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.