After arriving in New York City from Hong Kong in 1950 as the wife of Brooklyn laundry worker and poet Tung Pok Chin, Wing Fong Chin (nee, Mak Ting Fong) (1928- ) was a housewife and mother for her first five years in America. She also assisted her husband with his laundry business which was connected to the family's residence. When her 5-year-old son Wilson started kindergarten and her 3-year-old daughter Winifred was old enough to stay at home under her father's supervision, Wing Fong Chin decided to obtain outside employment. She found work as a seamstress in a Chinatown garment sweatshop during the fall of 1955.
The Chinatown garment industry emerged in the late 1940s because of increased Chinese immigration beginning in 1943 and low rents in Chinatown. By the mid-1950s, there were slightly less than 20 garment shops in Chinatown. Most garment shops were situated in converted tenement apartments where Chinese bachelor men had previously lived.
The term "sweatshops" was apt. Chinatown garment workers generally worked between 12 and 15 hours per day, seven days per week. There was no minimum wage, overtime compensation, job security, sick leave, vacation pay, or health coverage. Employers paid workers on a piecework basis and readily dismissed slow workers. Workers tended to move from shop to shop in search of higher piece rates.
During the summer months, workers had to endure temperatures that reached into the 90s without air conditioners. The heat of the sewing machines made room temperatures more stifling. Fans would blow factory dust into the air, inducing asthma-related illnesses. Restroom toilets were broken.
"[My mother] was working so many hours. . . . She came home so late that one day when she came home early I asked her who she was because I didn't know her."
"My brother and I used to go with my mother to the shop on weekends or during the summertime. . . . She would sew these straps and you needed people to turn [the straps] right side out. You had to reverse it. It was a game. We would do this for her and for other people. And they call it child labor. We weren't paid for any of it. We were there helping our moms. We were having fun threading this and pushing that and 'I can do more than you.' Of course, the more you do, the more it helps. And you never looked at it as child labor. We just did it to kill the time while we were there."