purchased a paper, saying that he was the son of a Chinese-born American---I’m sorry, he was the son of a American-born Chinese. And there’s a whole history about these, which is in my book, Paper Son. And basically it started off in the exclusion era, which was between 1882 and 1943, there were Chinese people here in the mid-1800s working on the railroads, but soon after that, the American government for economic, for racial reasons, decided they did not want any Chinese-Amer----Chinese in America anymore.

So there were some Chinese who were already here, and had children here, and these were native born Americans. When you are American-born, you can go anywhere in the world and still bring your child to America, even if your child was born somewhere else. So these native-born Americans, who were Chinese, were your first generation of American-born Chinese. They were not allowed, by the same laws, by the exclusion laws, they were not allowed to marry outside of their race. So if they wanted to marry at that time, they had to go back to China, they married. And because they were born in America they could come here, whereas other Chinese people could not. Meaning they could not bring their wives here.

The paper son started with that situation. They would go to China, get married, come back to America, and nine months later report that they had children, a son usually, and the government would issue a paper for the son to come over, because by virtue of being a son of a native-born American, that son can come, whereas the wife cannot. So those papers, designating this child to be the son of XYZ American-born Chinese, was able to come, but instead of bringing the son over, and there was really no way that the government knew whether or not you had a son, you would just sell that paper in the open market, in the black market, and anyone who wanted to come to America waited eighteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years, came over, by purchasing that paper.

And when you purchased that paper you memorized everything. You said, I am the son of so-and-so, who was born in America, my mother was born in China, I was born on such-and-such a date. You memorized all this information, and when you passed through immigration, if you answered all the questions correctly, they would say, “Okay, you are that person,” and you were an American citizen. And these were called “paper sons,” and my father was a paper son.

Q: So your father purchased one of these papers?

Chin: Yes.

Q: Okay, so your grandparents were not Chinese in America at the time. Your father was the first generation to come to America.

Chin: Yes.

Q: So when he first came was 1930, you said?

Chin: 1934.

Q: 1934. And how old was he at the time?

Chin: According to his paper, because he had to come under the pretense of a different person, he had to pretend that he was this person that the paper said he was. So according to the paper, he was nineteen years old.

Q: But you don’t know---

Chin: We don’t really know how old he was.

Q: And then how long did he stay here before he went back to marry your mother?

Chin: He, well he went back in 1949. He was in the U.S. Navy. I have pictures of that, if you’d like.

Q: We could show that, later on, if we get to that.

So your father went, just lived in America by himself, between the age of, supposedly nineteen, until 1949 when he went back to Hong Kong----

Chin: Well, he had his friends that he knew from the village. From his village in China. And it was more than just living by himself here. You know, in those days, in the ‘30s, because during the exclusion era, women were not----Chinese women were not allowed to come here, even if you married them, they had to stay in China. Chinatown was basically a bachelor community at that time. So he had the support, I guess you might say, of the community, and so, and he, they always, for the most part they came from the Toisan village, and they knew each other, so they were distant cousins, or they called each other cousins and so he had family support in that sense.

Q: I’m sorry, did you say, “from the Toisan village”?

Chin: Right, Toisan.

Q: Okay, so then he went back to Hong Kong, where your mother is from, and they met there—

Chin: Right.

Q: And was it difficult for him to get your mother to come back to America?

Chin: No. I imagine that if it were earlier, it would have been difficult. But because my mother was from a very prominent family. Her father was an English teacher, and her mother was a mid- wife. The family owned a car, went to private schools. So it was very, it was very affluent in those days. But after the war, they had lost everything, and coming to America seemed like the ideal place to be.

Q: What do you think they expect, coming to America?

Chin: Most people who come to America think that America is streets paved with gold. You know, we call it in Chinese “Gold Mountain,” basically because in the days of ’49, 1849, there was gold discovered in the mountains out west. So there’s this concept, there’s this idea that you come to America, and gold is to be found everywhere.

My father had warned her in advance that coming to America was not Gold Mountain, that it would be laundry work, he would not require her to do much, but that, but don’t expect a silver palace.

Q: But yet your mother accepted that, having come from an affluent background?

Chin: She accepted it because they lost everything during the war. And what money they had left---every, the Japanese took everything of value, the car, the----

[another voice noting background noise problems, cross talk about the recording]

Q: So in 1949 your father went back to Hong Kong to marry your mother and take her back to America. Did you mother have any objections to coming to a place where it was going to be a lot of hard work?

Chin: She didn’t object basically because there was nothing in Hong Kong for her. The Japanese had taken everything, anything of value, and what money there was was reserved for the boys in the family to go to school. Her brother, her older brother became a doctor. Another became a pharmacist, a younger sister who was more pampered than the older sisters became a nurse, and so, there was really nothing for the older girls. And my mother was the third oldest in the family, so she looked forward to coming, and she knew that it would be hard work, and she thought that it was a better future than if she stayed in Hong Kong anyway.

Q: And did both of your parents speak English at this time?

Chin: No. My father knew a little. My mother knew a little because her father taught English, but they were not fluent. They could not get jobs in mainstream American society.

Q: So, as a young couple in a foreign land, where did they go when they first arrived in New York City?

Chin: They lived in Chinatown, because my mother’s older sister had already married a Gold Mountain man, so they lived in Chinatown for awhile, and then they moved to Brooklyn.

Q: Why did they do that? Why did they not choose to stay in Chinatown?

Chin: My father knew about Chinatown since 1934. Well, actually since 1936. He arrived in ’34 in Boston, but he was in New York’s Chinatown by ’36, and he knew about the gang wars. He knew about the Tongs, and he didn’t want us to grow up in Chinatown, in that type of community.

Q: So when were you born, if you don’t mind my asking?


Chin: I was born in 1952.

Q: In Brooklyn.

Chin: Yes.

Q: Where in Brooklyn?

Chin: In Bushwick.

Q: Oh, okay. Okay. So describe for us your childhood in Brooklyn. Was there a lot of Chinese where you grew up at the time? Did you feel, strange, or different?

Chin: There were virtually no Chinese in Bushwick. We had about two families, within---I remember one family called the Wongs, and that story is also in the book, Paper Son, they lived about a block and half away from us, and another family a few blocks away from us. And that was it for the Chinese families. There was one Japanese family.

Most of the Chinese families that lived in Brooklyn had a life such that it was a routine to go to New York’s Chinatown, every Sunday. My father’s laundry was open seven---six days a week, and on Sunday we went into Chinatown. By the time he learned English he became interpreter at the True Light Lutheran Church on Worth Street in Chinatown. So that was our social life; in the fifties in Brooklyn we were very sheltered. You know. Of course, that had to do with the era, too, it was the era of McCarthyism, and we were Chinese and it was not very popular then, to be Chinese, so we led very isolated lives, except for---socially---except for one day a week going to Chinatown, and we would go to Church, and then afterwards we’d go visit people.

Sometimes we went to my mother’s shop, during the summertime when we had no school.

Q: Regarding school, what was that like, being one of very few Asian kids? Were you outcast, were you treated in any different way?

Chin: No, essentially, a lot of fun [laughs]. We were very, we were different. And I think at that time Asians had a very, we were known for being very diligent, very studious. My brother and I did very well in school, and, you know, we always ended up teachers’ pets, and there was no outcast---none of that at all. You know, we were well-received.

Q: So your parents never at any point considered moving back to Hong Kong or going back to China.

Chin: No. No. My father, in fact, never even went back for a visit, since 1934. He hadn’t left the country except during World War II, when he was in the U.S. Navy. Never went to China. He always said that he would, he wanted to show me his old village, but he never did. And my mother has only one sister left in Hong Kong. She, my mother has gone back about three or four times, to Hong Kong, and she also went to China on a tour, a three-week tour of China. But, um, she has never considered moving back there permanently, to retire.

Q: So, growing up, your father, early on opened a laundry shop?

Chin: Yes.

Q: And what did you mother do at this time?

Chin: Ah, when I was three—but by 1955, when my brother was five and and I was three, she started work at the shops, at the sweatshops in Chinatown, the garment factories. She had learned from women in church that there is work in Chinatown, and so once my brother started school, she would take my brother to school, which was conveniently next to the subway station, and then she would just go onto the subway and go to Chinatown to work. And I was three, and I stayed home with my father at the laundry.

Q: Did your mother work in Hong Kong?

Chin: No.

Q: So this was her first job.

Chin: That was her first job.

Q: So you grew up in a laundrymat---

Chin: Yes.

Q: What was that like?

Chin: Well, you know, when you’re a child, you don’t realize any difference. Ah, it, you know, we just thought that ah, you know, we had known other Chinese children who grew up in the back of laundries, so that was perfectly normal. We knew that other people had stores. I mean, there, in Bushwick, there were a whole street of storefront buildings with two flights above, and you know, one Italian family that we were very close with, or very friendly with, you know, ran a grocery store in the front and lived in the back. Next door was a candy store, and they lived in the back and also one flight above.

So I don’t think we---you know, meaning my brother and I---thought that it was unusual. It was---our laundry was another store.

Q: So you didn’t compare yourself to, say, your Caucasian-American friends, and say, “Well, why am I in the back room of a laundrymat?”

Chin: No, cause they were in the back of a grocery [laughter]. No, we didn’t do that. It was a working class neighborhood, Italians, Irish, and so everybody---some of our best friends lived in the back of stores.

Q: Where was your father’s shop located?

Chin: In Bushwick.

Q: Oh, it was in Bushwick. Okay. So your mother worked in Chinatown, took your brother to school there----

Chin: Right.

Q: And then---

Chin: Took my brother to school in Brooklyn, and then went on the train to Chinatown.

Q: Now, was she a trained---

Chin: Seamstress?

Q: Seamstress, before?

Chin: No, she learned on the job.

Q: Why did she choose to be a seamstress?

Chin: That was one of the few jobs open to women. You know, it was---it’s also, it’s very interesting because it was also very, it was a growth---you know, the Chinatown garment industry was growing at that time, and it starts with, you know, the garment shops used to be in midtown in the twenties where FIT is, Fashion Institute, and they were being, the rent was going up, it was in the city, so they, the bosses of those shops decided to look for cheaper space downtown, meaning Chinatown. Chinatown was cheap at that time.

So they opened up, they set up shops in Chinatown, in the ‘50s, and that was when my mother found out about them, and they advertised for Chinese women who were, who after the war were allowed to come and join their husbands, and then, you know, these Chinese women would work in the shops, but, then of course they still---You know, Chinese women, as most women, always sewed for their own children at home, so it was not, you know, it was something that they probably knew how to do, you know, instinctively. Now they did it in shops for other people to sell. Because they still had to cook---you know, even though they sewed outside of the home rather than inside the home. So, after they sewed, they still had to shop, so you need grocery stores, and then your Chinese community started building up. You know, before it was basically a bachelors’ community.

Q: Alright, give me a sense of your, kind of Chinese-slash-American life. At home, what language did you speak?

Chin: We speak Chinese.

Q: You spoke Cantonese at home?

Chin: Yes.

Q: And then, outside, obviously you spoke English, so you never spoke English at home?

Chin: No.

Q: Was that something that your parents tried to enforce?

Chin: Yes. My father thought that we should know Chinese. Again, this is during the ‘50s, the McCarthy era, when the government was focusing on Chinese people who may be Communist. You know, my father was one of the people who may have been deported, for his writing. And he thought that if we ever were deported, it’s best to know your language, too. So, we, for awhile we weren’t sure if we were going to be deported, so if we ever went back to China, it would be an advantage, to our advantage to know the language.

Q: Was that common at the time, because I meet so many Chinese-Americans, who really don’t speak Chinese at all.

Chin: I meet a lot of them who don’t speak Chinese, also. Most of the people I know who don’t speak Chinese wonder why their parents never taught them. [laughs] I guess it’s the home education, home values.

Q: So on weekends you went to Chinatown, you said. Give us a sense, a flavor of Chinatown at the time. How big was the community, and was there a sense of a Chinese community in Chinatown at the time?

Chin: Yes. There was a---it was much more vibrant than it is now. You know, you had a lot of children---I mean, you have children now, but it was a developing community, and that’s what made it different. Because the ‘50s, you know, before the ‘50s you didn’t have that Chinatown, you had a bachelor community. You know, that was the exclusion era. You know, women were not---Chinese people weren’t allowed to come. If they came, if they married back home, they weren’t allowed to bring their wives. So by the ‘50s, you had little children running around, and it was very different.

Q: And did everybody seem to get along, the Chinese, the Italians, and other different immigrants?

Chin: I don’t recall the Italians. It wasn’t until much later, in the ‘70s, that Chinatown expanded to Little Italy. And of course there were turf wars because of it. But back in the ‘50s, Chinatown was very small, very----You know, my mother would bring us there. Sometimes she would shop and tell us to sit on the stoop, and she would go shopping, and we would just sit there and play with the other kids who were sitting there. And she could come back an hour later and we would still be there. I don’t think mothers do that anymore.

So you have that type of thing. And of course this was also before the gang wars heightened. You know, by 1965 the immigration laws changed, and so you had a lot of gang, a lot more gang wars, and it was just a totally different scene from when everything seemed very ideal.

Q: So give us an idea of the working conditions of the sweatshops at the time. So, how many do you think were around at that time, when your mother worked?

Chin: In the ‘50s, there were probably in the teens. Less than, less than twenty in the ‘50s.

Q: And the owners were mostly Chinese?

Chin: Ah, Jewish, some were Chinese. I’m not sure what the breakdown is, but there were very few because it just started. You know, these shops were closed in the twenties along the, in the midtown, and they had just moved to Chinatown, so everything was new and there weren’t that many. It was by piecework. So you were paid for your output. And it was very, ah, it was survival of the fittest. So if you didn’t produce and the boss saw that, you know, well, what are you doing sitting at the sewing machine, I can give it to someone who can produce more. So if you were old, or you didn’t learn as quickly, you lost your place at the sewing machine, you got kicked out.

Q: So what could your mother make, on average, a day?

Chin: A day? Ah, not much, probably seven, ten dollars a week. At that time. You know, in the ‘50s.

Q: So, that plus your father’s laundry business was enough to give your family a comfortable living, or---

Chin: Not comfortable, minimal. But, you know, we were rich in other ways, though, you know. You know, we learned Chinese, which a lot of others, other Chinese-Americans didn’t. We have a richer Chinese heritage. In that sense we were almost, more than comfortable. But financially, our physical comforts were not that great.

Q: Was your mother glad to have to work, or was it a very difficult job, something she enjoyed at all?

Chin: I think it got her away from the house, and she liked that. I can imagine going crazy in the back of a laundry with two kids. So I think she, and I know she was definitely glad to have the extra money to buy things, to buy toys for us and little extra things for herself.

Q: So how many hours a day would she work?

Chin: At that time, the shops were open like twelve, fifteen hours a day. She didn’t work---she would leave early in the morning when she took my brother to school, and then she would come back many times after I was asleep. And then at one point she stopped because I didn’t know who she was. [laughs]

Q: Wow. Do you look back and feel like you missed a lot of time with your mother, or do you---

Chin: I probably missed a lot of time with her, but I had a very good relationship with my father, and, you know, Paper Son is based on my father’s story. We wrote the book together, you know, I published it after he died, but---so, you know, I missed one parent, but I had a relationship with my other, with my father, and since my father died my mother and I have been much closer.

Q: I know that you’ve done a lot of studies and work on the garment union in Chinatown, so give us kind of a background of how this came about, how was the union formed?

Chin: Well, as I said earlier, the shops didn’t move into Chinatown until the 50s, when they were being priced out of midtown, and there were probably only about twenty, less then twenty, throughout the ‘50s. In the ‘60s, they gradually grew because families were allowed to come over, but the major change was in ’65 when the change in immigration laws took place, and then you had mass immigration. But the shops themselves started to get organized by ’55, probably, the first shop probably started in ’53 or ’54, and by ’55 the union, who was then under Jay Mazur, who was assistant manager of Local 23-25, and that local was mostly Chinese, mostly Chinese at that time. He was the one that started a Chinese newsletter. He had to hire someone from San Francisco to do the newsletter by hand. They broadcast by radio into the shops. Everything they had in English they had to translate into Chinese, to let Chinese workers be aware that there were benefits to be had as workers. And that started in the ‘50s.

My mother joined the union herself in ’57. So basically they went out on an all-out campaign to notify Chinese workers, sending representatives into the shops to tell workers that the union is there, you pay a fee, and you’ll get medical coverage, you’ll get, you know, holidays, vacations, and since my mother knew a little English, she was able to help interpret for the representatives who came up. They call them “business agents” now, when you’re in charge of that specific shop. They had a different term for them before.

Q: Was there any threats from, say, the shop owners to tell the workers not to join the union, was there any pressure?

Chin: In the beginning there weren’t, but I think when the shop owners realized that they also had to pay part of the benefits, like if Social Security, not Social Security, well, yeah, Social Security, if it was reported pay rather than cash, you know, if the worker earned retirement FICA, then the shop owner, the employer also had to pay part of it, and not only to the government in the taxes, but also to the union, the union medical benefits.

And at one point, at a certain point, when they got tired of paying these things, then they started telling the workers, “Oh, don’t join the union, they just want to take your money.” And so, there was conflict, which was what led to the rally in 1982, that mass strike in Chinatown.

In fact, this is one of the early pictures.

Q: Which one is your mother? Can you point to her?

Chin: This is my mother. This is probably early ‘70s.

Q: And what is your mother’s full name?


Chin: Wing Fong Chin. And she was the shop representative, which meant that she helped her colleagues to, to get union, to fill out papers, if they had to pay union dues, she collected all the dues, she was willing to make the trip uptown, or not uptown, to midtown, and she helped them to get all the paperwork done, because most of her colleagues didn’t speak a word, and she didn’t speak that much, but she knew enough to help out.

Q: So was it role that she volunteered for, or kind of just----

Chin: My mother, you know, in 1955, and when she started work, she was probably, well, she was in her mid-twenties, mid- to late-twenties, so in today’s words, she was a, what do you call it, she was ambitious. She was young. And so, she was anxious to make more money. And so, by piecework, you know, that means that if you are sewing one strap, they might give you a penny. But if she found that another shop gave you two pennies, you know, for sewing one, then she would go to this other shop, and because there were so few shops at that time, you know, within the year or two she had covered all the shops. So you had these union representatives coming to the shops, telling workers, “Join the union, you’ll get more benefits, you’ll get medical, and vacation and sick pay.” So every shop they went to, eventually they saw my mother’s face, and they offered her the role of being shop representative. And so she would bring the problems of the shop to the union.

Q: Did you mother formally study English after she came to America?

Chin: No. She learned some on the job. She would make speeches for the union, and of course the union would write them out for her, she rehearsed them, she learned from there----a lot of times she relied on me, and I would look over the speech, tell her what it says, and if there was something wrong, she would say, “Oh, no,” and she would correct it.

So she learned on the job again. Like her sewing.

Q: So what were the major conflicts at the time, between the union, the workers, and the shop owners? I know you talked about it briefly a little while ago, but what was the union aiming, what was their goal?

Chin: The union---the goal of the union was for better working conditions. You know, these women worked from seven o’clock in the morning---my mother did not, but she knew that the shops were open at seven in the morning, and women who lived in Chinatown would be there at seven in the morning, working there until midnight.

Q: But that was because of the shop owners demanded that, or because you get paid piece, and therefore the more you work----

Chin: You got paid by piece. Right. It was very incentive-oriented. The more you worked, the more you got paid.

Q: And because the pay was so low, therefore everybody had to work so much, so long, to get a certain amount of money.

Chin: And the union, one of the goals of the union was to set a minimum wage, so that, you know, that piece work, being paid by piece work is demoralizing. You know, this is what you’re worth, you can sew twenty straps, here’s twenty cents. Whereas the union tried to follow American labor standards, with a minimum wage, with a nine-to-five. It was, you know, they had punch cards---time cards rather, where they punched in and out. Ah, they wanted to---and they would check. You know, if the union signed up members there, then the shop, also had to join. You know, if you were a union member you could not work for a non-union shop. And so the boss had to pay dues, too. And the workers were---and so the boss and the workers were unionized, and the bosses were required, they were expected rather, to keep their part of the agreement, you know, that there would be a minimum wage, there would be nine-to-five, you know, workers clock in, clock out, that they would get their holiday pays, their sick pays, and certain other benefits which have changed and increased over the years.

Q: So at what point did you mother switch over from a piece-by-piece payment to getting an hourly minimum wage?

Chin: That is something that in theory happened, I don’t know when, but in practice never did happen. Even now you find piece work, so---there was, there were time cards and I remember as a child when we were on vacation from school we would go to the factory with my mother, and there would be these punch, time cards with the time machines, and we would go there early in the morning, and my mother would start working immediately. Come nine o’clock the boss would tell the kids, “Okay, punch in your mother’s---“ and everybody punched in their mother’s. Five o’clock we punched everybody out, and then everybody just continued working anyway. And then, they got paid by the piece, they worked the longer hours, got paid a little more, and when the union officials reviewed the time cards and how much you got paid, and they say, “Gee, you worked nine to five, how come you only got, how come you got so little?” Then the worker would---you know, they would spot check, they didn’t check everybody. But then the worker who happened to be picked would just say, “Well, I left in the middle of the day, I didn’t really do nine to five, I had to leave to pick up my son because he was sick,” and they, you know, they made excuses for that.

They never, in practice, it never was minimum wage.

Q: So your mother accepted that, even though she was a union member, kind of went along with the system, seems like everybody went along with the system, and one way to please a union as well as to have a little bit more benefit than to not belong in the union----

Chin: Right, because there were benefits, you know, when you come in, you know, most of these women are from the countryside. They were not from Hong Kong for the most part, they were from agricultural, from the country where they worked the fields. You know, to have a, to have shoes, not to be barefoot in working the fields in the country, to have a sewing machine in front of you, was already progress.

The concept of unions is not something inherently Chinese. So, joining the union, minimum wage didn’t mean anything to the women either. I don’t---I’m not sure that many of them really understood it. But they knew that they were getting health benefits. What could be greater than that? They got some vacation pay. And so, a lot of the women never really, ah, never really complained about the piecework.

Q: But what did it mean for your mother, and your family? Did it make a difference for your livelihood?

Chin: We had, I guess at that stage we had extra toys. You know. You know, there are people who say that it was child labor---another thing that the union did not permit was for children to be in the shop because there were machines, and you can very easily hurt yourself. Some girls came up with their mothers and they helped them sew. I helped my mother sew a few times. When she made these suspenders, these straps, she fed them through a tube and inverted them, and we helped her in that way, and, but that was called child labor also.

But, you know, when you’re eight, ten years old, you don’t think of it. We would help everybody, to make more money. And if we---we had this game, that, you know, let’s see who can invert more straps, to turn them right side out. And, you know, it was a game to us. And then if the union happened to knock on the doors, we all rushed into the bathroom. In one case we were all sent down the fire escape. [laughs]

Q: And did you, at any point, think that the working conditions your mother worked under were appalling, or bad, or----

Chin: You know, it never occurred. But you know, children, again, go through such circumstances that they don’t, their resilience is so strong they don’t think that it’s bad. You know, even when I look back, I remember doing some of that work, but I never thought of it as child labor. You know, especially in the Chinatown shops, you know, if I were in South America working twelve hours, and that twelve hours, like some South American children do, in Ecuador, in Mexico, where American garments are exported to be made now, that is real child labor. But what we were doing, was, was a game. But the union did consider it unhealthy for us to be there, for children to be there.

Q: And even after acquiring more English skills, your mother never thought of switching fields, or your father, also?

Chin: No. My father worked in a laundry all his life. But, you know, he was a writer. He wrote poetry. He published. He had other things in mind. And when business was slow, he would write, he would read, so he was never---he was motivated to write, he’s published hundreds of poems in Chinese. Some of them are translated in the book, Paper Son, but he was never motivated to learn English to get, just to get a better job. You know, he knew his language, he worked with his language, and he was good in it.

Same with my mother. She, as far as my mother was concerned, this was a job. She wanted to make more money to help out with the bills, to have extra for toys and luxuries, and that was her goal. But, very simple for those days. For post-war attitude. It was just having a happy family. And again, after what she’d been through with the Japanese during World War II, she wasn’t, you know, you’re talking about a different era. You know, she was happy to be in the home peacefully. She was ah, you know, you compare it with today’s woman, she would be called unambitious. But, you know, considering the times, you know, she was very content.

And she did actually make her own way up the union. She, you know, from the shop representative she became chairperson of the board at Local 23-25.

Q: Now, how many members are we talking about, Local 23-25?

Chin: Now?

Q: Then, at that time.

Chin: Then, I don’t know. At the height, okay, which was about in the late ‘70s, 1980, 1982, about 20,000 members. And they all went on strike. In fact, these are strike photos. This was a rally held in Columbus Park, and this is my mother, handing out caps and buttons, telling women not to work because the bosses refused to sign the three-year contract for better wages and more days off, you know, other benefits. And so, this is before the rally and she’s handing out caps to everybody. And when the rally started, she was one of the spokespeople on behalf of the workers.

Q: What were your feelings towards her, as an activist?

Chin: I was very proud of her. You know, one of the things that my mother did was---well, my brother and I knew that she probably couldn’t sit in the back of a laundry all her life. And we kind of felt bad that she was just sewing every day. And then when this extra activity at the union started, we were very happy for her.

This was at NYU. And this was the annual memorial service at the Triangle Shirtwaist fire building.

Q: And when she spoke, she always spoke in English?

Chin: Ah, depending on the situation. Depending on the audience. At the rally, when the workers went on strike, she spoke Chinese because there were 20,000 Chinese workers. You know, a memorial for the Triangle Shirtwaist, held, and they knew that the New York Times would be there, she read a speech in English.

Q: Now, was it difficult to get women to join the union at the time?

Chin: No. It was, it’s difficult to get them to join now. At that time, when you---In the ‘50s, you had less than twenty shops. By the time you got to your ‘60s, early ‘70s, you had 150, 200. And of course the union was more active. It had to be, to cover all the shops. By the time you get to the late ‘70s, the union was onto all the violations, because every time they knocked on the door, it took time to open. I remember going to visit my mother at the shop, and my mother said, “Knock one, stop, knock twice,” and then the boss would open the shop and let us in. They weren’t supposed to work on weekends. But if anyone knocked otherwise, they would not open the doors.

So the union was onto all the violations, and in the late ‘70s, I think the middle or late “70s, they got the U.S. Department of Labor to come and look at situations, and it was well-advertised at that time, there were articles all over the place about sweatshop violations, and they called them, and that was where the term “sweatshop” started, they were no longer garment factories. They were called sweatshops by the late ‘70s, and there was increasing pressure on the bosses to correct these violations. And it was costing the bosses. So by the ‘70s the bosses didn’t want to join the union. It was, the union was good for the women, and some of the men, but it was the bosses who didn’t want it.

And so by 1982, when you had some 500, 550 shops and 20,000 workers, you had a mass strike, you know, ‘cause the bosses refused to sign that union contract. The contract was signed every three years. The bosses refused to sign. They were betting that Chinese women are going to work. You know, they opened the---they wanted women to come to work. They wanted women to come to work, and they counted on the reputation that Chinese people work hard. We’re not going to go on strike. You know, Chinese people don’t strike. If there’s work, they’re going to do it, because you know, they’re used to starvation in China. You know, if there’s work, you have to work.

Q: But by the ‘70s, who were most of the owners? Were they Chinese, or----

Chin: By then, there were Chinese workers, also---

Q: No, owners.

Chin: Oh, yes, Chinese owners as well. And the Jewish population of owners phased out. And that also made one of the differences. The Chinese owners would play up their being Chinese, they would say, “PHRASE IN CANTONESE (translates to “we’re all Chinese”)” you know, “Don’t listen to that union.”

Q:---“We’re all Chinese.”

Chin: Right. We’re all Chinese. We’re on the same side, and they would hire family, you know, or hire your sister or hire your daughter, she needs a part-time job. So everything was family. They played on the Chinese concept of family being all together. And so by the time, and this was the late ‘70s, and you had your Chinese entrepreneurs coming over, and they had a little more money than your past population of Chinese coming over, you know, and, so they would play up that part and by ’82 they said, “We’re not signing the contract. Come to work.”

And they thought that Chinese women, because we’re all family, were going to go to work. And the women proved them wrong. They went on strike. And that was that rally, those rally pictures that I showed you---

Q: And what was the result of this strike?

Chin: That, eventually they signed the contract again, with better wages, and more days off, more medical coverage. I don’t know offhand that particular contract, but every time there’s a contract there are better, you know, there’s more that the workers benefit by.

Q: So the union won, pretty much.

Chin: Yeah, right. They had, it was all over the papers. They held a mass rally in Columbus Park. They had a dragon, they had a priest, before, you know, to bless the rally, before the whole rally started. Then, talking about what the union does for workers and giving a history of the union and how far it’s come, they urged, you know, bosses to sign that contract, members, “Don’t go to work,” and they marched throughout Chinatown with the dragon, and that started in the morning, by noontime about 90 percent of the shops had signed up. Because they realized that, you know, if the union tells them “don’t work,” they’re not going to work.

And that was something they didn’t expect. They expected that Chinese women will work if you give them work.

Q: Let’s talk about you for a minute. As a child, did you expect to go as far as you did in education?

Chin: Well, I don’t consider myself having gone that far in education. I have my master’s, I started a PhD, but I dropped the PhD program because my father had written his memoir and I was torn between doing a thesis, a PhD thesis and publishing a book, and you know, helping him to write it and edit it and publish, and I, you know, I can’t have it all. I dropped the PhD, I was happy with my master’s, I knew that I could teach, you know, with a master’s, and I had been told that a PhD is important, depending---is important to teaching depending on what area you’re going into. I had also been told, you know, if you publish a book, and you keep, and I have a second book, that if you keep writing that is as good as any PhD. Maybe not, maybe not in research, you know, maybe not in teaching PhD courses, but it certainly, in my purposes of working with freshmen, sophomores, you know, with undergraduates, it’s good enough, and I keep up, I keep up my research, and so, so academically, so degree-wise, I haven’t gone that far, but I’m very happy with the things that I learned in my research.

Q: But there was never a doubt that you would one day end up as a seamstress like your mother.

Chin: Oh, no.

Q: Why was that?

Chin: I think my father inculcated the thought in both of us, well, maybe not so much in my brother. My brother had to go into something practical. He’s an engineer, but for a girl, my father was always old-fashioned: “You can study anything you want, because you’re not the major income-earner. But whatever you study, be good at it, and you’ll always have a job, you can always teach it.”

And so I majored in philosophy, actually, and then I went into Asian philosophy [Should I repeat it for the noise?] and I went into Asian philosophy, and ah, and I’ve always enjoyed it. And so, so I never once thought that I would be a seamstress. There were times when I didn’t know what I would do with a philosophy degree, but I enjoyed it. And I teach.

Q: So in your research, give us like a brief sketch of how the garment industry has changed in Chinatown. You said in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s was the peak. As much as 20,000 workers---

Chin: ---dwei (right)---

Q: ---five hundred sweatshops---

Chin: ---right---

Q: ---and then what happened? When did it decline?

Chin: Well, that was 1982, when the 20,000 workers went on strike, roughly five to six hundred workshops. And that’s an estimate, because one of the tricks of the trade, if you were going to open a garment factory, was that you would open it up, it would quickly change hands, sell it to a relative, and then change the name so that the union can’t catch up with you and say, you know, “You’re supposed to be, you’re supposed to join the union.” Then you get away from the union, you get away from the taxes, and you kept switching all the time. So that’s why these figures are roughly five to six hundred shops, and we don’t know for sure.

And that was basically the heyday. Since then, you know, not just to get away from the union, but also to get away from the rising rents in Chinatown, because the real estate prices boomed and the same things that happened to these shops, to the Jewish shop owners in midtown, causing them to move to Chinatown for lower rents, this same situation is happening to Chinese shop owners, causing them to close up their shops and move to Sunset Park, to Queens, to Borough Park, and that’s the situation with Manhattan’s Chinatown. That they’re moving out of Manhattan. Right now, there are probably about, or after 9/11, three months afterwards, the New York Times reported that they had, there were roughly one hundred and forty-six shops left. I just talked to my mother briefly, and asked her if she had any idea, and she said roughly one hundred, one fifty. I doubt that it’s one fifty, because things have only gotten bad. So three months after 9/11 it was 146, so today probably a hundred shops.

Q: So, prior to September 11, what do you think, say the max?

Chin: The max was in 1982, with five hundred, five fifty shops, maybe.

Q: But, from ’82 to September 11 is quite a few years. The garment industry had been in decline.

Chin: It had been in decline because of imports. You know, there was NAFTA, the free trade agreement, and the exporting all the jobs, and importing a lot----you know, you export the clothing jobs, and then you get cheap clothing made in China, made in, you know, Mexico, and you get that import. You get that type of trade. And that took away a lot of jobs. Right now, I did interviews last spring in April, 2003, and the estimate, depending on who you talk to, was that about 85-90 percent of our clothing is imports.

So it was in decline. The last year they cele---the government just celebrated the tenth anniversary of the trade, of the Free Trade Agreement. So that was since 1993. Last year was the tenth anniversary. So this all happened before 2000, before 9/11 2001. And it was because of imports. 9/11 was just the last, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Q: And how did that.---


Q: We left off with the decline of the garment industry in Chinatown. So why don’t we pick up from that? You had said that even prior to September 11 of 2001 the garment industry was already in decline in Chinatown---

Chin: Because of imports, and so, then, NAFTA, the free trade agreements didn’t help. So even by the 80s, you know, your height was 1982, even by the mid-80s, imports were at that time about 50 percent already. And then they signed NAFTA in 1993, they just celebrated the ten year, tenth anniversary, and imports now are about 90 percent, 85-90 percent. And by some people that I spoke to, that I interviewed, expect that by 2005, by next year, that it’ll be 100 percent imports.

Q: Back in the days when your mother was very active in the union, at the peak of the sweatshops, were most of those products sold in America, or were they exported at all?

Chin: No, they were sold in America, and that was part of, part of the situation, and it’s nothing really that simple. There’s no one answer to it all. You know, in the 50s, in the 60s, you didn’t have brand names, you didn’t have your Calvin Klein stuff, your Gap, or, you may have had names, but they were very few, and most you had these stores that sold garments, like Lerner’s, Joyce Lesley, you know, a garment, something similar to what you would find along 14th Street in Union Square these days, where you’re a store, and they sold all types of garments. But as the specialty garments, now you have a big gap, you have a big industry in the Gap clothing, in Calvin Klein, and Gap decided to send their stuff, I think they send it to South America, to Central American, you know, Calvin Klein, and these big names won’t use a little Chinatown sweatshop. So they’re the ones who, you know, did a lot of injury to the garment industry before even 9/11. And so you had those stores, you know, and other brand names making their clothing outside of the country because it was cheaper.

Q: But how did 9/11, you were saying earlier, was like a final straw for the garment industry in Chinatown?

Chin: So the garment industry was already weakened with NAFTA, because it was already ten years by 2003, but NAFTA was signed ten years earlier, but by, okay, then after the rally, and the rising rates, okay, you had the rising rates in Chinatown, rent, and so those industry, those garment shops, who were priced out of Chinatown moved their shops to Brooklyn, to Queens, and so the union couldn’t get to them as easily, because before, you had all your shops in Chinatown and you just went from one shop to another, you know, let’s check out your records, you know, and the business agents did what they had to do. They couldn’t do that anymore with shops moving out to the outer boroughs, to Brooklyn and Queens.

So that weakened it. Then, with 9/11, you know, traffic was closed, the whole lower Manhattan was closed to traffic for quite a few months, and trucks couldn’t get by. You know, these garments had to be delivered. They couldn’t get them. So they had to, they had garments that needed to be made, to be put together, that they couldn’t get to the shops, so they had to go elsewhere. Or else they went out of business. A lot of them went, went out of business. A lot of them went out of business because of that. So that was the last straw. That really did not help.

Q: Now, has your mother retired?

Chin: She retired in 1995.

Q: And what does she do now?

Chin: She works part time in a union office that helps newcomers to the union, who ask about benefits, and so like, from there she gets a feel of what the business is like now. And it doesn’t look very rosy. You know, members, potential members come, and they ask, you know, what benefits are there, what are the union dues. When they find out the union dues and they look at the benefits they receive, they weigh the two and they decide it’s not worth it. Health benefits are the most attractive. Everybody needs health coverage. But, you know, the newcomers are not like the company that met the newcomers in her day. In her day they were much more honest. You know, immigrants in my mother’s generation, or even a couple of decades after her, would never think to go on welfare. They were too proud to collect money, to collect a handout. But the immigrants coming over now weigh the two, well, I have to pay all these union dues, I get health benefits, but I have to give in so much, can I ever make the minimum required to keep my membership? You know, they have all sorts of rules about that. And they decide, well, if I just don’t keep any money in the bank, I can collect welfare, and work off the books. And I ought not to go for union work. I can get Medicare, Medicaid, for the needy. I can get Medicaid, I don’t need the union .

And so nobody joins.

Q: So what do you think is the likely experience of a new immigrant, a woman who just arrives from China, with absolutely no language skills, maybe can sew a little. What are her options if she wanted to stay in New York City or in America?

Chin; There aren’t that many options. I mean, the garment industry is really, really at a low. I don’t know if anyone expects them to recover. There will always be some type of garment industry. But you have designers here, and they’ll always want someone to make something. You know, you can’t just send something, samples, or you can’t just send things overseas all the time. You do need some type of garment industry, but it will probably be specialized.

A lot of the women who used to be in the garment industry, who used to sew, are moving into health care, you know, to help, it’s a different union, they help, they don’t call them health care workers---I think they’re called home work, home care. They take care of the elderly at home. They do a lot of that. They get training, they learn a bit of English. So they get benefits there.

Q: Do you think it’s more difficult for a new immigrant now to arrive in American than at the time your parents did?

Chin: Oh, yeah.

Q: How so?

Chin: Ah, basically because when my parents came, especially if you’re talking about the garment industry, when my mother came, the industry was growing. It was the fifties, and she started work in the fifties, and there wasn’t a shop, she had her pick of shops to go to. She saw the union, she saw all these benefits, and then she saw the big rally in 1982, and then she gradually saw the decline---shops moving to Queens, to Sunset Park.

Of course, you always have your advantages of that, too, because if it weren’t for the shops, there probably would not be such a developed Chinatown in Sunset Park and elsewhere, because where the shops are, that’s where your women are, and then families start moving there to be closer to the work, and then, you’re closer to the work, you have to buy groceries after you work to bring home to cook. Then you have grocery stores, and then you have children, and then you have toy stores, and then----So that work, that garment industry develops that community. But for a new immigrant, it’s very difficult. The garment---they arrive at a time not when the garment industry is growing, but at a time when it’s declining. You see, the union, to be covered with medical benefits, you have to make a certain amount each quarter. With piece work, there’s no way you can make that much.

And the government has had programs---federally-funded programs to teach new immigrants how to sew, but the work has to be there, too. You know, when all the jobs are being exported out of the country, you know, what do you expect the workers to sew?

Q: So now, looking back on your parents’ life, has the way they lived or their experiences in America shaped your thinking and your professional life at the moment?

Chin: Um, I’m not sure if it’s shaped it that much. As far as shaping is concerned, probably growing up more with my father than with my mother, because my mother was in the shop all the time, I took an interest in the things my father was interested in, like poetry, philosophy, writing. So that shaped my interests. But in general, I just find this whole Chinese----this whole immigration, even how the shops contributed to the building of Chinatown---I just find the whole thing fascinating. You know, how things fall in place. You know, ‘cause it was not just the shops moving to Chinatown and women working and then needing grocery stores afterwards. It had to be the right time and the right place.

My father worked in a laundry. And, um, it was at a time when his laundry closed, because of wash and wear, permanent press, and people doing more of their own laundry, that freed the men to open up the grocery shops in Chinatown. You know, it just happens that these bosses had to be out priced in mid-town to open shops in Chinatown. And when the women who work also go home and cook, have to have grocery stores, well it just so happened that the laundry, the Chinese laundry man was being, you know, was closed out of his laundry, you know, because of permanent press, that he was free to think of different ideas.

You know, you have women and children working in Chinatown---women working in Chinatown, you have families. Before, Chinatown was a bachelor society. Once you have women working there, women being able to come to America, you had children. Children grow up and get married, in the ‘70s that was the next generation, you had your first jewelry store in Chinatown, selling wedding jewelry, you know, the dragon bracelets. You know, I just find this whole development of the growth of Chinatown fascinating.

Q: So when you go to Chinatown today, what do you see, how do you feel? How is it different from the Chinatown of your childhood?

Chin: It doesn’t seem as vibrant----you know, there’s a lot of life there, but there’s also---you know, I remember my mother would buy jewelry, and we had friends who got married, and they would wear the traditional jade, or dragon bracelets, dragon and phoenix bracelets. And then I remember a time when that was no longer popular, because brides were getting robbed, and these gangs who knew that there was a wedding going on, there was a reception going on at a certain restaurant, would make sure they would be there, and you know, that didn’t help. The loss of the garment factories means business, ‘cause there’s not the women working there. You know, there’s also women, women will shop wherever they work. When women are not concentrated in Chinatown, there’s going to be less of the other type of shopping, for children, for their children, for toys, for food. And so you see less of that.

Q: So you’re saying the loss of the garment industry in Chinatown affects the whole kind of food chain of the livelihood of Chinatown.

Chin: Right. And Chinatown itself is changing. You know, Chinatown was always changing, from the ’50s, when it developed with the first garment factory, until now, when you see this decline in the garment industry. But, you know, Chinatown, it’s probably commonplace to say that money makes the world go ‘round, but you know, Chinatown garment shops are being priced out of their space, of their rental space. They moved to the outer boroughs because rent is cheaper in Brooklyn, in Queens. And who’s moving to Chinatown? You have these SoHo, these artists with their galleries, who are priced out of SoHo, because SoHo was a growing neighborhood at one point, and it’s up, it’s trendy now, it’s too expensive. So, and, they come down to Manhattan, to Chinatown, which is still cheaper than SoHo, even though it’s not cheap enough for your garment factory.

So you have what’s called now gentrification of Chinatown. You walk along Canal Street, you go to Centre Street, you see a Charles Schwab there. There wasn’t a Charles Schwab there a decade ago. You know, you see a Starbucks. Chinese women don’t buy Starbucks. It’s a different population now. There are people coming down from SoHo. You know, they cater to them. If you walk past the corner of Canal and Centre, and look into Starbucks there, it’s the Northwest corner, it’s all American. Most---you know, 90 percent American. You know, where are they coming from? So it’s a change in pace in Chinatown.

And, in fact, that building that rented to Schwab and Starbucks, used to have jewelry stores. You used to see a man standing on the street corner, “Sell your gold, sell your watch, sell your jewelry.” You don’t see that anymore. As their leases, as those used jewelry store leases expire, they’re bringing in a different type of store.

So I guess if I say it’s, Chinatown is not the same, it’s probably nostalgic, because I guess anyone would say that, well, Starbucks and Charles Schwab is better than this used jewelry store, which it is. I bring my son here, so that he could see more Chinese people, and that’s when I sense, intensely, that he’s missing the Chinatown that I knew.

Q: And is your mother saddened, is your mother saddened by the whole decline of the garment industry?

Chin: She’s saddened, but she’s also, you know, on the selfish end, she’s glad that she’s retired and doesn’t have to deal with it. She is saddened for the newcomers.

Q: Okay. I think that’s about it. Is there anything else that you want to add, that I haven’t asked you?

Chin: Um, I can’t think of anything offhand.

Q: Anything about your own work, or your courses?

Chin: Um, my work, about my work, I know a lot of Chinese garment workers from my mother, and my mother knows some very interesting people who grew up China, or were educated in China in the ‘40s, they knew Russian, they know Chinese, but they come here, they don’t know English, so they end up in a garment factory. And, there are ladies---there is a lady who makes her own fertilizer, and shared a lot of things with me. And I started off my research, my interviews, I started off wanting to interview those people, the commonplace worker in the garment factory. You know, “What were you doing before?” you know, because that knowledge is not used in America. There are engineers, she introduced me to a Barefoot Doctor during the Cultural Revolution who came here and she couldn’t use any of her medical skills, because she doesn’t know English----she works in a garment factory.

And I wanted to interview those people to show that your garment factory worker is not uneducated, unskilled in other ways. Unfortunately that didn’t work out because they would freely talk to me, but the minute I brought my tape recorder, they didn’t want to be recorded. And that’s made me turn around and interview my mother. She said, “I’ll help you out,” being very sympathetic towards me, and she talked about her work in the garment factories, and then it occurred to me, the garment factory, the whole garment industry is a fascinating industry. So after my mother, I called up some of the old, the retired people, union people, who, activists, who helped start the whole movement in Chinatown, who organized from the very first Chinese newsletter to the rally, the big rally in 1982. And that’s how I ended up interviewing labor leaders instead.

And that has its own----I don’t want to say that’s more important than your common worker, but that is a history that hasn’t really been written yet. And, some of the information I have is from people who are old enough, anyway. They’re retired. So, and I’m very happy to have that on record, and to get an overall picture of how the movement started. I find that fascinating.

Q: Well, I’m sure your work will be very useful for future researchers and scholars and hopefully for people in our project who might be interested to read more about what you’ve done because you’ve written a lot. Yes.

Chin: I know that the Tamiment Library Labor Archives of NYU is looking forward to the report. And I feel very good to be a part of it.

Q: Thank you so much. My name is Lan Trinh, and I’ve been speaking with Winifred Chin in her home in Brooklyn. Thank you.

Chin: You’re welcome. Thank you.


Chinatown Interview: Interview (zh)

<p> 問:今天是西元二00四年一月八日,我現在在布魯克林陳小姐的家裡。為了存檔起見,請告訴我們你的名字?</p>
<p>陳:我叫陳春卿,我是紐約大學亞太美洲研究計畫(Asian-Pacific-American Studies Program)的客座教授。我也是紐約大學Far Eastern Civilizations的助理副教授。</p>
<p>問:好的,我們將時光倒轉,回到童年,你可不可以談談你是在哪裡出生的? 父母是從甚麼地方來的?</p>
<p>陳:我父親是1934年到的。他是個養子,就像我的書「Paper Son」中所描述的一樣,他後來曾在1949年的時候回中國一趟,在香港娶了我的母親,過了一年(1950)我母親也過來了,就定居在布魯克林。</p>

<p>陳:他是個養子,意思是他用錢去買到一張身分證明,證明他是某某美裔華人…抱歉,是某某華裔美國人的兒子。在我的書中「Paper Son」談的就是這一段歷史。這整段歷史大致是從1882到1943年美國排華年代開始的。在美國的中國人從1800年中期起,就開始在美國開築鐵路,但很快的,美國政府或者因為經濟或種族的考慮,決定不再接受任何美裔華……中國人到美國來。</p>
<p>當時有些已經在美國的中國人,他們的孩子是在美國出生的。這些在美國出生的公民,不論他們到哪一個國家,都可以把他們孩子帶回美國,即使他們的孩子不是在美國出生的。所以這些在美國出生的中國人,便成為所謂第一代的華裔美國人。根據排華法(the exclusion laws),他們仍然不能跟中國人以外的種族通婚。所以當時想要結婚的話,就得回中國去。結婚後他們自己仍然可以回到美國,因為他們是在美國出生的公民,但是其他的中國人則不能。意思就是他們不能把妻子帶回美國。<br>

<p>當你買到證明之後,你要記住所有資料。你要說,我是某某某的兒子,他是美國出生的公民,我的母親是中國人,我是某年某月某日出生的。你把所有資料記住後,通過美國海關時,如果你所有的回答都正確無誤,海關官員便認為,你就是文件上的那個人,你就是個美國公民。這樣進入美國的人就叫做 「養子(Paper Son)」,我的父親就是個養子。</p>


<p>陳:Bushwick幾乎沒有中國人,除了我們家和王家(Wongs),他們的故事在我的書Paper Son中也有提到。他們只跟我們隔一條街,再過幾條街有另外一戶,中國人就這些了。還有一戶是日本人。</p>
<p>大部分在布魯克林的中國家庭都習慣在禮拜天去一趟唐人街。我父親的洗衣店一周開七天,不,是六天,星期天我們就到唐人街。在他會說英文之後,他開始擔任位於唐人街Worth街True Light Lutheran Church的翻譯。這就是我們的社交生活。你知道的,50年代在布魯克林我們是很被保護的﹔當然,這跟時代有很大的關係,當時是麥卡錫主義(McCarthuism)的年代,身為中國人並不太受歡迎,除了一周去一次唐人街,上教堂,之後再拜訪親友之外,我們的生活頗為孤立。</p>
<p>陳:這是少數對女性開放的行業之一。值得一提的是,當時正值唐人街的成衣業的成長期﹔20年代成衣廠原本多在中城(Midtown),靠近FIT (Fashion Institute),但是逐漸高漲的租金使廠主尋求較便宜的房租,像唐人街,唐人街當時是蠻便宜的。</p>

<p>陳:是的,我父親認為我們應該要懂中文。尤其在50年代,麥卡錫主義年代(McCarthy era),美國政府對可能是共產黨的中國人看的很緊。我父親寫的的文章有可能害他被驅逐出境的。所以我父親認為,如果真有一天不幸被驅逐出境,會講中文要好的多。有一段時間我們不確定究竟我們會不會被驅逐出境,所以要是真回到中國,會講中文會成為我們的優勢。</p>
<p>陳:我不記得義大利移民。唐人街是到70年代才延伸到小義大利的。當然,也因此引起幫派地盤鬥爭。 50年代的唐人街是很小的,我母親會帶我們去唐人街,她買東西的時候我們就坐在門前的樓梯上,跟其他坐在樓梯口的小朋友玩。一個小時後她再回來,我們還在那兒,我想今天沒有母親會這樣做。</p>
<p>陳:我跟母親相處時間確實不多,但是跟我父親非常親近,我的書「養子」就是以他的故事為本。這本書是我們 合寫的,書在他去世後才發行。所以,我雖然少了一個母親,但是跟父親關係很親近,自從我父親去世以後,我跟母親也親近了很多。</p>
陳:就像我前面說過的,工廠在50年代中城的高房租壓力下開始搬到唐人街,整個50年代,大概只有20家,或少於20家。60年代廠家漸漸增多,因為家人可以來美國了,但是最重要的改變是1965年移民法的修正,移民大量增加。工廠大約在1955年之前就開始有工會組織,最早可能從53或54年開始;1955年工會由Jay Mazur領導,他是Local 23-25的助理經理,這個分會當時多半是中國人。他創立了一份小型的中文報。他必須從舊金山雇用專人用手抄寫報紙,再透過廣播電台將訊息傳送到工廠。<br>

<p>我母親本身在1957年加入公會。基本上工會從事全面運動通知中國勞工,派代表到各工廠告訴他們工會的存在,你付一點費用,可以獲得醫療保險,可以有公定假日及休假,因為我媽媽可以說一點點兒英文的關係,她在工廠幫忙工會代表翻譯。現在這樣的人被稱作「業務代表」(business agents),專門負責一個工廠。以往有另外的稱呼。</p>
<p>陳:一開始是沒有的。但是等到老闆 知道他們要負擔部分的費用,比如說社會安全保險,假設他們是支領薪水而不是現金的話,或者勞工根據FICA賺取的退休金,那麼工廠老闆就得支付部分的費用,不只是繳付政府稅款,還包括工會,工會的醫療保險。</p>
陳:Wing Fong Chin。她是工廠代表,意思是她協助其他工人加入工會,填表,如果要付會費,就協助收費,她自願到上城 (uptown),或者不是上城,到中城 (midtown)。她協助完成文件工作,因為大部分的工人不會說英文,她也說的不好,但是足夠幫忙。</p>
工會的觀念在中國傳統裡是不存在的。所以參加工會,最低工資對這些婦女不代表任何意義。我不確定有多少人能真的瞭解。但是她們知道有健康保險。還有什麼比這更重要?也有可支薪的 休假。所以很多婦女從來沒有抱怨過按件計酬的工作。</p>

<p>陳:沒有。我父親一輩子都在洗衣店工作。但他其實是個作家。他會作詩,出版。他有其他想做的事。店裡不忙的時候,他就寫作,看書,所以他從來沒有---他寫作的熱忱恨高,他發表的中文詩作有幾百首。部分譯作收在我的書中「Paper Son」。他從來不熱衷於學習英文以便去找一份較好的工作。他懂中文,他用中文工作,他的中文很好。</p>
<p>而且她在工會也屢獲升遷。從一個工廠代表到最後做到Local 23-25的董事會主席。</p>
<p>問:Local 23-25有多少人呢?</p>
<p>這是在紐約大學(NYU)。這是在Triangle Shirtwaist 工廠的紀念大會上(譯者按:1911年一場在紐約Triangle Shirtwaist Factory發生的大火導致146名血汗工廠的女工喪生)。</p>
<p>陳:不一定,看場合跟聽眾。遊行的時候,因為有兩萬名中國勞工參加罷工,她說中文。在Triangle Shirtwaist紀念大會上,因為在場有紐約時報的記者,她就以英文發表演說。</p>



<p>這時大約是高峰期。從那以後,不僅要想辦法避免工會,還要設法應付高漲的房租。高漲的房地產價格曾逼使猶太裔的成衣廠老闆從中城搬到唐人街,同樣的原因,華裔老闆把工廠從唐人街搬到布魯克林的Sunset Park,皇后區,或 Borough Park,這就是目前曼哈頓唐人街的情況。他們搬出曼哈頓。<br>

<p>陳:沒有,大部分是內銷,這是部分的情況,但是情況並非那麼簡單。這個問題不止一個答案。在50和60年代,並沒有名牌,沒有卡文克萊(Calvin Klein)或是GAP,即使有些品牌,也是非常少。當時賣成衣的店像Lerner’s或 Joyce Lesley,類似今天聯合廣場(Union Square)第14街的成衣商場,販賣各式衣服。現在有專賣店,GAP或Calvin Klein本身就像一個工業,GAP 決定把衣服送到中南美洲去製造,像Calvin Klein這種知名品牌不會交給一個唐人街的小工廠做。這些就是在9/11之前導致成衣業衰退的原因。名牌都在國外生產,因為成本比較便宜。</p>

使得工會很難跟工廠聯繫,因為以前所有的工廠都在唐人街,工會走一趟就可以從這一家到那一家做紀錄檢查,業務代表(business agents)可以做他們該做的事。但是在工廠搬到布魯克林跟皇后區後,這就行不通了。</p>
<p>所以這有影響。而9/11之後,整個下城(Lower Manhattan)交通關閉了好幾個月,卡車不能進出。工廠有貨要送。但是拿不到。他們有貨要趕,等著上工,但是他們沒辦法到工廠。所以只好搬走。否則關門大吉。很多廠都倒閉了。很多廠是因為這樣倒閉的。這就是最後一根稻草。對情況沒有幫助。</p>

<p>問: 為什麼?</p>

見證了這些福利,見證了1982年的大遊行,最後見證了沒落---工廠遷往皇后區,遷往Sunset Park。</p>
<p>當然,這也有它的好處。如果不是因為這些工廠,Sunset Park及其它的地方大概不會有這麼具規模的唐人街,因為工廠帶來了婦女,家庭隨之搬到工廠的附近,下班後要採買做飯。有了雜貨店,有了小孩子,就有了玩具店---所以成衣業為當地帶來了發展。但是對新移民很不利。他們來的不是在成衣業興盛的時候,而是衰退的時候。為了負擔工會的醫療保險,每一季至少要達到最低收入。按件計酬是賺不到那麼多的。</p>
<p>問: 回顧你父母親的一生,他們在美國的經驗是否影響你的看法和你目前的職業?</p>
<p>問: 如果你到今天的唐人街,你看到什麼,有什麼感覺?跟你小時候的唐人街有何不同?</p>
<p>問: 你的意思是唐人街成衣業的衰退影響了唐人街的整個連鎖生態?</p>
陳:對。唐人街也在改變中。唐人街一直在改變,從50年代第一個成衣廠開始,直到現在成衣業的沒落。一切向「錢」看或許理所當然,但是成衣業被唐人街的高租金逼的外移。因為皇后區跟布魯克林區租金比較便宜,所以他們往那兒搬。那麼現在誰住到唐人街呢?被SOHO地區高租金逼的往外搬的的藝術家和藝廊;因為SOHO越來越時髦,越來越貴,所以他們往曼哈頓下城搬,搬到唐人街,至少比SOHO便宜,雖然對成衣業來說仍然太貴(譯者按:SOHO是曼哈頓的一個地區,意指 South of Houston Street)。</p>
<p>這就形成了唐人街的高級化(gentrification)。走在Canal Street和Centre Street上,你可以看到一家Charles Schwab銀行。十年前那兒沒有Charles Schwab。現在有Starbucks咖啡館,華裔婦女是不喝 Starbucks咖啡的。現在的居民結構已經不同了。有從SOHO搬來的人。這是為了迎合他們而存在的。如果你經過Canal 街和Centre街的西北角 ,往Starbucks裡看,全是美國人,百分之90是美國人。他們從哪兒來的?所以唐人街的步調在改變。</p>
<p>在Charles Schwab和Starbucks之前,那個地方原先是幾家首飾店。以前在街角可以看到有人叫賣:「收購金子,手錶,首飾」。現在已不復存在。首飾店租約到期後,引進了其他的店面。</p>
<p>所以如果我說唐人街變了,也許有人會覺得我懷舊,因為很多人覺得Charles Schwab跟Starbucks比二手首飾店來的好,我不否認。但是當我帶我兒子來唐人街,想讓他多看一些中國人的時候,我才強烈的感受到,現在的唐人街跟我以前記憶中的唐人街已經不一樣了。</p>
問: 你的母親對成衣業的沒落覺得傷感嗎?</p>
<p>問: 我想這樣夠了。有沒有我沒問到而你想補充說明的?</p>
<p>問: 有關你的工作或課程?</p>
<p>問: 我想你的工作對將來的學者,還有參與我們計畫有興趣多瞭解你的研究的人會有很大幫助,因為你這方面寫的很多。</p>
<p>陳:我知道紐約大學的Tamiment Library Labor Archives很期待這份報告。我很高興參與這個研究計畫。</p>
<p>問: 非常謝謝你。我是鄭愛蘭 ,我訪談的對象是陳春卿女士,地點是她布魯克林的家中。謝謝。</p>


“Winifred C. Chin,” September 11 Digital Archive, accessed March 31, 2023,