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Oral history interview conducted by Mary Lui
April 23, 1993
Call number: 1994.007.07
LUI: Can you just introduce yourself and tell me how old you are?
CHEN: I'm Yan and I'm 18 [inaudible]. I've been in this country for ten years.
LUI: Where were you born and what year?
CHEN: I was born in Mainland China, 1974.
LUI: What part of Mainland China?
CHEN: I don't know because I don't remember the name. We lived near all thesemountains and lakes and farms, basically, all farms. It was nice, really nice. It was very dirty.
LUI: What do you mean by dirty?
CHEN: There were chickens all around, dogs and cats, and you let them loose.When we have dinner and we had bones and everything left over, we push it to the 1:00floor for the dogs to eat it.
LUI: So your family had dogs?
CHEN: We had a dog, and then he has tons of puppies. We have chickens, in thehouse. We raise them in the house. In the back of the house there was a lot of hay, and we raised the chickens there. We had a whole gigantic back yard, with flowers and trees. You know lychee. We have those trees. And guava, we have two of those. And way in the edge of my backyard, there's a river running along. It's really big, my backyard. It's very, very big, with a lot of trees.
LUI: How many people lived in the house?
CHEN: When I was young, my grandma lived in the house, and my uncle, and myfamily, which is three daughters and my mother and father, so seven all together. I think when I turned five or so, my grandma and my uncle moved to the 2:00States here.
LUI: Grandma and Uncle on which side of the family?
CHEN: My father's mom and brother. Because my grandfather came here a long, longtime ago. He went to Hong Kong to make some money and sent it back to us. Then he moved to America. His father got him here, which is my great grandfather.
LUI: Do you know what year your grandfather left to go to Hong Kong?
CHEN: I know it was before I was born. It was more than, I think, more than 40years ago. 40 or 50 years ago. I don't know.
LUI: And then your grandfather lived in Hong Kong most of the time, or Americamost of the time?
CHEN: I really don't know the history of that because I never saw my grandfatherbefore I came here. And by the time I came here, I was nine or eight or ten. Ten.
LUI: Do you remember what it was like to meet your grandfather for the first time?
CHEN: I don't remember, because I remember when I got off the plane, I was dizzy3:00and I couldn't hear anything because of the plane ride. Then I saw a whole bunch of people waiting for us. I went over to my uncle. He was taking pictures. He came over here four years before, so I remember him. My grandma was there, and my mom's mom and my mom's father, which are my grandparents also, were there. I don't recognize my grandfather, which is my father's father, because I never saw him.
LUI: Did you ever see pictures of him?
CHEN: Yeah, but he looked really different. I just saw my mom's parents, becausethey used to live in China and they came here like three or four years before.
LUI: Did your mom's parents live in the village with you?
CHEN: No, totally different village. You know, there's different villages,different sections. I don't know where they came from. So I remember them, but the only person I never saw was my grandfather, which was my father's father. 4:00
LUI: Do you remember if you expected anything? In your mind how did you pictureyour grandfather?
CHEN: I never really pictured him. I pictured the country itself and I was very,very disappointed when I got here.
LUI: What did you think the country was going to be like before you came here?
CHEN: I used to imagine when I was in China, because I knew both of mygrandparents from different sides were here, and I know they talk about it, so I usually imagine that they have like tall, tall buildings, and there would be an alley, and then we would both look out the window and talk to each other, my grandparents. Then we talk about us, the grandchildren in China. I imagined the buildings were very tall and really nice, with big rooms and, you know, luxury things. When I came, I said, "My God, that's it?" When I got off the plane, all the building were really low, it's not really high buildings, so I was really disappointed. I thought, maybe it's just this section. Hopefully, when we get 5:00in, it will be nicer. But it got worse, especially in Chinatown. I said, "Okay, that's it?" It was totally not what I expected because when I was in Hong Kong, my aunt lived in a really high class place, and they had really nice condos and stuff, so I stayed over there. I was hoping it would be the same here, but it was totally different, so I was disappointed.
LUI: What year was it when you came here?
LUI: You said you went to Hong Kong first?
CHEN: Yeah, we stayed for about two months or a little longer. We stopped by anddid shopping. Usually people who come here, they shop in Hong Kong for clothes and stuff. We shopped for a month or so, and we stayed in my aunt's house. Then we came here. We did a lot of shopping, because usually relatives here, they tell you to buy things for them, like they say, "Buy tons of pajamas," because they're cheap. I bought a lot and we were holding so much that we could not 6:00handle it, because there were three daughters. I was the oldest, nine, and my younger sisters were seven and five, so we were holding way to much stuff. And they buy sheets, tons of sheets and covers and pillowcases. My goodness, there was so much stuff we bought, and then we had to carry it.
LUI: So you mean people here in the U.S., they wrote letters or did they call you?
CHEN: They tell you. They write letters back to China, because we don't havephones. I think there was one phone in every village, in the main office. But you could hardly make any phone calls, unless you are rich. Then we called in Hong Kong. We call here and they call back. They sent a ticket back to Hong Kong for us to come. We didn't buy our stuff. No money.
LUI: So everything you bought was for your relatives here?
CHEN: Yes, and for ourselves.
LUI: What do you remember that you packed up to bring here?7:00
CHEN: Not much. We gave everything away. We don't have that much in China. Mostof my clothes are from my cousins in Hong Kong. When they go back to visit, they bring us ours, so we don't have much to bring. So we gave it all out, actually. And the house in China, some very close friends of my parents are watching it. I think now they are living in it.
LUI: What do you mean by watching it and living in it? You mean your parentsdidn't sell the house.
CHEN: In China, you can build a house, if you have the money, but it takes a lotof money to build a house. So if you have the money, you pick a part that you want to build it in, and you build a house there. The house is yours. You don't have to ask the government or ask the police for that spot to build a house. You just take it, if you have the money.
LUI: You mean you don't have to buy the land?
CHEN: No, I don't think so. I remember this person, they had money, and theyjust built the house there. I don't know if it's like that now, but it used to 8:00be like that, I think.
LUI: Who built your house?
CHEN: I think my grandfather and his father, so it was my great grandfather. I'mnot sure.
LUI: So it's been in the family for a long time?
CHEN: For a long time, yeah. I remember my grandma telling me that she remembersthe Japanese Wall, and then they were invading the village, and she was hiding in the house. We have a little building; it's a very narrow, tiny building. They were all hiding in there. They weren't hiding in the house. They came in and took everything in the house.
LUI: You gave away most of your things; you didn't sell them to people?
CHEN: No. People don't really have money. We were the rich ones in the village.We were very rich because all our relatives were here. My mom's parents and my father's parents are here, so all of our relatives are here, except for us, so we were rich, because everybody sent money to us. We were considered very rich, 9:00and we gave everything away. There wasn't much to give away anyway. We have a TV, the only TV in the village. I think every night when we got the TV, close friends of ours from the village; everybody crowded in the room and watched the TV. We'd be showing off that we had a TV. I think it was the first TV in those few villages, because we had money!
LUI: What about other people in the village, they didn't have family members whowere over here in the United States?
CHEN: I think in the whole village, our family was the only one who had reallyclose relatives in the United States. Everybody knew that. If your family had people in the States, everybody knows about it, because everybody wants to come. Hopefully, they will introduce their sons and daughters. 10:00
LUI: Do you remember that as long as you can remember, you knew you were comingto the United States?
CHEN: I knew that, yeah. I knew I was going to go sometime, but I didn't knowwhen. We had more privileges than all the other kids on the farm. We have food. I think I had more money than some of the people in the village, because my grandparents sent us money, during our New Year's Day and stuff like that. I just spend money on food and stuff, and other families don't even have food to eat.
LUI: What did your parents do in the village?
CHEN: There was this little section that you could farm, and it's divided fordifferent people from the village, and they used to do a little farming in that section. Every person in the village had to grow rice. Every single person in the village had to grow it so you could divide it. What else did they do? They 11:00farmed and oh, my father had a pool hall.
LUI: He ran a pool hall?
CHEN: Well, it's not like the pool halls here. They only have one table. He ownsit. He bought it.
LUI: He, himself bought it, or other people in the family bought it?
CHEN: My father bought it, because they sent money and then he bought it. Heopened in the village, the only one in the village.
LUI: When do you remember when you knew you were coming to the U.S.?
CHEN: I know we were waiting to come and then I think my mom just told me thatshe got this letter from my grandparents saying we are going to go soon, and I don't really remember how long ago.
LUI: Do you remember being excited or sad about leaving?
CHEN: I was very excited. I can't wait to leave even though my friends are12:00there. I grew up in the village and all of my close friends, we grew up together. People usually are very close. Everybody knows each other. There's not that many families in the villages, it's very small. So I was very happy. I didn't understand why, but I was really happy. I was excited and I told them I was going. There was a big feast the day before I left, then we left and that's it. I wasn't unhappy at all.
LUI: Where was the feast?
CHEN: It was in front of our house. Whenever someone is getting married orleaving, or has some kind of event, they have a big feast in your house or in front of your house. It will lead to the middle of the village. They set up tables in that area, right in the village. I told you the village is very, very small.
LUI: How small? Do you know how many people?
CHEN: It's hard to say. It's small enough for you to know every single person,13:00so it's probably around twenty families.
LUI: Does everybody have the same last name? Is everybody related to each other?
CHEN: No. When I talk about a village, there's different sections. There's liketwenty houses in the little village and then you go to another one with a little more houses or a little less, and there's more sections like that.
LUI: When you were little, did you remember getting pictures back from peoplehere in the United States, so you could see what life was like in America?
CHEN: Yeah, we did pictures, but you don't really see the scenery. We seepictures of their homes and stuff, but that's about it. I didn't really know how this country looked until I came here, and totally got disappointed.
LUI: Aside from you, do you know other people in your family were excited toleave or sad? 14:00
CHEN: I know my parents were really anxious to leave. All parents are anxious toleave. They think when you come here, you can make tons of money without working much, but when you come here, it's totally different. I know my parents know people who are quite well off in China, and when they come here, they become dishwashers or work in the factory, and they're not used to it at all. They get sick from it, because they went to college, and if you're in China and you went to college, you have to be very, very smart. Hardly anybody goes to college in China.
LUI: Did your parents go to college?
CHEN: They got out in junior high school. My father used to tell me how he cutand he'd never go to school.
LUI: So your parents thought that they could come here and make lots of money?
CHEN: Every family, basically. Even if you tell them that you have to work hardwhen you come here, people don't believe it. They think you come here and you 15:00get rich, that's it.
LUI: People in the States, in America were telling people in China the truth ornot? Did they say you're going to work hard?
CHEN: I don't know, because they call America Gold Mountain, so you come hereand you make money, that's it. That's the story behind it. I guess people exaggerate a little and then the go back and they spend money and they dress nice, so people think you make a lot of money here.
LUI: Did any families that were in America go back to China to visit you guys?
CHEN: I don't think so, no.
LUI: Has anybody in your family been back since?
CHEN: My grandparents went back about five years ago.
LUI: Which grandparents?
CHEN: My father's parents.
LUI: Where did they go?
CHEN: They went back to Mainland China, where we were originally from. They also16:00went back to Hong Kong. They visited for about two months.
LUI: Did they like visiting?
CHEN: My grandfather hadn't been back for -- I don't know how many years. Myfather's 40, so I think when my father was around five, he left. He never went back for 40 years at least.
LUI: And your grandmother was living with you in the village right?
LUI: So they were separated all that time.
CHEN: Yeah, he never went back and he came here, and he made his living. Henever went back, which is strange. My father never saw him either, since he was a little boy. He had three children. I have an uncle and an aunt.
LUI: Are they still in China?
CHEN: No, they are here. My aunt is in Chicago. She is married, in Chicago, and17:00my uncle lives here.
LUI: The one who used to live with you?
CHEN: Yes. He went back to China and got married.
LUI: When did he get married?
CHEN: He got married around twelve years ago. He went back to Hong Kong and got married.
LUI: Did he marry somebody he used to know?
CHEN: No, I don't think so. I think his wife was engaged. She liked another guyand she was engaged, but she knew this opportunity, so she married him instead. It worked out fine now. They have two children. They are not relatives, but they do know my grandparents, so that's why they introduced them, and they went back and they got married.
LUI: So you were disappointed when you came. Were other people disappointed too?
CHEN: I don't know about my parents, because I don't remember much, but I know18:00after I came here, I was very disappointed. Besides that, I was not very happy, because I missed my friends. I didn't know that when I was back in China. When I was leaving, I was very excited. But when I came here, every night I had dreams about being back in China, which is strange. When I woke up, I would be so disappointed, because I wasn't back. In the dream, I would say, "I hope this isn't a dream." So I'd pinch myself or something, and then I'd wake up, and it was a dream.
LUI: Did your sisters have problems adjusting?
CHEN: I don't think so, because they were so young. One of my sisters was fiveor four and the other one was seven or eight, so I don't think so. I knew more, because I was nine, and I grew up with those people. I guess it's very different for me. I miss them a lot for a few months and I wasn't used to it. 19:00
LUI: Did you ever ask your parents to send you back?
LUI: Did you want the family to go back?
CHEN: I just wanted to go back and see them. I had dreams of going back andvisiting, and showing off.
LUI: What do you mean by showing off?
CHEN: Telling them how great it is, even though it's not true. I just want to goback-- I mean, I guess every family, when they come here, they would not go back and say, "Oh, it's awful, we can't make a living." You have to work very hard to make a living. They want people to know that it's nice and what people expect. They tell them what they want to hear. They don't really tell them that you have to work hard and long hours. [inaudible]
LUI: Where did you first live when you came here?20:00
CHEN: I lived in Brooklyn, in Sunset Park for two months or so, then we moved toChinatown, in Mott Street, where my Grandfather lived. We moved in with my grandfather, because of the fact that my father and my mother worked in Chinatown, and they didn't want to travel. We didn't know the language at all, and we didn't want to get lost. My mom wasn't really used to the subway system. We were going to school in Chinatown, so that's why we moved to Chinatown. It was really small. There was one teeny bedroom for my grandparents, enough for one bed. Then one living room and a kitchen with a bathtub in there, and a sink and everything is in there, no it was very small. Me and my sisters and my 21:00parents, we lived in the living room. Five people in the living room. We had to go past my grandparents' bedroom to get to the bathroom. [inaudible] [laughter]
LUI: This was the apartment on Mott Street?
LUI: How long did you live there?
CHEN: We lived there for like three years.
LUI: Then where did you move?
CHEN: Then we moved back to Brooklyn. My grandfather owns the building we areliving in. We moved back to Brooklyn, because it was getting too crowded.
LUI: So the very first apartment you lived in was in Sunset Park?
CHEN: Only for two months. We decided it was not convenient at all. We neededsomebody to watch my youngest sister. She was only four or five. They wouldn't let her in school yet so my grandfather watched my sister. At that time he wasn't working any more. He used to own some kind of business and then he stopped. 22:00
LUI: He bought that building?
CHEN: He bought the building, yes. He knew we were coming and then he knew myuncle was getting married so he bought the building in Sunset Park and my uncle got married, and they moved in to Sunset Park. He knew we were expected to come in really soon so he bought the building for us.
LUI: With your money he bought the building, or with his money?
CHEN: With his money. He owns the building, and we do have to pay rent, but it'snot that much.
LUI: I'm sorry, what year was it again, when you moved to Sunset Park?
CHEN: We came here in 1983. We lived here for two months.
LUI: What was the address?
CHEN: 773 52nd Street.
LUI: Were there many Chinese people there during that time?
CHEN: No, not that much. There were, but not that much. The only reason webought the house there was because my grandfather's brother had a house nearby, 23:00so they were looking around that neighborhood. I think that's the only reason, because during that time, there weren't many Chinese people at all. There weren't Chinese grocery stores. There was one Korean store, and I think that's about it. There weren't even Chinese restaurants at all. It was mostly Spanish people living around the neighborhood.
LUI: Before coming to the United States, had you heard of Brooklyn?
CHEN: Brooklyn. No. I heard of [unintelligible] Chinatown, that's it, and NewYork City. I thought that New York was New York City, and that's it. For a few years, I was figuring out, how come so much more, that's the whole state. Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, that's it. [unintelligible] 24:00
LUI: So you had heard of New York City before, but not Brooklyn.
CHEN: Yes. They mentioned [unintelligible], Chinatown, that's it. They lived in[unintelligible]. I forgot how you say New York in Chinese, but I know they lived in New York City and in Chinatown and that's it. I don't know anything about Brooklyn.
LUI: So you had no expectations about Brooklyn.
LUI: Were you surprised that you were going to live in Brooklyn, not inChinatown, or did you just not know where you were going to live?
CHEN: I had no idea where I was going to live. I thought I was going to live inthis really tall, nice building, in a very nice neighborhood, someplace like Park Avenue. I thought the whole city was like Park Avenue. But it's not. When I 25:00went to Hong Kong, my aunt lived in a really nice neighborhood. Since Hong Kong had such nice places, I didn't go to the bad parts of Hong Kong. I was in a really high class part of Hong Kong. So I said, "If Hong Kong's like this, America must be lots better," until I got here. [unintelligible]
LUI: Tell me a little bit about this place you lived in first, for the twomonths. You described the whole layout of the apartment in Mott Street. What was it like in Brooklyn, Sunset Park? Do you remember that apartment?
CHEN: Yeah, after the three years, I moved back and lived there for quite awhile. It's not that big. My parents had one bedroom and not really big living room, kinda small-- My sisters and I had bunk beds in the living room. I had 26:00one, and my other two sisters had one. It was a very small kitchen, and a small bathroom. Everything was more organized. The bathroom had a bathtub and shower. The bathtub was in the kitchen in Chinatown, so everything was more organized. It was quite small for five people. There wasn't enough room. It wasn't convenient for us at all, because it was in Brooklyn, and the house was 11 blocks from the subway station, so it took 15 or 20 minutes just to walk to the subway station.
LUI: Which subway station?
CHEN: 8th Avenue. The N train.
LUI: So after two months of living there, you went to Chinatown. You saidbecause your parents were working in Chinatown and you were going to school in Chinatown?
CHEN: Yes [unintelligible]. And the youngest one, she wasn't ready for school27:00yet, so she stayed with my grandfather. I think he took her to play MJ [unintelligible], like the little MJ [unintelligible] clubs, and then they go [unintelligible] in the morning.
LUI: In Chinatown?
CHEN: No, in the little tea shops. He took her every morning, and then he alsotook her to play MJ [unintelligible]. He picked us up after school, because both of our parents were working and he wasn't.
LUI: And then he just took you home?
LUI: So he didn't take all of you to play MJ again?
CHEN: No. He brought us home. We watched TV, we ate. It was always the same.Monday through Friday after school, he picked us up; we bought some Chinese buns to eat, every single day. Then we watched [unintelligible], those two, every day, Monday through Friday. 28:00
LUI: What school did you go to?
CHEN: PS130, in Hester Street.
LUI: Your sister too?
LUI: Do you remember what the first day of school was like?
CHEN: It was kind of scary because I didn't know anybody. The first day, we weretrying to meet people, but it was a lot different, because everybody in the school is bilingual and it's not all Chinese. There wasn't much Caucasian at all. I think there was only one class, but everybody was Caucasian in that class, and then the rest of the school was Chinese. I never understood that because they put them together, from kindergarten to 6th grade, I think. I don't know if they still have that class, but it's really strange.
LUI: You mean, the Caucasian kids and the Chinese kids didn't mix?
CHEN: They did not mix. They were all in one class. [unintelligible] None of my29:00classes had any Caucasians. I think only one, in 6th grade. So I was with basically Chinese people from when I came here until 6th grade.
LUI: Why did you get put into school here in Chinatown instead of out in Sunset Park?
CHEN: We thought it would be easier for us to learn, especially with Chineseteachers, hopefully, and around Chinese people. Also, my parents were working in Chinatown, so it was more convenient to go to school in Chinatown, instead of Brooklyn. We, I thought we can catch up because in Brooklyn, there weren't as many Chinese.
LUI: Had you learned any English before coming to the country?
CHEN: Not at all. I didn't even know the alphabet. [unintelligible] I rememberlearning the alphabet on the board, ABCs. Also, the first day, oh, there were 30:00some people from near my village. I knew them.
LUI: You mean kids? In your class?
CHEN: In my class. They were from the next village. I don't remember theirnames, but they were from the next village, and I knew them. That was a little reassuring. There were a lot of kids from China now very recent, I was in the bilingual class. Everybody in the class was recent immigrants because I was in the bilingual class. They put people from 3rd, 4th and 5th grade together, which was strange, because everybody was bilingual; they say we were all learning the same thing, beginning English. I also remember the second day, I was trying to look for this girl that I talked to, because I didn't know anybody and I was lonely. After a while, it was okay. It wasn't that bad, because everybody was 31:00Chinese, and they wouldn't make fun of you, but when I got to junior high, it was bad.
LUI: Before we go to junior high, I'm going to ask you more questions aboutelementary school. What grade were you in when you started?
CHEN: I think I wasn't in 3rd grade yet, so I was in 2nd, but I was in 2ndgrade, because the first year you don't really learn anything, and I think, at that point, they were trying to determine which grade you go to. I'm a senior in high school right now. I was supposed to graduate, I was supposed to be a freshman in college, but they put me in one grade lower so I could learn easily. That was requested by my mom so it would be easier for me to learn the language, because she knew that we never had any English lessons before. There were other kids in the class who had had lessons because they were from Hong Kong, but in Mainland China, you don't get lessons. 32:00
LUI: Did you think there were any differences between the kids from MainlandChina and the ones from Hong Kong?
LUI: What kind of differences.
CHEN: Negative, because they're more snobby. They look down at you. People inChina, they think you are farm people so they look down at you and they think they are better than you. They think they dress better than you and everything. When I was in Hong Kong, staying with my cousin-- I always remember this, even though it was 10 to 11 years ago. There was a group of girls in the elevator when we were going to my aunt's home, and they were looking at us and laughing. They were just looking at me and laughing [unintelligible]. So I don't have a very good image of Hong Kong.
LUI: You think the kids here, when you first started at PS130 were like that?33:00
CHEN: Yeah, because there were these two sisters from Hong Kong. They wererecent immigrants, also. But they were more popular, because they dressed nicely and because they were from Hong Kong and we were from China.
LUI: I see. Other than that, were there any other differences?
CHEN: Well, we always think they're smarter.
LUI: Why do you think they're smarter?
CHEN: We think they have more education, and since they dress nicely andeverything, they think they are smarter. We know that they look down us, people from China. They think we are farmers. They call us [unintelligible] or something. I don't know. I don't even really remember. I just know we always 34:00think they are smarter because they dress nicer and more popular and they make fun of us.
LUI: Did the kids ever fight?
CHEN: No, we don't fight.
LUI: Chinese kids don't fight at all?
CHEN: Nobody fights in school at all.
LUI: How was learning English?
CHEN: It was really hard because, that's one of the reasons I forgot my Chinese,because I learned some Chinese when I was in China. I went to 2nd or 3rd grade, but when I came here, everything was a struggle to learn. It was so important to learn English, so I forgot most of my Chinese. I don't even remember how to write my own name. I recognize it, but I don't know how to write it.
LUI: Did your parents ever talk about putting you into Chinese school?
CHEN: My grandparents did. They wanted my parents to put us in Chinese school,35:00but me and my sisters didn't want to go. So we never went. They weren't really that big on that. We worked really hard at school. Every time I got good grades, my grandma would give me some money. During my first year, which was the middle of second grade, I guess, and then 3rd and 4th grade, I was in the bilingual class. They put you in different levels, just four classes, 1, 2, 3, 4. It think the 4th class was the best, 3rd class second best. I don't know how the order is, but they put you in four different levels, and I guess basically, I was in the last one when I was in the 3rd grade. Then in 4th grade, I was in the last one as well, and then I think when I was in 5th grade, I was in the 3rd lowest 36:00class. But during that year, I worked really, really hard. With two other guys, we used to go in in the mornings to learn extra things. When there was gym, most kids wanted to go to gym because it was fun; we stayed in class to learn more things. At lunch time, we had a whole hour lunch to play in the schoolyard, we stayed in class also. I think there's books that put you in different levels, like reading skill 1, 2, 3 -- When you're in 6th grade, you're supposed to be at level 6, but at that time, we were only reading level 2 or 1. You were supposed to read like one book a year. Me and those two guys, we read like 4 books in one year.
LUI: Wow. Did teachers help you?
CHEN: She was a really, really nice teacher. I think the best teachers in the37:00school were Miss John and Miss Romano
LUI: Were they Caucasian or Chinese?
CHEN: Caucasian. My 5th grade teacher was Caucasian. She made us work so hard.Tons of vocabulary. We had no fun at all that year, because we were learning. But it paid off, because she was a really good teacher. Then when we got to 6th grade, we were all in the top class.
LUI: How did you and the two boys decide that this was what you wanted to do?
CHEN: We didn't decide. She picked us out because we were working really hard.She knew that so she picked us out. She put the class in three different groups and we were-the smallest group. [unintelligible] There was a group in the lower level and a group in the highest level, but at the end of the year, we were in 38:00the highest level, because we read four books in one year, and did tons of work and had no fun at all. My parents were really proud and my grandparents were really proud. They used to give us money. At the end of the year, the teachers also gave us about $20 each. At that time, $20 was a lot. We were really happy.
LUI: Where did you go for junior high school?
CHEN: [unintelligible] junior high at 77th street and unintelligible.
LUI: Oh, so in Manhattan.
CHEN: In Manhattan. At that time, I was living in Brooklyn. After 6th grade, wemoved back to Brooklyn already. All my friends were going to Wagner. I didn't really care where I went as long as I was with my friends. They were all going to Wagner. That's how I decided to go there. I travelled all the way from Brooklyn to Wagner--
LUI: How long did it take you to get from Brooklyn up to Wagner?
CHEN: An hour or so.
LUI: Were your parents worried about putting you on the subway, to go so far by yourself?39:00
CHEN: Not really, because they were both working so hard and I was the oldest,so I was more independent. [unintelligible] I started cooking for my sisters in 4th or 5th grade, because everybody was working, and during the summer, I had to cook for them. So I became more independent, especially living in the U.S. because both of my parents were working and they didn't have much time. They worked in the weekend as well. Seven days a week sometimes, to make money.
LUI: Did your sisters continue at PS 130?
CHEN: They continued. Yeah, my father picked them up.
LUI: And your parents continued to work in Chinatown, even though they wereliving in Brooklyn?
CHEN: Yeah. During that time, there weren't that many Chinese people there.
LUI: So that was back in '86 or '87. Ok. So, how long did it take you to go upto school, to Junior High?
CHEN: Oh, an hour.
LUI: An hour? What time would you have to get up in the morning to get to school?40:00
CHEN: I had to be at school at 8:45 or 8:40, but I usually got there at 8:30, soI had to get up around 7:00. I was young, so I didn't have to put on anything. I wake up, let me see, I had to leave my home at 7:30 meaning that I had to wake up at 7:00. It took me a half hour to get ready, so yeah, 7:00.
LUI: Were you also responsible for your little sisters?
CHEN: Yeah, I picked them up. My mom used to work in Chinatown, so we all tookthe train together. Sometimes I left earlier, so I didn't go with my mom. Both of my sisters went with my mom. She took them to school and made sure they had breakfast and she leaves.
LUI: And then you would go to school by yourself?
CHEN: I go to school by myself.
LUI: Then you would come home by yourself.
CHEN: I picked my sister up from…Oh, no. My grandfather picked my sister up,I think. I am not sure. I think my grandfather picked my sister up, if I remember correctly, and then I go to Chinatown and I pick them up, and I take 41:00them home, or we would wait until my father came to pick us up. When he first came here, he worked in a factory. Then he went to a restaurant to work. So after he finished work, he went to my grandfather's to pick me and my sister up and take us home, to Brooklyn.
LUI: Your grandfather's at Mott Street?
CHEN: Yes, because he used to work in Mott. I think the place closed up overthere. I don't remember what the restaurant was called, right on Mott. He used to work on Mott, so he would go over, pick us up and takes us home.
LUI: Did you ever used to have to go to your mom's workplace or anything?
CHEN: No, I never went there, not in Chinatown. I've never been to the factorybefore. I remember her telling us that she would go in on Sunday and Saturday, just to learn more about the machines and to do other things besides one field. 42:00
LUI: Did you spend much time in Sunset Park when you were in junior high school,when you were living there again?
CHEN: I didn't go out that much during junior high school, but I didn't reallylike it that much because it was different. At that time, there weren't very many Chinese and some kids were very mean. When you go out, they look at you differently and they say things because you are Chinese. There is an incident I remember. We went to A&P, which is right near the subway station in 60th Street. We went to line up after we got our stuff, and this group of girls just came up in front of us in the line like we were not there, just pushed in front of us in the line. We didn't do anything, because we felt like they could do that to us.
LUI: Why did you feel that?43:00
CHEN: I don't know. I guess because there weren't that many Chinese there. Wefelt like it was their place. Now I think differently, and I know better. At that time, you can't do anything. We were young. I was very young. Also, my sisters were very young.
LUI: So you were there with your sisters when that happened, not with your parents?
CHEN: Yes, and I remember another incident in Sunset Park. We were so young. Mysister was like in 2nd grade or 1st grade. My younger sister was in 2nd or 3rd grade. I don't remember her age. We were walking home from school. It was really snowing very bad that day. There was a group of guys playing on the corner of one of the blocks and they saw us. We were across the street from them. There were 5 or 6 of them, and they started making snowballs and throwing them at us. I couldn't believe that. I thought, oh my God, what did we do to them? We were so young. Three girls and these guys are throwing snowballs at us. That was so mean. I just stood there. I didn't know what to do. I just stood there. I was really mad. My sister said, "Let's go, let's go." I said, "No," I was going to 44:00walk over and say something to them, but my sisters kept pulling me away. I was so mad. I didn't understand why they were doing that. [unintelligible] So this group of older adults started screaming at them, "Why do you do that?"
LUI: Were they Chinese?
CHEN: No, they were Spanish guys.
LUI: And the adults were Spanish, too, who were yelling at them?
CHEN: Yeah. I didn't understand why they did that. I did not like that placemuch. That's why I don't spend much time there because I don't feel right in Sunset Park. Most of my friends are in Chinatown.
LUI: How about now? You said it's different now. There are more Chinese now.
CHEN: Now, it's like Chinatown. [unintelligible] Most of the houses are owned byChinese. Just my block, where I am living right now, my next door neighbors are Chinese. Basically, most of the houses in that neighborhood are owned by Chinese 45:00now. Only when we go to 5th Avenue or 4th Avenue, there are Puerto Ricans. 8th Avenue, 9th Avenue and 7th Avenue are mostly Chinese.
LUI: And your house is by which avenue?
CHEN: Between 6th and 7th, on 61st Street.
LUI: Oh, so you moved again?
CHEN: Yeah, my parents bought a house and we moved.
LUI: When did that happen?
CHEN: 3 and a half years ago. They saved money and they bought a house. At thattime, Sunset Park is getting more Chinese. My father moved to 8th Avenue. There's a restaurant that opened up and he went to work.
LUI: Which restaurant does he work at?
CHEN: Bay Ridge Restaurant. I think it's in 55th Street. He's been working theresince 5 or 6 years ago. They pay more than Chinatown. 46:00
LUI: The wages?
CHEN: Yes. That's the reason he moved back.
LUI: How did he find the job? Do you know?
CHEN: He knows people who are the partnership of the restaurant. They asked himif he wanted to go in. At the beginning, he wasn't sure because of the fact that it's in Brooklyn and he didn't know if the restaurant was going to be okay and stable. But it turned out fine.
LUI: So the restaurant was brand new?
CHEN: Yes. I think that was either the first or second Chinese restaurant in 8thAvenue. There's other restaurants around 5th or 4th, but those are different kinds, smaller take-out restaurants in Brooklyn. But where my father works, it's the first or second Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn.
LUI: So your father is a partner in the restaurant?47:00
CHEN: No. They asked him to go into the partnership, but he wasn't sure. Myparents don't like to take risks, and they didn't know if it was going to survive or not. Now the restaurant makes a lot of money.
LUI: Do you remember how they started looking for a house to buy?
CHEN: They were looking for a while, because they really wanted a house forthemselves and the new rent was getting very expensive, even though we were living in my grandfather's house. We didn't have to pay much, but they wanted a house. [Interview interrupted.]
LUI: You were just talking again about how the rent was getting high.48:00
CHEN: They knew the houses in the neighborhood would be worth a lot, afterawhile. My grandfather bought his building for $40,000, and during that time, his building is worth around $250,000, so he is making $200,000 just for buying a house earlier. They wanted to invest in a house and they saved a lot over a year, so they thought it was a good investment to buy a house. They looked for a while, like over a year to buy a house
LUI: How were they looking? Were they looking through the paper?
CHEN: No, they went to a real estate agent, and also the paper, both ways,whichever way was better.
LUI: Chinese or American?
CHEN: Chinese. Suma,. It's on 60th Street. Suma Real Estate. They went there andhe helped find a house.
LUI: Do you know if the person you bought the house from is Chinese?49:00
CHEN: Caucasian. This guy who owned the house was around 50 or 60. He just gotmarried [laughter] and they wanted to move away to someplace nicer and quieter. [unintelligible] He owned the house for a long time already, and he was looking for a family that would take care of the house. He said the house was really special to him. So, he sold it to us.
LUI: You met the owner?
CHEN: Yeah, because they needed me to translate, that's why. When they went tosign the contracts, they made sure everything was in place so they wouldn't get cheated.
LUI: Do you remember what it was like to be the interpreter?
CHEN: It was just talking to the owner. [laughter] They had a lawyer to doeverything.[unintelligible] I just sat there and watched them through all the paperwork. I remember it was in a little conference room with a long table. 50:00There were a lot of people there, the owners, my parents, their lawyer, my parents' lawyer and all the papers that they had to sign. They signed them and they were happy. Finally they had a house.
LUI: Were you excited about having your own house?
CHEN: When I lived in my grandparents' house, I told you that we lived in a onebedroom apartment. Me and my sisters got another apartment during the last year that we-stayed in the house, our own apartment on the second floor. The first was getting too crowded, so we got our own apartment. It was a lot of fun, so I didn't really want to leave, because we had a whole entire apartment for three girls. When my mom yelled, we just went upstairs, so we didn't have to listen to it. I knew that when we moved to this house, we only have two bedrooms, one for my parents and one for my sisters and me. The living room is very big. We have a 51:00whole big backyard and porch and everything, so that was good. But still, we wanted our own room, I wanted my own room and we didn't have it when we moved.
LUI: In your grandfather's house, you all had your own rooms.
CHEN: No. During that time, when we lived in the first floor, the first fewyears, we had to live in the living room. When we moved to the second floor, I stayed with my sisters in the same room. I turned the kitchen into a bedroom, and I stayed there. Then there was the whole living room and bathroom for three girls. It was great. I loved it there.
LUI: Who used to live there, before you lived there?
CHEN: This lady. She moved away. She was getting very old, and she was living alone.
LUI: Was she Chinese?
CHEN: No, she was Caucasian.
LUI: Had she lived in the neighborhood for a long time?
CHEN: I don't know. I think ever since my grandfather bought the building, thatlady's been living there. Then she finally decided to move. There's two Spanish 52:00families living there during that time. They didn't really like it because of the fact that it was a Chinese owner. They used to not pay the rent for six months or seven months. My grandfather needed the money to run the building and we asked them, they'd say later, next month, next month. Finally, he went to sue them. It's a city building, so the owners can't really do much about it. It's run by the city. The renters are really prejudiced because they are Spanish. [unintelligible] They don't care that they didn't pay the rent for six months.
LUI: You were living there at that time?
CHEN: Yeah, the whole time. [unintelligible]
LUI: They used to fight with you?
CHEN: Yeah. They used to fight with my grandparents and I had to translate. Ifelt so bad standing in the middle of them. I would say, "You have to pay. It's been six months already. We don't have money."
LUI: So you would have to be the translator.
CHEN: Yeah, in the middle of them. I used to be so afraid because I was so53:00young, but it's okay now, because he sold the building.
LUI: When did he sell the building?
CHEN: A year ago, because he couldn't take it anymore. It was really hard work.People don't pay rent and you have to fix this and that. So, it was getting really hard.
LUI: Who moved in after you moved out of the building?
CHEN: Who moved in? Did anybody move in? They rented it out to some otherChinese family. I don't know who. But they rented it out. Then, we moved to 61st Street, between 6th and 7th.
LUI: Do you know if the Spanish family that lived there stayed in the neighborhood?
CHEN: They had to leave at the end, because they were caught selling drugs. [laughter]
LUI: My goodness! This happened while they were living there?54:00
CHEN: Yeah, they had drugs in the fridge.
LUI: So your grandfather still lives in Sunset Park?
CHEN: No, he never lived in Sunset Park. He always lived in Chinatown. He justbought the building for my family and my uncle's family, because he knew we were moving in, but it was too small. He knew that, because there were three daughters and the uncle would eventually have a family, and it was way too small.
LUI: Where does your uncle live now?
CHEN: He bought a house also.
LUI: In Sunset Park?
CHEN: The next area is Bay Ridge. He lives in Bay Ridge. It's very near 8thAvenue. He just goes shopping there. Every Sunday they go [unintelligible], just like Chinatown. You don't have to go to Chinatown anymore to [unintelligible]. To buy groceries, there's two supermarkets, Chinese supermarkets in Sunset Park, 55:00so you don't really need to go to Chinatown. We took a lot of business away from Chinatown.
LUI: Your parents now work in Chinatown?
CHEN: No, they still work in Sunset Park. My father still works in Bay RidgeRestaurant, and my mom works in the factory. She used to work in the factory on 52nd Street, 5th Avenue. Now the factory moved to 9th Street and 4th Avenue, so it's not in the neighborhood, so she has to take a train. This is just recently, like a month ago. She has been working in Sunset Park for over 5 years or so.
LUI: She doesn't mind taking the train or would she prefer to stay in the neighborhood?
CHEN: She prefers to stay in the neighborhood, because you don't have to pay56:00token fair and everything is very convenient, but my aunt drives to work sometimes, so she picks my mom up.
LUI: They work in the same factory?
LUI: This is your uncle's wife?
CHEN: My uncle's wife, with my uncle's wife's sisters. They all work in the same factory.
LUI: Is that how your mom got the job in the factory?
CHEN: Actually, it's because of me. [laughter] I did not have a job during thattime and they wanted me to work. There are a lot of young girls who work in the factory, but not full time. They just help out. So my mom was going to take me there and teach me stuff. [unintelligible] I ended up staying two days and my mom ended up staying a few years. I couldn't stand it. That's not my place. But my mom liked the place and she has stayed for like five years. 57:00
LUI: At that time, where was she working?
CHEN: I think she was working in Chinatown and then she quit and she went toBrooklyn and worked in Brooklyn. The thing is, during that time, most people are afraid that the factory would not succeed and the restaurants would not succeed. That's why my mom was not really happy about going to Brooklyn to work. That's why she was not sure,-even after she started working there as part time. She wasn't sure that she wanted to work full time because she wasn't sure that it would be safe. My father also, when he started working in the restaurant, he was afraid that they would close before the year was over, but everything turned out fine. More Chinese moved in and everything became very successful. [unintelligible]
LUI: What were you supposed to be doing at the factory?
CHEN: I don't know. What was I supposed to be doing?58:00
LUI: How did your mom know the factory was going to hire--?
CHEN: Okay, I know now. They have little pieces of cloth that you have to sewtogether with the machine. Most adults, they don't do that, because they do the whole shirt or pants themselves. Sometimes they have the collars and sleeves, so it was just one straight line that you had to do. My mom wanted me to do that, but I didn't like it. I got sick from the dust, and I couldn't take the factory environment. All those women gossiping and stuff, so I left.
LUI: Were there any other young girls who were working in the factory at the time?
CHEN: Yeah, sometimes they hang the clothes to be sent out. Usually, the familydo the whole thing. Young sons and daughters, they help their parents out. They work together. Some of them cut threads, really young ones. I mean, when you 59:00come here you don't have money. Most people who come here, they don't have money, so they have to really help out. I was fortunate, because my grandfather had a building. The first few years, we lived in Chinatown, and we didn't have to pay much for anything. My parents saved some money, so we were considered very fortunate. When my mom went to the Brooklyn factory, she made quite a lot of money. That's why they were able to save for a house. They don't travel at all. They don't buy new clothes. My father wore the same shirt for a whole year I think. Monday through Friday he works. When he gets to the restaurant, they have their own uniform. He has two shirts that he used for the whole year only. My mom, she doesn't shop. She wears old clothes. They saved a lot of money over 60:00the years and then they bought a house. My father makes pretty good money in the restaurant because they became very successful. They gave him raises. So, we got a house and we are living comfortably in Brooklyn.
LUI: When did your aunt start working in that factory?
CHEN: Actually, she told us about it. It was new when she first went in. It wasthe grand opening and she told me about it. Actually, she didn't tell me, she told my mom, and my mom said, "Do you want to try it?' I said, "Not really, but--" So she asked me to go anyway. I was young. I don't remember how old I was, but I know I was too young to work. She took me there and she showed me around. I found out I didn't like it and she stayed.
LUI: Your mom stayed. What did you do after that?61:00
CHEN: I stayed home and cooked. I cooked dinner for my family. My father wouldbuy the food and I would cook dinner. I cooked for my sisters. [unintelligible] I know it was not that safe during that time in the neighborhood. My father got lost once and someone followed him into the building.
LUI: This was back when you were living at your grandfather's?
CHEN: Yes. At that time, 52nd Street was not that safe. There was mostly Spanishand Puerto Ricans. There were not many Blacks. After we moved in for sure, then it was becoming more Chinese, but it wasn't that safe. I remember the time when my father got robbed. They took his watch and wallet. The watch he got from China, so it wasn't worth that much, but they still took it anyway. The strange thing was they took his money and they took his wallet, and they had a baseball 62:00bat, and for no reason, they took the money and they took the wallet and the watch and somebody has to hit him on his leg with the baseball bat. The second time -these were all around six or seven at night, not that late -the second time, he went inside this outside door in the building. He thought these guys were looking for the people floor, the Spanish couple. He let them in, but he knew they didn't look familiar. They were holding the door. They were right behind them, so he let them in. My husband was minding my apartment. There were two apartments on the first floor, one for my uncle and one for my family. Our apartment is right next to the staircase. They were pretending to go up the staircase. When my father put the key into the door, they stopped walking, so he pulled the key back int. They pretended to walk again. So when he put the key in 63:00the lock, they stopped again. My father knew he had three daughters at home and it was very unsafe for them to go in. He was suspicious. My uncle's apartment is down the hall, and he had a son, a baby around two. The baby ran to my father. Those guys stopped and started walking out. They pretended to look in the mailbox and then they walked up. My father noticed that they were holding a knife.
LUI: But nothing happened?
CHEN: Nothing, because they realized that the two families were connected, andmy father didn't open the door to our apartment yet, and we were inside. Then my aunt opened the door and she looked out because her son ran out, so nothing happened, fortunately.
LUI: Did you call the police?
CHEN: No. There was nothing you could really do about it. That's what they think?
LUI: Who's they?
CHEN: My parents. They work in the factory, they get yelled at out. My mom64:00doesn't get yelled at. My father's is fine because people like him. He's very quiet. But I know that my mom works in the factory and she tells us stories about how her friends get yelled at. I say, "Why do you let them yell at you. You have the unions to protect you. That's what the unions are for." She said, "No. If you are working for somebody, you have to listen to them. You have to take what they give you. If they yell at you, you accept it." I said, "That's crazy." But 30 or 40 year old women, if they get yelled at, they are quiet and they accept it and they stay, because of money. Sometimes it's not such a great country. For us it's good, I guess for them it's still good. They think its all part of life that you have to take it, because you are employed by them. That's how China is. If they have more money and more power, you have to take it from 65:00them. You have to accept it. My mom, too. My mom says you accept it. She doesn't know.
LUI: Okay, I asked you about the police and you talked about the unions.
CHEN: Oh, that's okay.
LUI: Did they ever yell at you when you were there for two days?
CHEN: Well, no. They got me very nervous, though. One man who was the boss, hestood right next to me, so I stopped doing it. I just stopped. I didn't do anything, [unintelligible] so he walked away.
LUI: Is there anything else more you want to say about the factory?
CHEN: I don't like the way the boss treats the workers, because they can treatthem like animals because they are working for them. My mom told me so many stories of how the boss would yell at the workers and make them cry. These are grown women, with kids and husbands and families and they are just making a living, and they think they can do that to them. They just take it, and they 66:00continue working there. I don't understand that.
LUI: Do you know if the factory that your mother works in is union?
CHEN: Yeah. It is.
LUI: Does your mom belong to the union?
CHEN: Yeah, that's how you get your Blue Cross and Blue Shield card. You have tobecause they are too expensive to get. I just don't like the way they treat people. Even the people who work in the union are not very nice. They are not nice at all. The people in the unemployment office-- I'm talking about the Chinese workers who work in the unions. They think they know some English, so they can talk to you in a mean tone. They are not nice, because they are supposed to help Asian women who don't understand the language. They why they hired them in the first place to work in those places, so they could translate and they could talk to them in their own language. But because they have some 67:00education and they know the language, they treat them very mean. I have been there, because I have gone with my mom to take them there, because they don't know how to get there. You should see the way they treat the people, and it's not only my own opinion. My friends tell me this. I have seen it a lot. It's just awful. I don't understand it.
LUI: Do you ever want to sort of speak out when you see this happens?
CHEN: Now I do. When I was younger I couldn't, because I was so young. But now Ido. Even in the post office. [unintelligible] It just gets me very mad when they are supposed to help, and they're not, they treat them like they are in a lower class or a lower level than them, and they don't treat them nicely, just because they know some language and they went to school and they know the language. Now, 68:00we speak out. We have to. I will speak out because of the fact that someone has to tell them.
LUI: You were telling me about how there were two instances of robbery in yourbuilding with your father.
CHEN: Yeah, my father got robbed once and the other [unintelligible].
LUI: Right, and what about with anybody else, friends or family?
CHEN: I heard a lot from my mom.
LUI: That happened to her?
CHEN: No, from my mom, that happened to her friends. Even though it is quitebig, Sunset Park, my mom knows a lot of friends and they know people. If one story goes out, it travels, so you hear a lot of stories. I hear a lot. There are robberies. Not all of them are from Chinese. I mean, not all of them are from Spanish or from Blacks. Some of them are from Chinese, which is gangs. 69:00
LUI: Gangs? Is there a gang problem in 8th Avenue?
LUI: You want to tell me about it?
CHEN: I don't know if you'd call it a problem, like Chinatown. One year, Iremember there was a fight. At that time, there was getting more Chinese, and there was a fight between a Chinese gang and a Spanish or white gang. I don't know if the white people have gangs or not, but I know the Chinese are, and there was a fight between them on the street.
LUI: When did this happen?
CHEN: It was quite a while ago. 5 or 6 years ago, I don't remember. It was along time ago, when I first moved into Sunset Park.
LUI: Did you see it happen?
CHEN: No, my father and my sister saw it. There was a lot of police around, and70:00people were running away. It was on the street.
LUI: Are there still gangs around?
CHEN: Yeah, mostly Chinese. [unintelligible] It's not that bad. If you don'tbother them, they don't bother you.
LUI: Can you usually tell if someone is in a gang?
CHEN: Yes. Those people, they dress more like regular people. [laughter] But twoyears ago, you could tell so bad, because their hair would be died brown and then pink. I remember this guy, he had blonde hair, and he was Chinese.
LUI: And he was in a gang?
CHEN: You could tell. They were wearing earrings, they were wearing shoeswithout socks.
LUI: That's how you could tell they were in a gang?
CHEN: Or they wore black or spiky hair, and just teeny sections of the hair dyed71:00brown or pink or whatever. They always wear all black, and the guys, they never wear loose jeans. They wear tight jeans, which is disgusting. They fold them on the bottom to make them narrow and they wear shoes without socks.
LUI: So that's how you know?
CHEN: Well, you can tell. They hang around in groups, and they bother peoplesometimes. They bothered me before, so I know.
LUI: What did they used to do to bother you?
CHEN: I used to be really scared of them, because if I'm walking one block, theykind of go in front of you and not let you walk pass, and say, "What's your name, and where do you live?", and you just walk past them. So I got very scared of them. I would take my sisters across the street if I saw some of them. It's funny because, even though I was on the right street to go home, I would cross the street to avoid them. If I had to walk an extra block, I'd do it, just to avoid them.
LUI: Where would they usually hang out?72:00
CHEN: In front of where my father works, [laughter] because like I said before,that was the first or second restaurant in the area and it was popular to hang around there. On the main street, they walk around. I don't know what they do walking around; maybe collect money or something like that, extortion money. I don't know what they do but they just walk around. They don't really follow people, but I heard there are robberies. My father recently told me that they went into someone's house and tied them up. They just moved into the basement. They tied them up. They went into the house without putting on masks. They are not afraid, because they know that Chinese families would not tell on them, because they are so afraid. If you tell or do anything like that, they might do something really bad to you or to your family. They went into this house, they 73:00took everything there is, they tied up this man's son and daughter, and himself. They asked for the car keys and took his car away. Without putting on any masks, they walk in. I couldn't believe it. I just can't understand that. They were holding guns and stuff. I think the month before, that same guy's car got stolen. [unintelligible] And he recognized them on the street. He knows who they are. He saw them around before. But there's nothing he could do. That's why it drives me crazy. There's no justice.[unintelligible] If you call the police, they might burn your house or something. You never know.
LUI: Did you go to school with any of these guys?
CHEN: When I was 5th grade, I know some of the guys, but they weren't like that.74:00When I entered junior high, I said, "My God, what happened to them?" I know girls who drop out after junior high school, and they leave home and go hang around with those guys. It is so sad. They do regret it. I actually know two girls; one of them got shot and died.
LUI: She used to live in your neighborhood?
CHEN: She went to my high school. I was a freshman and she was a sophomore orjunior, but she dropped out. I saw her again when I was a junior in high school. That was a year or two years ago. I actually talked to her, because I was going out with this guy, and she was going out with that guy's brother. We were sitting in the same car, and she was telling me, "Does your school have nice? [unintelligible] and two weeks later, I heard that she got shot and she died, and her twin sister got shot and was in a coma.
CHEN: [unintelligible] They are all gang related in a way, because they hangaround. I believe the girl got her gun from her boyfriend, who was in a gang.
LUI: Do you try to avoid the gangs?
CHEN: Yes, I do. I do know them, but as I long as I know I'm not getting myselfin trouble -- Most parents, they make them worse than they are. Some of them are really nice. They just got into the wrong group. But they're nice and I did know some of them and I went out with some of them, but not a lot. I wasn't like a lot of girls because, when they go out, they start smoking. I know they smoke marijuana and they drink, and they don't go home, but I have my curfew. I have to be home by 7. I have to be home at 7:00 at night, even in the summer, if it's 76:00still daylight. 7 or 8 is my latest, so I can't do what they do, which is good. Even if I went to parties, I never smoked or drank [unintelligible] I saw girls who smoked marijuana and they go crazy laughing. I don't understand why. I told myself I would never be like that, and I would never drop out of school, so I totally try to lose contact with them, because I don't want to be like that. Especially last year, a lot of people got killed. I know another guy who's brother, he's only like 16. He shot two guys and they died, so he went home and shot himself. I know his brother. We went to elementary school and junior high school together.
LUI: Do your parents worry about you a lot, growing up in Sunset Park?
CHEN: They do. Not mainly in Sunset Park. Sunset Park as well as in Chinatown,77:00because there were so many Chinese people around, and when there are a lot of Chinese people and Chinese restaurants, that means gangs. They worry in Sunset Park and also in Chinatown. I was the oldest, and I was very independent, so they can't really do much about it. They were really strict about not letting us go out, but it came to a time that they can't really say anything. They have to just let me make decisions. I know they worry a lot.
LUI: Do you feel safe walking around Sunset Park usually?
CHEN: Now I'm fine. I'm older and I can take care of myself. When I first movedin, I was uncomfortable. Most people in Sunset Park were not Asian and I was uncomfortable. I was an outsider. There's a lot of racial things around. It was 78:00not a very pleasant place. After a little while, then the gangs moved in. It's not that comfortable walking around when they are around because they always look around and do this and that. Even though they don't mean harm, it's scary.[unintelligible] But this year, it's fine. I don't hang around Sunset Park that much, because basically I went to school in Chinatown and in Manhattan, so I usually go into Manhattan, because most of my friends are there. So, I am not in Sunset Park a lot.
LUI: Are there other kids who are like you, who live in Sunset Park, but go toschool in Manhattan.
CHEN: I don't know. As I said, most of my friends are in Chinatown or inManhattan, or other parts of Brooklyn. I do have a few friends there. Those friends went to school in Sunset Park, and they know friends from Sunset Park 79:00[unintelligible]. I know two girls who went to school in Sunset Park.
LUI: How do you know them?
CHEN: From school in Manhattan. One of them is in my school right now. When youget to high school, you get to choose which high school to go to. But junior high and elementary, they usually stay in Sunset Park. The reason I didn't go in Sunset Park was because it was more convenient for my parents. At that time, we didn't know any English at all.
LUI: Do your sisters still go to school in Manhattan?
CHEN: Yeah, one of them is in my school, which is Bergtram. The other one is inManhattan somewhere, 23rd Street. They never went to school in Brooklyn.
LUI: Do you regret not having gone to school in Sunset Park?
CHEN: No. I'm happy going to school in Manhattan; actually, I am very happy80:00about going to school in Manhattan because if I went to IS 181 which is in Chinatown also, I don't know how it would have turned out, because there are so many gangs there. Also in Brooklyn, there's a lot of gangs in school as well. Right now it is a very safe school because it's mostly Caucasian, and some Korean, some Black and some Chinese. It wasn't really bad. It was a big change for me though.
LUI: Do you think that most Chinese parents want their kids to go to schoolwhere there's not a lot of Chinese kids?
CHEN: I don't know. I know they don't want their kids to go to school wherethere's a lot of Chinese kids because of gangs. That's the only reason. But besides that, I don't think it really bothers them that much. I know a lot of my mom's friends; they are looking for schools for their young children. They want 81:00a more mixed school than just like Blacks. I don't they don't like schools that have Blacks and Hispanics. It's a racist thing. My mom is very racist against Blacks for some reason.
LUI: Do you know why?
CHEN: Both times that my father got robbed, they were either Spanish or Black.[unintelligible] Most Chinese parents are like that. They are very prejudiced against Blacks and Hispanics. Me and my sisters always yell at them, "Why do you do that, you know?" All races have people like that. [unintelligible]
LUI: [unintelligible] The Chinese people who live in Sunset Park. There are notjust Chinese in Sunset Park. There are other groups, Hispanics and Blacks. What 82:00are the relations like between the Chinese and other groups of people in the area?
CHEN: 5th Avenue, which is the shopping area, most Hispanics live around there,or they go shop around there. Asian people shop around 8th Avenue. So there's not really a relationship going on between the two races, because they don't really mix together. On 8th Avenue, most likely are the Chinese. When you go to 5th Avenue, most likely they speak Spanish. [unintelligible]
LUI: In your grandfather's building, there was your family, who's Chinese, andthese other two families that were Hispanic.
CHEN: Two families.
LUI: Two families. Is that common? Do a lot of buildings have mixed people?
CHEN: In the buildings, yes, but not in the houses. Most houses, if a Chinesefamily buys it or takes over, if there is a tenant in the basement or second 83:00floor, they will move out, because of the fact that it is a Chinese owner.
LUI: Why do they move out?
CHEN: Basically, I don't think they get along very well, Chinese and Hispanics.Some of the owners would pay them to leave. My grandfather, even though it's not right, he tried to pay them to leave, but they weren't paying rent. He knew that if he paid them to leave, he could rent the apartment for so much more. Those people had been living there for a while, so they only paid like $300 or $400 in rent for a two bedroom. In Sunset Park, a two bedroom for five people would probably go for $600 or $700 dollars at least. They were paying $200 or $300 dollars, so my grandfather offered them money to leave, but they wouldn't leave, because it was cheap. It's really becoming like Chinatown, and things are worth more, especially real estate and houses are very expensive. The food and 84:00everything is very similar to Chinatown.
LUI: The house that you live in now is just your family, right?
CHEN: My family. We live in the first floor, me and my parents. Recently, twomonths ago, we took back the basement. Me and my sisters took that room from the basement. We rented one bedroom and the living room and the kitchen out to this older woman who was leaving alone. She's also Asian. My great grandparents live in the second floor. We rent out to them and they live with my uncle. There are three people living in the second floor.
LUI: Basically, it's pretty much family, except for the woman. How did you gether as a tenant?
CHEN: She's my--mom's friend's mom. These few years, we've been living there85:00only three or four years, not that long--we see a lot of new families moving in and buying houses on the same block. We see a lot. I think four houses were bought by Chinese families.
LUI: On 61st Street?
LUI: When you first moved there, were there a lot of Chinese people living on61st street?
CHEN: We only bought the house a few years ago, and during that time, there werepretty many Chinese already, in 8th Avenue. Yeah, kind of…My next door neighbor is Chinese. Across the street is also Chinese. I think within the block, there are a few more Chinese families. I think in my backyard, the next house is also a Chinese family. My mom's friend. [unintelligible]
LUI: The other neighbors are Caucasian?86:00
CHEN: My next door neighbor, one side is Chinese and the other side is Indian.They moved in when we moved in. It's funny because I had to take a taxi home one time, and this guy was driving me home. He's Caucasian, and we talked about the neighborhood, and he said, "Oh, it's great that all the Chinese people are moving in." I asked him why, because I didn't understand why he said that, especially since he's not Chinese himself. He said, "Because there used to be so many [unintelligible] gangs here and it's awful. They rob people and they do this and they do that. Chinese people are so great. I love Chinese food. I just go out and get some Chinese food. It's so much more quiet and so much better." His image of Chinese people is very good, because he thinks that we are quiet 87:00and don't cause trouble. [unintelligible]
LUI: Does he live around there?
CHEN: Yeah, he lives at 57th and 7th Avenue. Across our yard is also a Caucasianfamily. The guy is really, really nice. He grows tomatoes and other vegetables and gives some to us. Not all people are bad or prejudiced. Some are, some are not. He is one of the better ones. But I do encounter a lot of prejudice.
LUI: Did he live there for a long time?
CHEN: I think he lived there for a long time. [unintelligible] He lived therefor a long time. I don't know how many years-- He's very nice. He talks to us, 88:00and to my mom, even though she doesn't understand him. [unintelligible] It's quite a nice neighborhood.
LUI: So you're happy that you're living out there?
CHEN: Yeah. I don't like Chinatown. It's too dirty. Actually, me and my sisters,we didn't like it that much when it got to be such a Chinatown like place. It got to be too dirty, especially in 8th Avenue with all of those Chinese restaurants and stuff. When we still were living in 52nd Street, we used to walk along 8th Avenue. When the restaurant closed, they took out all the garbage, in the front of the street, and we smelled it. It smelled like Chinatown and we hated it, because it wasn't really nice. It wasn't very clean. But I don't live right on 8th Avenue. I live between 6th and 7th, so I finally have a backyard.
LUI: You think the Sunset Park area is getting more and more like Chinatown?89:00
LUI: Is that good or bad?
CHEN: For our parents, for the older generation it's good, but I want an areathat's cleaner. The reason I don't like Chinatown -I mean, I like Chinatown itself -but I don't like the street because it's so dirty and it doesn't smell so good in the summer. Now 8th Avenue is like that because they have the vegetable stands and garbage from restaurants. It's getting dirty. I don't like that.
LUI: It sounds like you come to Chinatown in Manhattan a lot. Do you think youspend more time in Manhattan then in Sunset Park?
CHEN: Yes, I do. I work in Chinatown. [unintelligible] [laughter] I go to schoolright near City Hall, which is right next to Chinatown. My grandmom still lives 90:00in Mott, so I go up there when I need stuff. When I go out late, I don't go home, so I stay at my grandmom's house, which is right in Chinatown. [unintelligible] I go home to sleep in Chinatown I mean not in Chinatown, Manhattan, basically and now I'm in the Village all the time. I'm hardly in Brooklyn. I don't even eat there, except [unintelligible]. It's not that I don't like the neighborhood, but my friends are not there. All my friends are here. [unintelligible] I don't like Chinatown that much. I mean I like Chinatown but I don't like the dirt and it is so crowded so I go to other places besides Chinatown. 91:00
LUI: Now that your parents have bought a house there, do you think that you'regoing to stay there permanently?
CHEN: You mean for the future? I do plan to move, because there are times thatyou can't take the city anymore, so you want to get away. I think I want to move to a more quiet neighborhood, but I don't want to move away from New York City Like a neighborhood that is more quiet.
LUI: What do you have in mind?
CHEN: I don't know. I know that in Brooklyn, around 92nd Street and 4th Avenue,it's very nice. It's mostly white people and more quiet. I like that better than Chinatown.
LUI: What about your parents?
CHEN: My parents love their area, I think. They get everything around there. Myfather, after work, he works right on 8th Avenue. After work, he works in 56th 92:00or 55th, and we live in 56th and all the shops are in between those two blocks, so when he is coming home, he stops. He never buys food ahead of time, so he always buys our dinner for the same day. When he is coming home, he buys along the way and comes home. Even though my mom doesn't work in Sunset Park anymore, it's very convenient for both of them. They don't have to go to Chinatown to buy anything anymore. They get everything in 8th Avenue. When we first moved in, you know the Chinese bags of rice; they're really big and gigantic. We had to carry them from Chinatown back to Brooklyn, but now we don't have to do that anymore. [unintelligible] My great grandparents, they're so old, but they still go out.
LUI: Where do they usually go?
CHEN: They go shopping in 8th Avenue for food and vegetables, so it's convenient93:00for them also. They go to bakery stores [unintelligible]. There's an A& P, so it's convenient for us also, to buy American food, instead of Chinese food.
LUI: Are you all citizens now?
CHEN: No. Even though I'm here for 10 years, I'm going to apply myself. But myparents, they don't have the patience to learn. They want me to do it, so there can be at least one citizen in the family. They are kind of afraid that one of these days, this country will send orders for non-citizens to go back to China, so at least if there is one citizen here, I could stay and take care of the house and stuff. [laughter]
LUI: So you definitely plan to become a citizen.
CHEN: Yeah, but I don't really have time, since I am in school now. Both of mysisters are not working, and my parents are supporting three people in our house, and we have to pay the mortgage. 94:00
LUI: Your grandparents aren't citizens either?
CHEN: My grandfather is. He had to be in order to get us here. That's one of thereasons why we came her so late, because my grandfather wasn't a citizen. [unintelligible]
LUI: So even though your grandfather's a citizen, your parents think they can'tdo it.
CHEN: Basically, they don't want to take the time to learn. It's impossible.It's hard for them. My father can't even spell his own name. When he is on the phone and someone tell him to spell his name, he can't. I have to go to the phone and spell it for him. He can write it, he knows which way to go with the letters and everything but he can't spell it. My mom can't either. [laughter]
LUI: Your parents haven't taken any English classes?
CHEN: No, they have no time. When they first came here, they were strugglingwith learning. You have to take what the boss says. They're not very nice, most 95:00of the bosses. After they learned, they wanted to make money and save money for a house, which they did, but they had to work very, very long hours in order to do that Most families' parents, they work 6 days a week. When they have one day off, they want to relax. [unintelligible] They probably don't have time to learn.
LUI: Are there many places that your parents go to, other than Sunset Park?
CHEN: No, they don't go out at all. They go to Chinatown once in a while, that's it.
LUI: Why do they go to Chinatown?
CHEN: The bank, to deposit checks. That's about it. That's the only reason myfather goes to Chinatown, to deposit checks.
LUI: Your parents don't have a bank account in Sunset Park.
CHEN: No, there are no banks. I mean, there is.96:00
Oral History Interview with Yan Chen
Yan Chen was born in 1974 in Mainland China. Her family moved to the United States in 1983 when Chen was about nine years old. They lived in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, in a building their grandfather owned, as well as the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan. Chen went to elementary school in Chinatown for three years and then the family moved back to Sunset Park. Her parents worked in Chinatown. Chen attended Robert F. Wagner Middle School and Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan. When she was a teenager, her father got a job at Bay Ridge Restaurant, in Sunset Park, and her mother worked in a factory in Brooklyn. Chen also worked for a brief time sewing clothes in a factory. At the time of the 1993 interview, Chen was a young adult exploring her world of work and life.
In this interview, Yan Chen talks about her life in Mainland China where she was born and grew up; the family home, farm, her family, extended family, and many farm animals. Chen recalls how, at age ten, she and her family came to the United States through the help of extended family. She remembers that her parents were hoping to make a lot of money in America without having to work too hard. The interview mainly consists of Chen discussing her relationship to the two areas where she lived-the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan and the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn-and her sense of place within them. She describes her family experiences, her education and friendships, demographic shifts within the neighborhoods, problems with bullying, crime and gangs, Chinese home ownership, and the establishment of Chinese businesses; all factors which helped to stabilize the Chinese community and allowed her family to prosper. Interview conducted by Mary Lui.
Brooklyn Historical Society collaborated with the Chinatown History Museum (now the Museum of Chinese in America) in order to conduct a series of oral histories with residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. The Cantonese, Mandarin, and English language interviews focused on what was then a new presence of Chinese and Asian immigrants concentrated along Eighth Avenue. Among the topics that are explored in the interviews are tensions between different groups of Chinese immigrants, crime and safety in the neighborhood, Sunset Park's relationship to Manhattan's Chinatown, and how long-term residents of Sunset Park had adjusted to the area's "newcomers."
CitationChen, Yan, Oral history interview conducted by Mary Lui, April 23, 1993, New Neighbors: Sunset Park's Chinese Community records, 1994.007.07; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Chen, Yan
- Chinese American families
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- Economic conditions
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- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Chinatown (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Chinatown (New York, N.Y.)
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- Sunset Park (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidNew Neighbors: Sunset Park's Chinese Community records