Manhattan’s Tenement Museum remembers Chinatown’s Garment Factory Past


Inside the Wong’s 103 Orchard Street apartment on the Tenement Museum Tour. Credit: Julie Stapen Photography

For 20 years, New York City’s Tenement Museum has documented the early lives of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and other European homelands.  Now, for the first time, the new permanent exhibit, Under One Roof, will show visitors scenes from the lives of Chinese workers, illuminating a history that many current residents of Manhattan’s Chinatown still remember.

“Fifty years ago there were not many Chinese. It was completely different,” said Helen Hom, who arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s­­ and is now a regular visitor at the Chinatown Senior Center on Mulberry Street.

Hom arrived at a time when severe restrictions on Chinese immigration were finally eased.  In particular, the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act ended long-standing legal barriers to immigration by non-Europeans, who had been restricted for decades because of white workers’ fears of losing jobs to them.

Once the doors began to open in the U.S., many fled China in the wake of communism, the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, and ongoing famine.

But for those who arrived in New York City, life wasn’t always as easy as they’d hoped. There were “few job options,” Hom remembers. Many middle class immigrants faced language difficulties and so took on lower status jobs; Chinese men worked in restaurants, and the women – including Hom – worked in factories.

The Tenement Museum’s exhibit showcases this history by telling the story of the Wong family and allowing visitors to experience what it might have been like to immigrate to a new country. The Wongs came from Taishan province in southern China, moving first to Hong Kong then to New York in 1965.

Mrs. Wong and her daughter Yat Ping. Credit: The Tenement Museum.

Inside the museum’s new exhibit, at 103 Orchard Street, visitors will enter the reconstructed home of the Wong family and end their tour in an interactive garment factory that unveils the daily life of thousands of Chinese immigrants. Mrs. Wong, whose story is a central part of the exhibit, worked in six different garment factories until her retirement in 2001. Hers was a common experience, and historian Margaret M. Chin, estimates that, by the late twentieth century, nearly 70 percent of all manufactured clothing in New York was produced in Chinatown.

Factory work was considered a good job for immigrant women who made up 80 percent of Chinatown factory employees, said Kathryn Lloyd, the museum’s director of programs. “Working in the garment industry offered them independence,” Lloyd said and the factories’ unions offered benefits such as health insurance, pensions and citizenship classes.

But 9/11 changed all that. In the aftermath of the attacks, Chinatown factories – located barely a mile from the World Trade Center – literally come to a halt, because delivery trucks were no longer able to access the area, said Annie Polland, the exhibit’s curator and executive vice president of education and programs. In the 1980s, Polland says, there were 400 garment factories licensed to operate in Chinatown; today there are none.

Chinatown has struggled to revive, and in the years since, a community that was predominantly working class has begun to be supplanted, forced out by landlords charging higher rents and developers aiming for a more gentrified population.

“There’s nothing positive about that change,” said Mei Lum, 26, a fifth generation Chinatown resident and owner-in-training at the area’s oldest surviving shop, Wing On Wo. The shop has sold quality Chinese porcelain at its Mott Street location, in the heart of historic Chinatown, since 1925. Lum’s ancestors were some of Chinatown’s first businessmen; they opened a general store there in the 1890s.

Lum is passionate about efforts, like those of the Tenement Museum, to preserve Chinatown’s heritage. She began her own preservation project, the W.O.W. Project, last year – a multi-generational community initiative that aims to allow “the Chinatown community to reclaim ownership over its culture.”

She says this culture is intrinsically connected to the stories of past immigrants.  “Asian Americans across the map connect with Chinatown,” Lum said. She has been working with a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, Diane Wong, to collect oral histories of the area and together they have toured Chinatowns on the West Coast, hoping to share stories on countering gentrification. Lum has hosted discussion panels and artistic residencies in her grandparents’ store – all events aimed at tackling the question of preservation through arts, culture and activism.

At the Tenement Museum, the Wong family’s story will give visitors a taste of these memories.  It remains to be seen how Lum’s generation will fully translate this history into Chinatown’s future, but the museum’s exhibit seems to be coming at the right moment. Lum sees her community being both culturally and economically displaced by gentrification and is anxious that next generation educate themselves. “It’s a very urgent time for Chinatown right now,” she said.


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