- Holding Up More than Half the Sky: Chinese Women Garment Workers in New York City 1948–1992
Xiaolan Bao’s excellent study of the New York City garment industry is a wonderful addition to the collection on women and labor. It is one of a handful of books that speak about the lives of immigrant Chinese women. With Chinese women in the United States for over a century, there ought to be more about them. This book, moreover, highlights a strike held by the Chinese women garment workers in 1982—a rare event in Chinese American history.
The text is easy to follow and is well organized. One can easily grasp the central concept that Bao emphasizes, which is the important role of Chinese women in work, family, and community life. At least a third of the book describes the garment industry and how the labor of immigrant Chinese women sustained the industry from the 1960s through at least 1992. The second third of the book discusses Chinese women laborers. The final third is about the strike and its significance for the Chinese community. Woven throughout the book is a history of the New York Chinese community, Chinese immigrant women, and the garment industry.
Part 1: The Milieu
In the first part of his book, Bao discusses the history of the garment industry in New York City, which started with a concentration of small tailoring shops to become the center of the ready-made garment production for much of the twentieth century. The New York industry was constantly transforming to fulfill the needs of an ever-changing customer base. Three factors encouraged the development of the garment industry: military leaders in the American Civil War demanded uniforms for soldiers, the growth of industry led to the development of sewing machines, and immigration from Europe provided plenty of people who could work in garment manufacturing. The contract system that initially was set up continued to the days when Chinese became the main workers in the industry. Before them were Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican, and African American workers. Bao lays the groundwork for the importance of gender, race, and class in the garment industry—all concepts that she uses in the following chapters. As the workforce grew from less than 50 percent immigrant Chinese women to over 70 percent immigrant and married Chinese women, the industry had a huge impact on Chinese American family life, especially in the later years, as it redefined the roles of husbands, wives, and children. [End Page 323]
Part 2: Chinese Women Workers before 1982
Before 1950, there were very few Chinese women in New York City. Men truly dominated the community. As Bao notes, while there were some Chinese American families, the majority of Chinese were men who were either single or effectively single because their wives and children were in China. After World War II, Chinese men who had served in the armed forces were allowed to bring home war brides. As a result, the small producer family emerged, with laundries and restaurants as the most common type of small business. Wives and children assisted men in their small businesses. Bao notes that during these early days, the women were frequently lonely because there were few other Chinese women in the community. Furthermore, many women did not know their husbands well. These couples were often products of arranged marriages. Between 1965 and 1982, the Chinese family structure changed once again. With the new Hart-Cellar immigration act—and family reunification as the rule rather than the exception— women and children coming to the United States becomes the norm. With the increase in the number of women and the inability of every family to become small business owners, women turned to the garment industry for work and income.
According to Bao, Chinese women who were garment workers became ever more important in the household because of...