We Built New York: Honoring Chinese Workers

chineseworkers-1024x575Between the 1970s and the 1980s, a wave of Chinese workers immigrated to the United States, in hopes of building a better life for themselves and their children. The hardships they faced were challenging and unexpected. Using photographs and first person stories, We Built New York: Honoring Chinese Workers showcases Chinese Americans in New York City, many of whom worked in factories in the garment industry. Their contributions are essential to the fabric of New York and the country as a whole. This month, which is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting their immigrant experiences.

We Built New York is a project of LaborArts, The National Writers Union, Workforce Development Institute, and Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. Photographs by Matthew Septimus. For more information, visit: National Writers United Service Organization

An interactive presentation of this material by PBS’ Chasing the Dream series can be found here 


Agnes Wong


Agnes Wong was an activist in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union for more than 30 years. Born in Guangzhou, China, she moved to Hong Kong as a child and came to New York with her husband in 1974. Shortly after arriving, she took a job working as a seamstress in a garment factory in Chinatown and joined Local 23–25 ILGWU. She walked out of her factory with 20,000 of her co-workers in the 1982 Chinatown Garment Factory Strike, and later became a shop representative and a Local 23-25 Executive Board member.

She credits the union with ‘bringing her up’—she met strong women leaders, and learned English, leadership development, and organizing. The union, in return, benefited from Agnes’ activism. Over the years, she helped organize Chinese speaking workers in various industries in the US and in Canada. Completely bi-lingual, she represented the union in the media and by lobbying government officials on human and workers’ rights, fighting against free trade agreements and sweatshops in the garment industry, and by educating the public about the Triangle factory fire and its legacy. Wong is currently Vice President of the Local 23-25 Chinese Retirees Club, which engages its 500 members in political, educational and recreational activities.

A founding member of the Chinese Committee of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Agnes is active in many communities. As a committed member of the Transfiguration Catholic Church she provides support to those who feel isolated, regularly visiting the sick and ailing. “As an immigrant to the US who knows no one,” she explains, “you feel distressed. That is why it’s so important to support each other.”

Alice Ip



(as told to Ruth Sergel)

“Everybody came here with a dream”

Alice grew up in Hong Kong with six brothers and sisters. Her father had one of the first cars in Hong Kong. He repaired cars and gave driving lessons. Education was subsidized through elementary school. After that, one had to pay. There were a lot of people in Alice’s home. Not just immediate family but also a cousin, her grandmother and an adopted daughter from the village. It was a heavy responsibility for her father.

We asked Alice how she met her husband. “I was not so lucky. I was only 18. My oldest sister was teaching in a school. My aunt thought my sister is good and wants to introduce her to a boy but my sister already had a boyfriend in high school. My aunt brought 5 oranges. She says the man is a sailor but he wants to marry and settle down. It turned out that he just wanted someone to care for his elderly mother while he was away.” Alice got married in 1967 and gave birth to her first daughter in 1968.

Later Alice’s sister felt so sorry. She said to Alice “You are good, I shouldn’t have refused him.” Her sister felt guilty her whole life because the man wanted someone who would be successful outside the country but Alice was very quiet at only 18 years old.

We ask Alice, but he loved you? Alice says no, no he just wanted someone to care for his mother. In 1970 Alice moved to Holland with her two year old daughter because her husband had left when she just had the baby. She was 18 years old and already had one child. She was alone when she gave birth to her second child and went on to have three children. Her husband was a gambler and always getting fired. But Alice still took care of her mother-in-law for the next 20 years.

Alice’s father-in-law didn’t have a green card so he couldn’t help to get them to the US but later Alice’s sister married an American citizen who took her to America. She became an American citizen and brought Alice over from Holland. Alice says that all immigrants think coming to America is the best. People see coming to America as the Golden Mountain, you will make a lot of money. When Alice divorced from her husband her co-workers opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate!

“The union saved my life”

In 1982 Local 23-25 needed more staff to help organize the strike and Alice was hired. She was so accomplished at her job that she became a business agent overseeing 72 shops and a member of CLUW.

Alice had learned from her father to be happy working with a group of people. She didn’t get a higher education, didn’t even get through high school. Bravery and confidence came from her father. He only went to school for two years but he can communicate. He writes good English and Chinese. This influenced the moment Alice gave her famous speech at the Uprising of 1982.

May Chen remembers Alice’s speech. The bosses said “but you’re Chinese, you should have life like in China” but Alice said “No, we are in NYC we should be treated like New Yorkers!”

Alice tells us, we are all blessed from our parents. Education is important and sharing love, being brave, being positive We learn from others. It is important to respect others.

“How do we create change? We need to organize!”

Alice believes that love can convince people to change their way of thinking. You have to be reasonable when you talk to people and try to make them happy. People need to understand that you can’t make yourself happy based on the sorrow of others. Alice found that she was happy to help people.

Alice shared her work method with us: in order to solve a problem – you need to get information. You have to be smart about things. Some people are bad, they even steal. You have to take the time to really know who they are, then figure out what to do.

Alice shared the story of an older man who went to China and came back with a young bride. They had two children. The young woman worked in the garment industry while the man stayed home with the children. One day he stepped out briefly to pick up some food. When he came back, the apartment was in flames from a faulty heater. He tried to save the children but they both died and he was blinded in one eye.

The mother was inconsolable. No one knew what to do anymore to help her. She had lost the will to live. Alice thought about the situation. Finally, she reached out to the woman and told her this: Yes, you are a mother, but you are also a daughter. Alice contacted the woman’s mother and brother back in Honk Kong. She kept reminding the woman of her place in the generations of life. Slowly, with Alice’s thoughtful care, the woman came back to life. She and her husband  found the will to have a family again and went on to have two beautiful children.

For Alice, no matter what happens in life, you have to stick to your values. “I want to give the message to the younger generations. If people don’t agree with you, you can’t do anything. You cannot do great things by yourself. You need a group of people.”


May Ying Chen



My name is May Ying Chen, and I was born in Boston, Massachusetts – the first of my family to be born in America. That’s why my grandfather gave me the name May which is the same Chinese word for America. My parents were immigrants from China and Hong Kong, and they gave me values of education, food and family, humility and self-respect. I had a lot of typical “girl” jobs in my life, including babysitting, sales clerk in big and small stores, office work in a big library, small college office, and a Chinese tea company. I studied to be a teacher, but when my family moved to New York in 1980, public schools were facing the city’s economic crisis and cutbacks, so there were no teaching jobs.

I went to high school and college in the turbulent 1960’s, when we believed that everything in life is political. I was lucky that most of my jobs related to something I believed in…jobs and work were tied together… Even though job recruiters back then were allowed to designate certain jobs “for men only,” women were fighting for more equal treatment at work, and I supported a lot of these demands for Women’s rights. I was proud and happy to be in the workforce getting my own paychecks, and it actually felt funny (in a good way) to retire after working continuously for 40 years, and to get paid (pension checks) without having to work! More than forty years ago, I was lucky to meet and marry Rocky Chin through volunteer work in the Asian American community. He is a solid partner and soul-mate in raising two children, and now babysitting four grand-children, while staying active with community, friends, and family.

I worked in the garment workers’ union for 25 years, my longest and best job. There were many challenges: sad hardships faced by the immigrant workers, job losses as the garment industry went global, anti-union bosses and governmental policies, the tragic impacts of 9-11. The people were wonderful, and there really was a deep sense of family and solidarity and team work in the union that kept us going. I got my union job after a huge strike of the Chinatown garment workers in New York City in 1982. I was working for the hotel and restaurant union and was called to support two massive rallies in Columbus Park. It was amazing to see close to 20,000 Chinatown workers cheering for union speeches and marching down Mort Street on strike! Almost every family in Chinatown had garment workers, or employers. This was such a big industry for decades, until the millennium, and 9-11.

Local 23-25 did a lot for the workers and community. Our families had good health care benefits. There was a small day care center. Workers and union were active in politics, registered to vote, and lobbying in New York City, Albany, and Washington, DC, for good jobs, fair treatment for immigrants, women, and all workers.

What matters most to me then and now is to make a better world for family, friends, immigrants, and workers. I am very grateful for the jobs, adventures and experiences I’ve had. I hope young people can open their minds and hearts to other people, find good friends, mentors, and partners in life, and enjoy a bright future.

Bonny Ng Mui Leung & Cindi Sai Leung


WBNYCrop2.jpgWe were born in Vietnam. Our family was from China, but our parents had businesses in Vietnam. We were a very big family of ten children; six girls and four boys. Our mother took us back to China to be raised by our Grandma. After she died, an elder sister took care of us. After a few years in Guangdong, we moved to Hong Kong…3 sisters and an older brother. Bonny (Ng Mui) was about 12-13 years old. Our parents were still in Vietnam, and Mother only came back once a year. She brought gifts and special foods. We were very obedient, took care of ourselves at home, and did a lot of different handicrafts work… embroidery, knitting, making wigs. We didn’t run around outside. Later, Bonny worked for a tailor and did trimming and belts, often taking work to do at home. Cindy worked at making wigs.

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, our parents were able to immigrate to America, and we followed in 1976. When we got to America, we were glad to find jobs in the sewing factories. We had to learn how to sew, how to use the machines. The co-workers were very friendly about teaching us, and telling us how to join the union. Factory work was good for us, Since we did not know English. Cindy worked in six different factories, starting with ladies’ suits, then coats and evening dresses. Everyone helped each other to get and share information at work. Bonny worked at three different places over twenty-nine years, making pants, skirts and vests. There were health benefits, paid holidays, and the union offered many activities. We took English classes and joined the union’s chorus. We also supported lots of marches and rallies for the garment industry. The boss let us leave work a little early for union meetings.

Bonny did volunteer work for NY Downtown Hospital helping people in Chinatown with health check-ups, mammograms, etc. We also used our old handicraft skills to make quilts and banners for the community and union. Cindy got a part-time job making men’s wigs for a short time. The men’s wigs were different from the Women’s wigs she did in Hong Kong… they were toupees that stick to the head. Eventually the wig business moved, so her job ended.

Children need to be taught to help each other and respect their elders. Parents and children need to learn patience. We know co-workers who were punished with jail time for beating their kids. It’s better to talk about problems and resolve them. There was one parent who took his child to a strange place and left them there alone to find help and get home. Later, this kid grew up to become a police officer!

Betty Fung


I was born in 1939 in Enping, Guangdong, China. During the Sino Japanese war, my family moved west to Guangxi, and my little brother was born there. When the war ended, the family moved back home to Guangdong.

When I was 18, my family married me off to a man known for his bad temperament and mean personality. He was a ship worker working for months at sea, so I went to live with his mother. My mother-in-law was so kind to me–she encouraged me to finish high school. I lived at school, and she cooked and delivered food to me. Later she arranged for me to move to Hong Kong, to escape the hard life in the village.

This was the 1950’s and 1960’s. My father went to the Dominican Republic and opened three photo stores. He needed help, so my whole family went there, including my husband and me. Our first son was born there.

By 1978 there was a lot of political unrest in the Dominican Republic, and the US was welcoming refugees. We missed the first deadlines, but finally succeeded in coming to the US. The first ten years were very hard for me and the family. I worked in the sewing factory and took work home. My sons helped with the factory work I took home at night, and they got summer jobs in restaurants to help support the family.

My husband’s bad habits were a drag on the family. He gambled away his money and could not hold a steady job. Nobody would hire him. He had a terrible temper. One day he smashed a glass vase when he threw it at me. Luckily, I was not hurt, but I locked myself in the bedroom and told him I would call the police and have him arrested. After a long, long time, I came out. The glass was all cleaned up. He asked me what I was doing for such a long time. I told him I spoke to the police and would make sure he went to jail if he ever did that again. (Actually, I never called the police!) He really changed after that, and I wondered why I waited so long to threaten him! My in-laws were always so good to me, so I would never leave my husband.

I taught my sons to study hard for a bright future, to love their parents, and to help with the housework. They would get good jobs and become good husbands when they grew up!

Biao Chen


Biyao-Chen.jpgI was born in Taishan, Guangdong, China in 1939. My grandfather and ancestors went back and forth from China to the US, so our family had five generations in America…

My father worked in Guangzhou, managing a factory that made hospital equipment. Mother stayed home in the village working in the fields. She died when I was only three years old. I had a little brother, but there was not enough to eat, and he was only one year old when our mother died. He died when he was three. My father re-married, and my stepmother had five children. I took care of my baby sister and helped a lot around the house.

My grandparents encouraged me to go to school, and my family supported me. When I was 15 years old, I needed $100 to finish my studies. My grandmother said she had no money, but my aunt said there was $100 put aside for my wedding. I didn’t want the money for my wedding, but I needed it for school. They gave me the money, but told me not expect any wedding gifts from them later!

I finished 12 years of school and became a teacher. I met and married my husband who was also a teacher. Although life in China was poor, we had stable jobs. We saved money whenever we could: we lived and ate our meals at school, and got around by walking everywhere. We had three children.

One of my students became a famous painter and won a prize in a national contest. I’ll never forget the special dinner they had, and it was such an honor to be there.

My favorite color is red. It is a strong color that shows determination, that you can stand up for yourself, even to bullies. That’s especially important for women!

I stayed in China until 1990 when Deng Xiaoping opened China’s economy and society, and I could immigrate to the US.

In the United States, I always had jobs in the sewing factories. I could make clothes for my kids. The whole purpose of coming to America was to give them new opportunities. I am not afraid of hardships, and was willing to do all the jobs in the factory… repairs, working at different machines, and all the sections of making the whole garment.

My longest job lasted for ten years, working in a sportswear factory in Manhattan’s Chinatown. I tried working in the Brooklyn factories closer to where I live, but the pay was not as good as Manhattan. I also was offered a community teaching job in Brooklyn but there were no benefits. I liked to sew, and the union benefits and activities were important to me. I took English classes, became an American citizen, and I vote in every election. I helped the union make phone calls to remind other workers to vote. I became very active in the Union’s Workers Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I met lifelong friends. They helped me so much after my husband died. We really care about each other and share everything together.

What matters most to me is good health. I want to be able to keep doing things for myself, to keep active.

My messages to young people are: learn and listen to your teachers, learn both English and Chinese, and take care of your health. Discrimination is a big challenge, and you need to learn how to speak up, to complain and to fight discrimination.