Life in the restaurant business in Chinatown and Flushing is harsh. According to Gwen Kinkead, author of Chinatown, waiters and dishwashers get paid the lowest and most illegal wages in New York City. Most of Chinatown's restaurant workers come as illegal immigrants from Mainland China, joined by Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, Malaysians, Vietnamese, Cambodians and a few other Asian communities among them. In view of their illegal status, workers accept low, and non-taxed wages, and most often do not mind exploitation.
Almost all, if not all restaurant workers live in kong xi fong, better known as "bunks," where about 10-12 people squeeze into a bunk renting only a bed (if one could afford it). Most newcomers have enough only to rent a bed in rotation, from the kong xi fong. Rotation beds are usually shared by two people, whereby two people with different working hours alternate the beds one after another. There is a popular saying in Chinatown with reference to kong xi fong lifestyles that translates to "The bed is always warm."
A man whom I met and interviewed in the Mandarin dialect, by the name Ah Shan from Mainland China (who did not wish to be photographed) had told me he came to New York from Mainland China 20 years ago. He is a bachelor, like most workers in the restaurant business are. He operates a "hot dog stand" in the Soho/Noho area in which he said to me, "I am the last and only Chinese doing this," with obvious reference to his vendoring. When I asked him why he didn't take a a regular Chinese restaurant job instead of a running a vendor business, he passionately answered, "I'd rather be doing this than to be under someone. Although I wake up early in the morning to prepare for the day and there is no guarantee I'll make enough to pay my bills, I am my own boss. Working at a restaurant for somebody, you have to kan mein se." The direct translation, see the color of another person's face, means to live toleration and submission to the boss' temper (usually not a good one). I sat down for a good hour, on a stool by Ah Shan's vendor cart, in which he had offered me and spoke with him about his experiences as an immigrant worker. He had said that when he first came to New York, he worked as a waiter in Chinatown, and have long given up the life. Ah Shan is 55.
I spoke with a few other people in Flushing, and this particular Chinese woman whom is from Ipoh, Malaysia, came in using a tourist visa and have decided to stay. She currently works at a Chinese-owned Japanese restaurant. She tells me of her hardship, and how hard it was to find a Chinese restaurant job in New York. Before moving to Flushing, she had worked in Boston, Maryland, Chicago, and Washington D.C. illegally in Chinese restaurants. This woman mentions Chinese restaurant jobs with much discontent, with a special emphasis on serving trays. "The trays... very heavy, very tired." When asked if she was returning to her motherland, she says she dreams of it, but had mentioned that she would not be able to get a life equal or better than the one she now has. By the fourth time I met up with her, I finally got her to talk to me about her life. She mentioned that she earns about $1,000 a month, paying $200 a month for her bed in a kong xi fong, has no friends and said she was rarely happy. She said, "I take care, you take care." I thanked her and said I would return to chat periodically.
Service in Chinese restaurants are usually very efficient and speedy, due to competition of neighboring restaurants. You may notice waiters shout a lot, but it is part of the network. In fact at Jing Fong Restaurant in Chinatown, waiters are equipped with high-tech radios to communicate in a large and busy restaurant atmosphere. Waiters need not look especially good, unlike American restaurants that sometimes hire beautiful women as part of a branding tactic. Chinese restaurants hire workers that works hard and are efficient and speedy. Good food is a luxury for any Chinese. When Chinatown isn't gambling, it is eating, and it is these two things that a typical Chinese immigrant pleasure in.
Copyright (c) of Jacqueline Miao, 1998. All Rights Reserved.