Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Growing up in Chinatown’s sweatshops
By Celina Su


In this video post, Thomas Yu and May Wong Lee talk about the garment factories in which their parents worked. Thomas grew up in Loisada public housing, left the neighborhood to study international diplomacy, and eventually came back to work for Asian Americans for Equality. May Wong Lee also grew up in the neighborhood, attended PS 42, and now works as Assistant Principal there.

We shopped sweat
For T.Y. and M.W.L.

It was as if the factories spun filaments of fate. We grew attached to these bleak, overcast, rectangular rooms with fluorescent bulbs hanging by convoluted wires. We worked every day to leave them; we dedicated farewell verse to them. “To this shithole of a room,/ Good-bye, and sorry about these walls.”

Swinging around finished garments as our jungle gym, we memorized spots for our own disappearance. We hid from union investigators in the folds of other people’s disposable incomes, on the fire escape, at the bottoms of buckets and barrels, but not of ladders—We disguised ourselves in the mainstream fashions of socioeconomic mobility, of empire waist ties and diaphanous babydoll dresses. Give me your two cents, a penny for your thoughts, a penny for my inverted belts, my knots around clothing tags. Safety in cardboard, safety in numbers. When third grade meant older, that I could finally reach the sewing machine pedals on my tippy toes—

For I will stand taller, run faster, grow prettier, if I stumble away. (For I will move to Queens. I will see the world, I will go to Harvard, I will meet kids who took piano lessons.)

We sang polyphonic prodigals, and yet, our escape routes circumnavigated home. We thought we had cut our threads, but they had been stitched into our skin, onto the backs of our ankles, into the smalls of our backs, between our shoulder blades, embroidered in the shape of piety, tattooed in the name of grace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

About Open City
Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
Search Open City:
Featured Profile
CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

See all Featured Profiles.
Community Announcements
Manhattan CB3 Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee
Monday, May 2 at 6:30 pm -- Rutgers Community Center, Gymnasium - 200 Madison Street (btwn Rutgers & Pike Sts)

Brooklyn CB7, Land Use/Landmarks Committee Regular meeting
Continued discussion on potential 8th Avenue rezoning

Manhattan CB3 Economic Development Committee Tuesday, May 3 at 6:30pm -- Community Board 3 Office - 59 East 4th Street (btwn 2nd Ave & Bowery)

Read more.

See all announcements.