The American Dream: A Tall Order
A behind-the-counter look at Chinese take out in the 21st century
by DANIEL LAM
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Today was a special day at Grand China, a small Chinese take-out restaurant located in downtown Jamaica, Queens; a new employee was hired. According to Patrick Lin, owner and head chef of Grand China, one of the previous workers couldn’t take the long hours anymore so today was her last day and, well, now there is Ming.
It was his first day. In fact, he called just this morning, responding to the newspaper ad posted the day before. He had with him a suitcase, as requested by Patrick, because from that night on, he would be living at the restaurant’s apartment, with the other employees.
With a pressed polo shirt and clean blue jeans on, he was trying to look his best, but his attire was disregarded, since as soon as he walked in, he was quickly given an apron and a hat, and hurried into the kitchen.
With a smile of uncertainty on his face, he was off to work.
The Take-out Culture
“It’s not an easy business,” said Richard Lin, brother of Patrick, the previous owner of Grand China before he sold it to his brother in 2001. “The money is good, but only because you don’t have the time to spend it,” he said. The typical Chinese restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Employees get a day off, but the employers are not as fortunate. Even with the day off, that is a 70+ hour workweek with no overtime, because the pay is not structured that way.
“If you hire them, you are responsible for providing,” says Mr. Lin, “[that includes] three meals a day, and a place to live…it’s a completely different culture.”
Chinese take-outs have become prevalent in the American society, but there is a hidden cultural backdrop that many people do not see when making an order on the other side of the counter. Richard Lin, a former Chinese take-out owner, provided a window to the hardships that many Chinese immigrants face when coming to America, their reasons for coming, and why they take up working in restaurants.
Richard Lin, now 44, first started working in the Chinese restaurant business back in 1986, when he first came to the U.S. At the young age of 19, while still in Hong Kong, his family saved up just enough to send him to study in Canada. However, on the way there, during the stop in New Jersey, “I got off the plane and never got back on,” Mr. Lin said blithely, “there was more opportunity in America.” He made his way to New York, maintaining a work visa with his Canadian student visa, and got a job through a friend he knew who made it to the States a few years earlier. Although he didn’t have any experience, he was hired and learned how to cook through the other chefs.
“You just do it and you learn,” he said. In 1988, after working there for two years, he married the owners’ daughter, and they decided to save up and open their own restaurant. By 1989, Grand China Take-Out was opened.
Like Mr. Lin’s, many of these take-out restaurants are mom-and-pop styled, where the owners live above the restaurant, and the employees would live with them. For the most part, these employees would be in the U.S. alone, without any family, in need of a job and a place to stay. To understand the culture behind these restaurants, it’s worth exploring the history of the Chinese immigrants – and how they made their way to U.S.
A Brief History: Coming to America
According to Mr. Lin, during the late ‘80s and ‘90s, many Chinese immigrants came to the United States to seek opportunity to work and send money home. Because the value of the U.S. dollar was significantly stronger than the RMB, a worker in the U.S. could make four to five times more than they could in China. That was one of the main reasons why Mr. Lin stayed.
However, because it was very difficult to attain visas at the time, they would resort to illegally sneaking into America. With the help of “snakeheads” or smugglers, usually apart of Chinese gangs, they would make their way into America through cargo ships or whatever means and receive fake identifications, according toGod In Chinatown by Kenneth Guest. The payment for successful smugglings would easily reach as high as $70,000 per person, and because of this, these immigrants would come alone.
Because the price was so high, these illegal immigrants would have to work a few years until they could fully pay off their smugglers. Mr. Lin explained that he knew this because many restaurant workers he knew in the early ‘90s were illegal Chinese immigrants.
Since most of these immigrants came without any paper work, they would look within the Chinese community, and through word of mouth, they would find restaurant owners who would be looking to hire. “Back in China, we lived in small villages, no formal education, not a lot at least,” says Mr. Lin, “you can’t find a good job if you have no skills and can’t speak English.”
Because Chinatown had become such a microcosm of China itself, if they could make it to the U.S., many would have no trouble adjusting, and would disappear into the communities almost immediately. And with a monthly pay of $1,200, a man would pay back his smugglers in five years, since the employers covered room and board.
“It is a very special culture,” said Shiang Liu, the field director during Councilman John Liu’s term in Flushing, “and the Chinese immigrants have shown to possess a very strong sense of community.” When asked about the legality of the working condition and compensation, Liu said, “in terms of falling within DOL guidelines, they are being compensated legally, but if you’re asking whether it’s right, some feel differently, especially those outside the Chinese [immigrant] community.”
The Chinese immigrants have also proven to have a very strong sense of work ethic.
‘It’s Hard Work, But It’s Money.’
“There was only two in the front and two in the back”, said Mr. Lin, “so you learn to do a lot of things at the same time, and do it fast.” Mr. Lin explained that most Chinese take-outs only have four workers, to keep cost low. “I had one more chef, we cook, and my wife and another girl [would] take order and bag the food.”
“You have to cut whatever you can to make money,” Mrs. Lin added, “We had four do eight [people’s] job…it’s hard work, but it’s money.”
Jason Wong, son of owner and employee at King Wok in Little Neck, was also able to share his experience. “It gets really hot, especially in the kitchen, so if dad needs help in the front, it would be pretty easy…Summer is the worst, no AC in the kitchen because food will get cold! But it really gets hot.”
“But no one complains,” he continued, “we’re all here, dad’s here, the workers. No one really has it better, no one’s enjoying it. I’m helping my dad, and he’s doing it for us.”
Since 2001, Mr. Lin has sold his business to his older brother, Patrick, who has worked there since 1996, and now owns the restaurant. After getting his citizenship, Mr. Lin was able to sponsor his older brother to the U.S., which is very common in the heavily populated Chinese communities, like Chinatown.
I asked what today’s typical pay would be, and Mr. Patrick answered [translated from Chinese], “Today a worker makes about $2,500 a month, about $30,000 a year, after-tax.”
“It’s hard money,” he added, “the restaurant makes about $300,000 a year, and about $70,000 profit, but that’s pretty good for someone who doesn’t speak English and know how to do anything else.”
Mr. Patrick later added, “With what I started with, I think I got the American dream”
Mr. Lin now lives in Indiana, and owns and operates a high-volume, seafood wholesale company that sells only to Chinese restaurants. He manages from an office. Mrs. Lin is a stay-at-home mom now. On Saturdays, they take their 9-year old daughter piano class and Chinese school, and attend a local church on Sundays.
Asked whether he would go back to working in the restaurants, Richard Lin laughed and quickly answered, “no, no more restaurant!”
Jason Wong shares about life in the Chinese restaurant.