Shi Yun Chin
Chinatown Interview: Interviewee
Chinatown Interview: Interviewer
Chinatown Interview: Date
Chinatown Interview: Language
Chinatown Interview: Occupation
Chinatown Interview: Interview (en)
Q: Today is May 24, 2004. We’re at #193 Centre Street. Sitting with me is Mr. Chin. Mr. Chin, could you please tell us your story, tell a little bit about where you were born?
A: I was born in China’s Guangdong Province, in Taishan Prefecture.
Q: Oh, you’re of Taishan descent?
A: Because of the civil war in China, my family was forced to flee to Hong Kong.
Q: What year was that?
A: It was either in the 1950s or 1960s, I don’t remember very clearly.
Q: Either way, it was after the Communist Liberation?
A: I went with my parents to Taiwan, and I grew up and was educated in Taiwan. My maternal grandparents immigrated to America very early, and I myself immigrated in 1976.
Q: Let’s slow down a little. Why did you go to Taiwan and not stay in Hong Kong?
A: At that time I was still small. Maybe it was because my father had economic or political reasons causing him to go to Taiwan. The Nationalist Party and the Communist Party were enemies then, and maybe that’s why he had to go.
Q: How old were you then?
A: 2 or 3.
Q: So you were very small then, and you really grew up in Taiwan.
A: Yes. I grew up in Taiwan and was educated there. Later, my father immigrated [to America] in 1974, just when I was fulfilling my military service. Men all have compulsory military service, and after I finished it, I came to America.
Q: So why did they come to America?
A: My parents came because my grandparents had come. For example, if I had come, I would wish that my children would follow me.
Q: So your father came first while you were serving in the military, and then you came to America later.
Q: How long did you serve in the military?
A: Three years.
Q: Why did they choose New York City?
A: Because my grandparents had chosen New York.
Q: Why did they choose New York and not California?
A: I’m not really clear on that.
Q: The year you immigrated to New York, how old were you?
A: That was 1976, and I was 24 or 25.
Q: When you came, did you already understand English?
A: In Taiwan, I had finished high school, so I understood a little bit of English.
Q: So after you came, what impressions did you have of America? Were you afraid of coming to a foreign place?
A: I wasn’t afraid because the culture in Taiwan is already very close to the West, and more open to the world. I had a certain understanding of Western things, and didn’t feel it was foreign. It seemed like the movies, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, they all talked about America, so I had already absorbed a lot of Western information. For example, the Communist Party is an iron curtain, and I’m not saying they’re bad, but they are more closed off, and so people from China lack information about this area, and for that reason it’s harder for them to adjust. Coming from Taiwan, I had this kind of information, this environment, and it was easier for me to accept things.
Q: So previously your impression of America was from television, books, or from the letters you got from relatives living in America telling about life there.
A: The information I got was that America was an advanced, free country, and that there was an American dream.
Q: You have an American dream. What is it?
A: At that time, I was young, and I had my own aspirations. Men just want to create their own business, establish their family and career, and make their lives complete.
Q: Back when you were in the military, what was your dream job?
A: Before I had come over, I still didn’t know what sort of careers available in America would suit me. After I arrived, I would have to see and experience things, and then I would know, because you can’t predict things in advance. My parents were working in the garment business, so I also entered that line of work, and because of their influence, I knew a little bit about that field [of work]. In New York during that period, Chinese people had two careers, working either in restaurants or in garment manufacturing, and the numbers employed were really huge, so I joined the garment manufacturing business without even thinking.
Q: So your parents did garment manufacturing in Chinatown?
Q: And how old were they at the time?
A: Between 50 and 60 years old.
Q: Wasn’t it very difficult to adjust to beginning work for the first time in garment manufacturing when they’re already between the ages of 50 and 60 years old?
A: Not really, because Chinatown’s population was tightly clustered, and as far as language goes, it was relatively easy to communicate, so daily shopping was easier, for example, and there were newspapers and magazines, there were Chinese theaters, and they could go out easily and walk around.
Q: You said that you entered this profession without giving it much thought. Have you ever considered going to college?
A: Yes, I’ve thought of continuing my education, but my parents had to work, and I have a lot of siblings, so maybe due to financial problems, I just couldn’t do that. Originally I had thought of studying and working at the same time, but I couldn’t do it in that environment, I had to work full-time. I was already in my twenties, and I had to be independent.
Q: Before your parents came to America, what sort of work did they do in Hong Kong or Taiwan?
A: My father was a public official in Taiwan, and my mother was a housewife.
Q: You entered this profession in your twenties, would that be considered rather young?
A: It would.
Q: So when you first entered this profession, what did you do?
A: When I first entered the profession, the normal jobs for men were sorter and presser.
Q: What was it like as a sorter?
A: When products arrived, you separated them out, then you arranged the manufacturing process. For example, the accessories to a pair of pants, the buttons, the label, the zipper, you would separate the parts out and send them out. This was considered men’s work.
Q: So you weren’t actually making the clothes?
A: I wasn’t actually making the clothes.
Q: Did you receive formal training before you began this work?
A: I didn’t get any formal training. Just start in the midst of it, and I’d watch what others were doing and do the same thing.
Q: That was in 1976. What was the salary like then, for example, how much could you make a week?
A: If you worked five or six days a week, you could make 300 dollars a week, and that was considered pretty good, because expenses were low, and you could get by.
Q: And at that time, you were in your twenties and didn’t have a family to support?
Q: You entered that profession very quickly. Did you feel like your American dream was a disappointment, in that as soon as you arrived you started working in a garment factory?
A: Everyone has a different American dream. I think that I didn’t have enough education or talent, and I couldn’t reach some high standard, but I could take care of myself in America, I could live peacefully and enjoy my work, and without expecting too much, I could get by.
Q: In this profession, where there were so many female garment workers, did you enjoy the work?
A: I enjoyed this work because of my firm conviction in working hard and getting along with others. I respected my profession, and I got along well with others.
Q: You did factory work for a long time, you worked in this profession for a long time, but did you often switch factories, jumping to new work when there was better pay?
A: I worked in the garment industry for over twenty years, but I only worked in a few factories, because my relations with the employers and with the workers was very good, the employers treated the employees very well, so there was no need to switch places, just to put forth my effort and reap the rewards, and I wasn’t “exploited.”
Q: [Did you say] “Fall short”?
A: No, I was speaking Mandarin Chinese. My Cantonese isn’t so good.
Q: Oh, your Cantonese is very good. So you didn’t think about changing your profession. You continued in it all the way.
A: Yes, I just kept doing it.
A: Lots of people have said that garment work has reached its swan song, some of that due to the government and some of that due to private individuals. It seems that after the government signed the agreement with Mexico, combining the economies and such, America’s own production ability decreased, and the opportunities for employment also decreased.
Q: Have you ever lost your job during the last 20 years?
A: Yes. For example, if the garment company running our factory didn’t send us enough work and orders, then we would be laid off, but we could collect unemployment benefits, because we had insurance.
Q: Have you ever been unemployed for one or two years?
A: Even if New York has weakened, there’s still at least some much work to do.
Q: When you came to New York, you had family here. Have you ever thought of moving to any other place?
Q: Have you ever wanted to move due to factors like the weather, and so on?
A: No, I’m used to it.
Q: When you came in 1976, did you live in Chinatown?
A: No, I lived in Manhattan. I worked in Chinatown.
Q: Then have you always worked in Chinatown? What was your impression towards Chinatown in 1976?
A: There was good and bad, because in the 70s, there were gangs, and that was all bad, they would disturb the peace and tranquility in the community; the good thing was that it was easier to adjust, because it was a Chinese community, the clothes, food, housing, are work were all convenient, and it was more interconnected.
Q: When did you establish your own family?
A: In 1979.
Q: When you met your wife, what was your profession?
A: She was also working in the garment industry, but she stopped work after having a baby, and then she stayed at home as a housewife, because she wanted to take care of the children, and manage the household.
Q: Did you ever join a union?
A: In ’76, when I started work in the garment factory, I also joined the 23-25 Union.
Q: Why did you want to join the union?
A: Because it had security and benefits. They offered worker’s protection, and they had benefits like health insurance, holiday time, lots of good things.
Q: Now, did your bosses give you any pressure about joining the union, did they tell you not to join the union?
A: No, because America is a free country, so they can’t reject you [based on that].
Q: What were the employers like?
A: My own employers were Chinese, some of them are from Hong Kong, and some of them from mainland China.
Q: Now, in the twenty years that you have been in Chinatown there have been a lot of, in the 70s, there were lots of Chinese from Taishan in Guangdong, and in the 80s, a lot came from Hong Kong, and then in the last ten years, a lot have come from Fuzhou, so what kind of problems come about when so many Chinese people from different regions are in the same place?
A: In my own experience, there haven’t been any problems, at work everyone gets along, there aren’t any quarrels, because everyone is working. I’ve heard that there have been arguments, but they weren’t a big deal.
Q: But newly arrived immigrants without any status are willing to work for cheaper pay, and that creates competition. As a Chinese-American who has been here for much longer, do you feel that they are stealing your jobs or forcing down your salary?
A: Personally I haven’t come across such a thing. I’ve heard others say that, but still it’s not very common. The employers have to run things according to the law, and they don’t want to risk trouble. If the employer doesn’t follow the employment laws, and he tries to exploit his workers, then he’ll have to take responsibility, and I don’t think my employers would be willing to do that.
Q: So you’ve never felt any influence?
A: I’ve worked at several garment factories, and the garment factories had really perfect regulations, for example, fire equipment, and children not allowed in the factories. They were really excellent.
Q: So the laws were very strict. Now, all the way until now, you’ve never actually made the clothes, you were responsible for arranging…?
A: No, I worked as a presser.
Q: Oh, you are working as a presser?
A: I’ve always pressed clothes.
Q: In English we call it “presser.” Because I haven’t worked in the production of clothing, I don’t understand the process of manufacturing clothing. At what point does clothing reach you to be pressed?
A: When the garment factory produces a pair of pants, first comes a strip of cloth, there’s the trunk of the pants, and there’s the pockets, and it enters the clothing factory, and the female textile workers sew up the trunk of the pants, sews on the zipper, adds the buttons, and the legs, and completes the pants, then there’s some string cutters who clean up the ends of the strings, and then they come to us and we use steam to make them flat, make them beautiful, and complete a pair of pants.
Q: Do you sit as you do the pressing, or do you stand?
A: I stand while I press. Because of the location of this equipment, I need to stand while I do it.
Q: Now you work seven hours a day, how is it that you don’t get exhausted?
A: Once you get used to it, you won’t feel exhausted.
Q: Have you ever suffered any work-related illnesses?
A: I’ve never had any work-related illnesses.
Q: I’ve heard lots of female workers say that they sit for such long hours that their hands and legs develop problems, isn’t that true?
A: Also some of them have pain in their hip bones.
Q: And you are very healthy?
A: The main problem is that on hot days I feel really hot, because in that work environment, it’s not possible to have air conditioning, because there’s the steam, so air conditioning wouldn’t work. But as long as there’s air flow, it’s OK.
Q: When you add on other machines too, isn’t it very hot?
A: I can put it like this, that’s why we have fans and air pumps, in order to make the air flow. The important thing is the structure of the factory, and whether it has been designed well or not.
Q: When 9/11 took place, you were working in your factory. Where is it located?
A: It’s on Canal Street, between Lafayette and Broadway.
Q: Is it close to this building?
Q: What kind of impact did 9/11 have upon your life?
A: Basically the time around 9/11 was extremely difficult days for America, New York and for Chinatown. I myself personally suffered, because after that day, a lot of my work had all but disappeared. The traffic had been tightly restricted and the garment factories didn’t open, there wasn’t any work, so we didn’t get any income, and in that way we were impacted.
Q: Is that because of the quarantine, and the raw materials couldn’t get inside?
A: Yes, the materials couldn’t get in or out. And people’s attitudes changed, they became more hesitant, so there were many weeks that we couldn’t do any work.
Q: And that wasn’t because there were no people to work, there were still people ordering products and there were people working, but rather it was because vehicles couldn’t get in?
A: Yes, because we were right next to the place where those repeated disasters had occurred, and so our traffic was greatly controlled.
Q: So how long was your factory closed?
A: Two, three weeks.
Q: What did you do during that time?
A: I stopped working. I didn’t go to work.
Q: And what about your income?
A: Since we weren’t operating, we didn’t have any income.
Q: In this kind of situation, what help could your union provide?
A: After 9/11 occurred, the entire world, all of America helped out New Yorkers, and people like us who lost our work, who suffered, the organizations like the Red Cross, Safe Horizon, and the union, they all offered assistance and help. For example, some people had no income for several weeks, and some couldn’t pay their rent, or they couldn’t buy food. The Red Cross first helped these people.
Q: Mr. Chin, did you yourself apply for economic assistance?
A: Yes, because I had suffered, I was a victim of 9/11.
Q: And was that because your factory had temporarily closed?
A: It had temporarily stopped operations.
Q: Now how did you know about [the economic assistance], did the news report that you could go to these organizations and apply, or did you hear from something else?
A: I saw it in newspapers and magazines, from the news in newspapers, and from what my friends said, what they told me.
Q: How many places did you go apply?
A: I applied at the 9/11 Safe Horizon because the 9/11 Safe Horizon helped victims a lot. Because I was a victim.
Q: Even though you don’t live in this area…
A: Because I worked in the area that was affected by the disaster. For example, there was a one-time cash subsidy. Later, they helped us apply for a few months of health insurance. Later they held training classes, those lasted 13 weeks, and they taught English, computers and business skills.
Q: Which one did you select?
A: I selected both English and computers.
Q: How is your current English level?
A: I can understand a little spoken English, and I know how to press some of the computer keys.
Q: If you were to move to a city without Chinese people, would your life be difficult?
A: Due to my life experience, I wouldn’t be afraid. The greatest fear one has is fear itself. If you aren’t afraid, then even in a difficult environment, if you have willpower and you’re throw yourself into things, then everything will be fine.
Q: So for thirteen weeks you studied English and computers, and…?
A: And also studied some skills for the garment industry. I guess you can say my profession is that of presser, and I learned some new skills, such as how to make the products the best possible, how to operate, how to run things, and I increased my skills, and stopped using outdated methods which would overtax my body’s energy.
Q: But you’ve already done this line of work for so long. Surely you’ve already learned everything you need to know. In those 13 weeks, did you really learn anything knew?
A: I did, because during all these years, I was just focused on working each day, and I had no opportunity to learn anything new.
Q: Did your factory have training every so often?
A: No, it didn’t.
Q: So you just used your same methods for ten or fifteen years without any changes?
A: Without changing at all. During those six weeks, I learned a lot of stuff.
Q: Recently, the garment production business has gradually been outsourcing to foreign countries. Have you thought about changing your line of work?
A: If I wanted to change professions, to speak bluntly, I’m too old for that, my age won’t let me adapt, to start over anew, because I’m not a young man anymore.
Q: You don’t look old.
[The interviewee laughs.]
Q: Do you fear that there will be no more work in this field?
A: I have a lot of confidence in it, I’m certain there will still be work.
Q: So you would say that the amount of work might decrease, but it won’t disappear?
A: It’s just like food, it’s not going to disappear. Just as people will always need food, there will always be a need for clothing, people will definitely need to wear clothing.
Q: But your salaries can never be as low as those in China?
A: Well, that’s talking about the ability to compete. Our strength here in New York is that we can produce clothing more quickly. That’s something that China and Southeast Asia can’t keep up with, don’t you agree?
Q: So if the order is not large, you can finish the job quickly in a short amount of time and provide the goods, while distant places can’t do that.
A: It seems that in the business world, a single day’s difference is quite significant.
Q: Let’s go back to discussing those thirteen weeks. Besides training, was there any other subsidy?
A: During those 13 weeks, we didn’t work, we gained knowledge, and we studied for 35 hours every week. During this time we couldn’t work, so there wasn’t any salary. But the 9/11 compensation gave us 300 dollars a week.
Q: Was this 300 dollars less than what you were making at the factory?
A: No, because…
Q: You said that in the 70s, you made 300 dollars a week, and if you’re still only making 300 dollars a week, how is that enough for your daily life?
A: Because I wasn’t going to classes every single day, and I would use my mornings, I would first work for 4 or 5 hours, and then go to class. I would go to classes according to their schedule, and in that way I had the 300 dollars in compensation, and besides I had a bit of salary from my work.
Q: So you were still working, you didn’t completely stop work?
Q: How long was work halted after 9/11?
A: It completely stopped for two or three weeks. Afterwards, it came back very gradually, and became stable. The garment factories’ progress slowly returned to normal, and then there were the training courses, that kind of education. Because of 9/11, a lot of the garment factories closed down, because they couldn’t maintain themselves.
Q: And that was because materials couldn’t get in?
A: And it was also because the garment factories had to bear everyday operating expenses, such as rent, utilities, and at the same time there was no product, and they couldn’t keep it up.
Q: But your factory didn’t have that problem…?
A: Our boss and workers both understood each other’s situation, that we were in the same boat, and we worked together to get through those difficulties.
Q: What kind of teacher did you have during those 13 weeks, was the teacher Chinese or White…?
A: There were Whites and also Chinese.
Q: There were Chinese?
A: The Chinese teachers used Chinese to explain things. It seems that for the English classes they used non-Chinese [literally: “foreigners”], and it seems that the computer teacher was a non-Chinese, at least that’s the way it was in my class.
Q: At the time, did you think about changing your job? Did they encourage you to study new professions?
A: There was a bit of everything, but they knew that the students’ levels didn’t reach so high, so they didn’t remind us that we should change professions. In the computer classes, we could only learn the most basic stuff, so we couldn’t change careers based on that.
Q: Did studying computers help you in your work after you finished the classes?
A: At the moment, we don’t have any need for computers, there’s no need for computers at work, so learning about computers was a matter of gaining personal knowledge.
Q: Which organization provided the 13 weeks of training?
A: The 23-25 Union.
Q: Did the union run the classes themselves, or did another organization take responsibility for the teaching?
A: I think it was the CWE, I think that organization’s system was very good, they started classes on time, and after we finished there were tests. After putting forth so much effort, they also wanted to know what kind of results there were.
Q: Do you think that 13 weeks was sufficient? Would you like to continue studying?
A: I think that, if it didn’t affect my work, I would like to continue studying, because people desire to increase their knowledge, and gain better knowledge.
Q: After the economic assistance ended, how did you get by?
A: I returned to my position as a worker, and worked normally.
Q: Did you work the same amount afterwards, or did you do less?
A: In our factory, we had dozens of people go do the training, so it affected the amount that our boss was able to produce. After those 13 weeks were over, we all worked very hard for the boss, because we had a responsibility to the company.
Q: Your children have all grown up now. Do you wish for them to follow you in this career?
A: My children have already grown up. They’ve graduated from college and found jobs. They don’t do this line of work. My older daughter is working as an accountant, while the younger one works at Bloomingdale’s. I think they’re doing very good, they’re doing management work.
Q: So your American dream has more or less been fulfilled in your children’s lives too, hasn’t it?
A: We Chinese want our sons to grow up to be like dragons and our daughters to grow up to be like phoenixes, so now that they have had this measure of success, I feel a bit of satisfaction.
Q: How long do you plan to work before retiring?
A: To put it directly, I will work until I can’t, and then I’ll retire.
Q: You look like you’re in excellent health, isn’t that right?
A: A person’s health is very important.
Q: You’ve worked in Chinatown for many years, what changes do you think Chinatown has undergone in these decades? Other than the increase in population and the widening of the roads, what changes have taken place among the Chinese people, or in the Chinese community?
A: The changes have been very dramatic. I’ll tell you something funny. At that time, when I first came from Taiwan, all the Chinese in Chinatown spoke Taishan-style Cantonese, and at that time if someone on the street spoke Mandarin Chinese, I would have thought it was really weird, and I’d look up and see who it was, because there were really few people that spoke Mandarin Chinese. Nowadays, if you don’t speak the Fuzhou dialect, people think it’s really strange, because Chinatown has so many people from Fuzhou now. So the change in 20 years has been huge.
Q: Do you think that such different Chinese people can unite?
A: I have the feeling that they have their own cliques. Taishan people have Taishan circles, and I think that interacting with them is a lot easier.
Q: Well, considering that you’re not from Taishan either, which circle do you feel like you belong to?
A: I have my own friends, my own partner, I’m more easy-going.
Q: Besides the union, are you a member of any other groups?
A: Community groups or that sort of thing, no.
Q: Why is that? You don’t feel the need, or…?
A: I don’t know. I feel that those are groups for long-term Chinese-Americans. That’s the way I feel.
Q: You’re not old, but you have been in America a long time, so do you consider yourself to be…?
A: I’m also a long-term Chinese-American, but I also have my own circle. Besides work, on Sundays I go fishing with my friends, go have fun.
Q: We’ve already talked for a long time, Mr. Chin, but do you feel that we’ve forgotten anything, about life, work, or your personal views…?
A: To joke a little, I think you’ve already mastered me as a subject. Ha ha…
Q: Ha, ha – well, we’ll stop here then.
A: Thank you.
Q: Thank you!
Chinatown Interview: Interview (zh)
<p>陳：在堅尼路，between Lafayette & Broadway(在拉菲逸及百老匯之間)。</p>
<p>問：You don’t look old. (你看來不像老。)</p>