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Matthew Taylor MHC 150 Ida Susser 5/2/11 Final Project

Venders and Waiters in Chinatown Chinese immigrants work hard. This is hardly a matter of opinion, as most incoming immigrants must start from the bottom of the social and economic ladder and work their way up. This task is made even more difficult if families arrive in New York illegally, as is the case for many Chinese immigrants. These people have no money, no place to stay, and barely even speak English. With no alternative, they find themselves turning to ethnic enclaves for a head start to their new lives. However, these enclaves often put these immigrants to work as waiters in restaurants or street vendors under harsh, unfair conditions. Among the main issues of these jobs are unfair payments. Just how difficult is it for an illegal immigrant to make money in Chinatown? Chinatown¶s illegal immigrants have very limited employment options when they first enter the country. Not only do they have no legal status, but many immigrants also cannot speak English, and they have a huge smuggling debt to pay. Consequently, they cannot get a job applying the skills they have learned in China and must therefore lower their standards of which kind of jobs they obtain in America. They need to take any job they can get, and because they can¶t use their own skills and education, they usually end up with the jobs of people who have low income and a low level of education, such as waiting, cooking or cleaning, or selling food as street vendors.

The US Census Bureau reported in 2008 that 36% of American households earning over $100,000 a year were Asian, and that 19.4% of Asian Americans earn between $100,000 and $150,000. However, this doesn¶t suggest that Asian Americans are all wealthy, or even that most of them are. By narrowing the view of the survey to New York County, we see that 17.4% of households in New York County (Chinatown) earn less than $30,000 a year and 14.5% of all Americans making under $30,000 are Asian. Recalling Forbidden Workers by Peter Kwong and Kenneth Guest, the 36% of rich households in Chinatown are probably Cantonese Chinese immigrants who have used their entrepreneurship and money to solidify their high position in Chinatown. The wealth of these households yields a very high median income for Asian Americans ($73,578). The lower 15%, however, are probably immigrants that the rich heads of the enclaves are taking advantage of, and all of the illegal immigrants in New York City aren¶t even included in the surveys. On the Census, their poverty is masked by the incomes of the wealthier Chinese citizens. These workers, as explained above, are in search of a job, and they are often promised jobs that won¶t require them to speak English or leave Chinatown. However, some of the more popular occupations given to these immigrants are restaurant jobs (such as waiters, dishwashers, or chefs) and street vending jobs selling food and knockoff merchandise for tourists. Walking down Canal Street or Mott Street will give many vivid examples of Chinese immigrants who have taken up both of these types of employment. And while these jobs are respectable and offer a better living than alternative (or illegal) means of income (such as joining a triad or a tong,

dealing drugs, or prostitution), they both have their own issues in Chinatown, which make it difficult to make a living while retaining happiness and integrity. Anyone who has been to Chinatown can tell without even walking one block that it is one of the most commercial areas in New York. So then how could income be so unevenly distributed among the people of Chinatown, as stated by the statistics above? With all the tourists walking the street as well as Americans that come to Chinatown for authentic Chinese food and groceries, restaurants must collect large amounts of revenue on a regular basis. Yet still, employees at Chinatown restaurants have very low incomes. How can anyone working in a Chinatown restaurant not make good money in such a profitable area? Perhaps the following article from the New York Times will shed some light: ³Big Chinese Restaurant Accused of Siphoning Tips´ by Jennifer Lee discusses waiters at Jing Fong Restaurant being severely underpaid by their manager, Ming Lam. Jing Fong has had several lawsuits in the past 10 years over failures to pay overtime to waiters and to pay it¶s employees above the minimum wage. In 2006, Jing Fong was also accused of taking its waiters¶ tips and using them to pay the women that push dim sum carts. This isn¶t a solitary incidence either. According to Lee, ³Critics say that enforcement of these [wage] laws are sporadic.´ If this is the case, who knows how many people are being cheated out of their money with no voice to speak out? Although this may not be a common occurrence, it¶s logical to think that other restaurants have employed the same tactics to collect more profit at the expense of their employees. Jing Fong is one of the bigger Chinese restaurants in New York City, but in smaller eateries, perhaps places that don¶t make as much profit, tip siphoning and exceedingly low wages are even more likely to occur.

Another issue that this article brings to the spotlight is the waiters¶ inability to defend themselves against such treatment. Since so many employees in Chinatown¶s food industry are illegal immigrants, most of them are afraid to draw attention to themselves. If the government learns that they¶re illegal, they will be deported. Therefore, they are willing to take low wages and harsh conditions because it allows them to stay in the country. Blackmail also prevents waiters and other illegal workers from speaking out. Peter Kwong writes in Forbidden Workers that ³They [illegal immigrants] are victims of a large-scale and sophisticated international human smuggling network«they face constant threats of torture, rape, and kidnapping´ (Kwong, 58). Immigrants are often blackmailed into working underpaid, so to speak out would be to risk the safety and well being of themselves and their families. Needless to say, the conditions under which they came to this country inhibit the chances of an illegal immigrant to prosper financially in New York City¶s Chinatown. But illegal immigrants working as waiters are not just unable to testify or protest against the restaurants that employ them; they are unwilling. There have been cases in which mistreated workers opted to continue working under unfair conditions. The reason for their bizarre behavior relates to the role that unions play in Chinatown¶s work force. Unions such as the Chinese Staff and Workers Association fight for the rights of Chinese restaurant workers in New York City¶s Chinatown. The CSWA was the particular union that fought against Jing Fong in the aforementioned New York Times article. In their 30 years of existence, the CSWA has established the first independent union in Chinatown, secured the first wage increase for tipped

employees in ten years, and after the events involving Jing Fong, have won legal decisions which prohibit employers from stealing the tips of their workers. But in another article regarding Jing Fong titled ³A Union and Waiters Face Off in Chinatown´ the CSWA¶s protests and rallies are met with opposition not by Ming Lam, but by 40 of the restaurant¶s own employees. These workers actually resisted the efforts of the CSWA and set up an anti-protest outside the restaurant. They ³had voted unanimously not to join the union, Local 318 Independent Restaurant Workers' Union, because they feared that labor disputes could lead to unemployment (Lii, 1995). The 318 Restaurant Worker s Union was established by the CSWA and was the first worker s union in Chinatown. They had recently driven another restaurant, The Silver Palace, to bankruptcy because the owners were stealing tips and trying to eliminate benefits and force workers to agree to an illegal pay rate. The waiters at Jing Fong did not want their restaurant to suffer the same fate. If the union fought until the restaurant closed down, all of the employees would be out of a job. For an illegal immigrant who can t speak English or who wouldn t be able to obtain another job if he lost this one, unfair pay was better than no pay. Thus, the workers at Jing Fong had to fight against their own rights in order to keep their job. So despite the CSWA and the 318 s efforts to protect and support the employees of Chinatown restaurants, many illegal immigrants are in such a bad position that they cannot even accept the help they desperately need. In spite of all of the unions accomplishments, they cannot do much good if the people they want to help won t accept their assistance.

Conversely, illegal immigrants can t go very far as residents in the U.S. without the help of the Chinese labor unions, so they are stuck between two terrible circumstances. STREET VENDORS Not all illegal immigrants became waiters though. Many immigrants are given jobs as street vendors. Street vendors set up little carts or booths all over the streets of Chinatown and sell both items that appeal to tourists, such as knockoff jewelry and coach bags, and items that appeal to Chinatown¶s residents, such as fruits, vegetables, and other groceries. I spent a good amount of time watching street vendors in their daily routine and took many notes about their daily routines. Based on what I¶ve observed, street vendors in Chinatown need to wake up extremely early in order to have their carts set up for morning commuters, and they often don¶t close up until well after dusk. Street vendors keep most of their goods on a truck, so they must unload all of their storage every day and load it back up every night. It¶s a very arduous process. As long as their goods are in season, venders will be out regardless of the weather. They go out in the freezing cold sometimes, with no shelter from the cold. Only the merchants that sell cooked food have protection from the cold because the heat from their food carts keep them warm. The downside to this heat is that they spend the entire day cramped up in their little booth cooking. It seems very uncomfortable. Just the basic conditions of working as a street vendor are uncomfortable to say the least. Unfortunately, I couldn¶t get any interviews with Chinese street vendors. Not only was there a language barrier, but even when I brought a translator they were not informative or friendly. They were all busy, and were annoyed that we were taking their attention away from their customers. They also seemed to panic whenever we began asking them questions such as ³do you like this job?´ ³How did you get this job?´ and ³do you pay rent to someone?´ They

were also touchy about questions regarding their legal status and income. My guess is that they were illegal immigrants, and therefore they couldn¶t trust us with their information. To be honest, I should have expected such a reaction, since illegal immigrants can¶t really be forthcoming with that kind of information. Aside from the physical and weather problems, there are financial problems attached to the job of a street vender. Venders need to sell things that are being sold by several other vendors on the same block. The high competition between different venders so close to each other makes it very difficult for an individual cart to make a profit. Making a high profit is essential to any business, but it is crucial to street vendors. Venders have to pay a very high annual rent to maintain their spots on the streets of Chinatown. More populated spots, such as Canal Street or Mott Street, have much more commerce than Hester Street or Bayard Street, and therefore the spots on these locations cost more to rent. Since most street vendors are illegal immigrants, their employers are usually the leaders of their ethnic enclaves. Since enclaves often take advantage of their workers, leaders will charge extremely high rents to their vendors. Even if the street vendors pay back their debt, they will have almost no money left over at the end of the year. With the economic competition of so many other venders selling the same things to consumers and tourists, the chances of making any extraordinary profit are slim. Basically, street vendors work very tough hours under pressing economic and physical conditions, all for very little final profit. They don¶t make nearly enough money to support themselves, much less a family, which many of them have. On top of the economic and physiological challenges of being a street vendor in Chinatown, there are also legal challenges to overcome. Just last month the New York Times

published an article titled ³Council Member Seeks to Make Buying Fake Designer Brands a Crime´ that told about Councilwoman Margaret Chin¶s intentions to ban the purchase of fake merchandise. The article, written by Ashley Parker, states that ³Ms. Chin¶s proposed bill would make it a misdemeanor to buy fake designer merchandise. If the bill passes, violators«could face a $1,000 fine, a year in jail, or both.´ Councilwoman Chin also stated in the article ³In Chinatown, people can come and shop for some really authentic goods, and we want them to really experience the neighborhood, not just come down and buy these fake knockoffs,´ she said. ³We want to be known for our museums, our shops, our restaurants´ (Parker, 2011). But although banning the purchase of knockoffs will direct commerce towards authentic goods and overall help the economy, there will be massive job displacement. If people stop buying knockoffs, many people will stop visiting Chinatown altogether. This means that many street vendors will lose their jobs. Street vendors rely on the revenue from their knockoff goods to feed their families, and the banning of such revenue will displace many Chinese families. To make matters worse, illegal immigrants cannot speak out against this bill because they cannot bring attention to the fact that they¶re illegal. Street vendors and waiters share similar struggles in trying to succeed financially in America. In both cases, the majority of the demographic is illegal, making it difficult to defend rights, demand proper wages, and fight for their own jobs. Chinese workers face job insecurity, low pay, no benefits, and they lack the ability to obtain most of these. I wouldn¶t be able to choose one over the other, as both seem equally destructive towards the lives of illegal immigrants in New York City¶s Chinatown.

Sources: U. S. Census Bureau. (2000). Chinatown Household Income Statistics: New York County, N.Y. Retrieved May 1, 2011, from

Lee, J.B. (2006). Big chinatown restaurant accused of siphoning tips. The New York Times, Retrieved from

P ar k er , As h le y. ( 2 0 1 1 , Ap r i l 2 6 ) . C o u n c i l me mb e r s ee k s t o ma k e buying fake designer br ands a cr ime . Ne w York Ti mes, Retr ieved fro m ht t p : / / w w w . n yt i me s. c o m/ 2 0 1 1 / 0 4 / 2 7 / n yr e g io n / b i l l- a i ms - t o make- bu ying- fake-goods-a- cr ime- in-newyork. ht ml?_r=1&scp=7&sq=chinat o wn%20 illega l&st =cse

Kwong, Peter. (1995). Forbidden workers: illegal chinese immigrants and american labor. New York, NY: The New Press.

Lii, J.H. (1995, March 13). A union and waiters face off in chinatown. New York Times,