By Rev. Norman Fong

September 24, 2018

norman fong

There used to be so many sewing factories in Chinatown growing up in the ‘50’s to the ‘80s. My auntie ran one on Pacific Avenue and so my mom and lots of my aunties worked as garment workers. It was the main industry in Chinatown back then plus of course the many restaurants and tourist shops. I remember going to the sewing factory as a toddler and child and playing in a cardboard box as mom worked. I also remember my Auntie working so late to close up the factory every night. There were more than 300 Sewing Factories in Chinatown by the ‘60s and ‘70s (before the sewing industry started moving to other places even to other countries). After the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s – a lot of new immigrants worked in these sewing shops (since immigration quotas against the Chinese officially ended in 1965). It was low pay and hard work but everyone spoke Chinese and got to know each other like family in some cases – like my family experience growing up in my Aunt’s sewing shop. What was unfair is that the price big stores would sell the clothes for and the wage the garment workers got was a huge difference. I remember going to a downtown store with some garment workers in the early ‘70s looking at a blouse they made costing around $25 while they would get pennies for making that blouse. Manufacturers would go to many sewing factories in Chinatown to find out who would do it cheaper. Sometimes, there would be no work. Garment work is “seasonal”.

garment workers

garment workers=

garment workers

garment workers

When Ed Lee was working for the Asian Law Caucus, he came to me at Cameron House. He told me some Chinatown garment workers got in trouble and he needed help. He told me that it was a shame that a State Government agency was doing a state investigation on companies that were using unemployment benefits to supplement their pay. Remember, I said garment work back then was seasonal. Sometimes there was work and sometimes nothing. The state department deliberately chose to investigate Chinatown sewing factories. One factory was raided and these monolingual Chinese speaking garment workers got arrested and Attorney Ed Lee thought of ways he could help them. It wasn’t real big news as Ed Lee didn’t really want to publicize it too much and embarrass the workers. He came to me and my wife to ask if we could run a new English language center on Sundays for these workers. He convinced the judge that since the workers could not read English, they had no idea what they were signing. The state agency caught these workers between the time they returned to work while still getting unemployment funds. I guess at the time, many owners were doing that to help compensate workers who got paid so low. I think the state government wanted to stop that practice but I always wondered – why they picked on only Chinatown at the time.

Ed Lee was so smooth and humble at that time. He asked me to create that new “Chinatown Worker’s Center” (CWC) but knew I got married in Hong Kong but my Chinese wasn’t very good… so he asked my wife to lead the center. Usually my wife doesn’t want to be in the limelight and never wanted to be the director of anything. She is definitely a quiet behind the scenes person. Somehow, Ed Lee convinced her to accept the position and for a couple years, my wife and I and some volunteers ran the English classes for those garment workers so they would no longer be in trouble with the state agency. During those Sundays, we got to know Ed Lee a lot better as a calm, cool, smooth talking guy who just wanted to help those workers. It wasn’t publicized that much. That is the Mayor Ed Lee I knew. I’m sure he could have made it a big case by holding a lot of press conferences. There were a few but he had the love for community and for the workers first in mind. During those Sundays in the early 1980s, we got to know and love those workers and I felt an obligation to help because I remember what my mom and all my aunties went through. I miss those garment factory years and all those jobs for Chinatown (even though they were low paying). I had hundreds of “Aunties” because even if some weren’t my blood relatives, in Chinatown we called our parents friends and co-workers Aunties or Uncles too.

Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on September 23, 2018

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