By Eric Vanden Bussche
Six months ago, 33-year-old Qingxian Lin had never been outside the confines of his industrial hometown in China’s southern province of Fujian. But that changed once he set foot in the United States.
“I had never imagined that in only half a year it was possible to live in so many different cities,” Lin said as he listed the places where he has worked: New York, Boston and Kansas.
A former bank clerk earning slightly less than $100 a month, Lin decided to trade his stable but bleak job for a chance of finding work in New York. He agreed to pay Chinese mob leaders $60,000 to be smuggled into the country.
But faced with a weak job market still ailing from the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Lin was unable to find work. Restaurant managers turned him down, he said, preferring experienced workers to rookies like him.
Like many recently arrived Chinese illegal immigrants, Lin had no marketable skills and spoke no English. These immigrants usually end up trapped in the underground economy, either working in restaurants or garment factories, said Ko-lin Chin, author of "Smuggled Chinese: Clandestine Immigration to the United States."
But the growing popularity of buffet-style Chinese restaurants in the Midwest has fed a westward movement, Chin said. “When a Chinese opens a restaurant in Detroit, for example, the first thing he does is to call an employment agency in New York’s Chinatown,” he said.
The Search for Work
With the cascade of illegal immigrants entering the country in the past five years, the Midwest has absorbed those unable to penetrate the congested New York market.
Lin was no exception. He drifted from one state to another searching for job offers. Two months ago, he returned to New York to work in construction for $2,000 a month, well above the $1,300 he had earned as a waiter in Kansas.
Although Lin complains of the low salary and strenuous shifts, he said New York provides him with a feeling of home. “Kansas is so boring,” he said. “There is nothing to do there, and there aren’t as many Chinese as here.”
Even those who open their own businesses elsewhere to escape from the competition in the Northeast eventually return to New York to enjoy old age “among people of their own culture,” explained Wee Wong, an executive assistant at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, an institution that represents several family and professional organizations in the city’s Chinese-American community.
Following the 2001 terrorist attacks, layoffs affected nearly 25,000 employees in Chinatown, nearly three-quarters of the neighborhood’s work force, according to a report by the Asian-American Federation of New York. Restaurant workers’ earnings dwindled from $9.01 an hour to $3.41, below the state’s minimum wage of $6 an hour.
“Chinatown’s 3,855 businesses, the life blood of the neighborhood economy, are typically small, operate on thin profit margins, and are especially cash-strapped during economic downturns,” the report said.
Amid the economic backlash that crippled the restaurant industry, even the most experienced workers, like Benzhong Hong, weren’t lucky enough to keep their jobs.
After almost a decade in New York, Hong and his family were forced to go west in mid-2002. They headed to Mississippi only days after an employment agency in the basement of a Lower Manhattan tenement handed Hong a small piece of paper with the contact number of a restaurant there. A few months later, they settled in Ohio.
“Leaving New York gave me a sense of failure,” said Hong, a former officer in the Chinese army. “I’ve had such a painful life here so that my children could have a better future.” Skeptical that places like Ohio provide the same quality of education as New York, Hong frets over the prospect of his children being confined to a Midwestern public school.
“The military training has helped me endure the hardships I’ve encountered here,” Hong said.
Many immigrants are discouraged by the grim outlook for the restaurant industry. Even though business has improved substantially in the past year, restaurant managers predict that a complete recovery is still several years away.
“Everyone in the business has taken a beating,” said Sum Chen, manager of Shanghai Cuisine, one of the most popular tourist restaurants in Chinatown. The abundance of labor in Chinatown, he said, is one reason salaries remain low.
Lin remains undeterred. Confident that he will eventually save enough money to pay back his smugglers, he is already planning to open his own shop or restaurant. But he doesn’t want to leave New York. He’d rather return to China than open his business in another state. “What’s the use of making money when you live in a place where no one understands you?”
But Hong no longer nurtures the rosy mirage of the American dream. “I am too old to learn English, so I have no other alternative than to continue scrubbing floors and chopping food in a scorching heat that is sometimes unbearable,” Hong said. “It is an ungrateful job, but it is the only choice we have.”