a 3-part series examining the Chinese Restaurant Industry

Chinese food is one of the most beloved cuisines in America. About a third of all Americans order Chinese takeout or eat at a Chinese restaurant each month and there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the nation (nearly three times the number of McDonald’s franchises). But how often do we actually think about the people behind the food?

Building on the reporting of Lauren Hilgers in The Kitchen Network and Patrick Radden Keefe’s book The Snakehead, in this 3-part series I will take readers deep inside the lives of Chinese restaurant and takeout workers in New York—their struggles, dreams, and daily realities. For the last 4 months I have been interviewing and photographing workers, speaking in Mandarin to more than two dozen people in or familiar with the industry: delivery men, cooks, waiters, business owners, community organizers, and children of restaurant workers. Each part of the series will be character-driven, illustrated through photographs, and will utilize reported material and stories to illuminate a specific issue in the industry. A small selection of photos is included here.

The project was developed during my time as a TED Resident in the spring of 2017, though I first began work on it in August 2016. This past June I gave a 6-minute TED Talk on the topic, and the video of the talk will mostly likely go live in the fall.


Part 1: Working Conditions Inside the Chinese Restaurant Industry

More than 100,000 Chinese immigrants arrive in America each year. Some pay smugglers, otherwise known as snakeheads, who send them crisscrossing the globe on boats, planes, and vans until they finally cross the border into the U.S. Most of the workers I spoke to said they paid $60,000 or more to be smuggled into the country 10 to 15 years ago; more recent estimates put this cost at $100,000. New York City is the hub for nearly all Chinese restaurant jobs along the Eastern seaboard. New immigrants, primarily from Fujian province in China, land in NYC and head to several employment agencies clustered around Eldridge Street in Chinatown. Once a job match is found, workers head to their new job on an overnight bus to restaurants in Upstate New York or places as far away as North Carolina and Florida. The Chinatown bus lines, which sell one-way tickets for as a low as $10-15, was originally developed as a transportation system specifically to shuttle restaurant workers to and from jobs. Since most workers speak little to no English, being close to Chinatowns like the ones in Flushing, Sunset Park, and Manhattan is preferred. The further away from NYC a restaurant is, the higher the pay. Restaurants in suburban and rural areas usually provide housing for their workers to sweeten the deal.

Two women stand inside a restaurant employment center on Eldridge Street in Manhattan's Chinatown.

Two women stand inside a restaurant employment center on Eldridge Street in Manhattan's Chinatown.

Kitchen workers typically work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week—7 days a week if they’re running the business or in a hurry to pay off their debt. A cook gets paid anywhere from $8 to $11 an hour, which on the low end means they’re making below New York State’s minimum wage, bringing in anywhere between $2300 to $3500 a month. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Mr. Chen and his wife have run Happy Wok on Franklin Avenue for more than 20 years. Chen first arrived in the U.S. in 1989 and says he was happy back then just to be earning $5-6 a day (more money than he could ever hope to earn back in China). He and his wife run the takeout shop 7 days a week with one other worker. They have 3 children who are all in school—two daughters who are studying to be a doctor and dentist respectively and a son working towards a degree in computer engineering.

Mr. Chen and Mrs. Chen working in the kitchen at Happy Wok in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Mr. Chen and Mrs. Chen working in the kitchen at Happy Wok in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

While the working hours of a restaurant worker can be grueling, especially if you’re standing in front of a hot wok or bussing tables for 12 hours, the wages are not as egregiously low as they are in other industries like nail salons, which was brought to light by a 2-part series in the NYT. However, restaurant workers are still susceptible to the hardships and occupational hazards of the restaurant lifestyle. With little time for rest or medical treatment when a health problem arises (not to mention lack of health insurance), workers often suffer from fatigue, back pain, varicose veins, carpal tunnel syndrome, and depression. For example, in March of this year a 55-year-old Fujianese man named Lan Zhenjie, who had been living and working as a cook in NYC since 1992, bled to death in the restroom at the restaurant he worked at after a varicose vein in his right leg burst. He had not seen his daughter, whom he left back in China, for 22 years. Incidents like these are frequently reported in local Chinese language newspapers but rarely appear in mainstream American media.

Vincent Cao, a waiter and community organizer working with Chinese Staff and Workers' Association, speaks at a rally in support of the SWEAT Bill. 

Vincent Cao, a waiter and community organizer working with Chinese Staff and Workers' Association, speaks at a rally in support of the SWEAT Bill. 

Although the owners of Chinese restaurants and takeouts are themselves immigrants who have worked their way up from the menial positions they now hire others to do, that does not prevent some of them from exploiting workers. In the case of Vincent Cao, a Fujianese immigrant who arrived here in 2001, his full wages were withheld when he worked as a waiter at NAME OF RESTAURANT; during that time he was only paid $300 a month. He and other employees banded together to sue their employer and eventually won a settlement of $1.2 million in stolen wages. But by that time the owner had already sold or transferred ownership of all assets. Cao has not seen a penny of the $140,000 owed to him, meanwhile the restaurant re-opened under a new name and ownership, though Cao maintains the former owner still has a majority stake in the business. The SWEAT Bill, introduced by New York State State Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal in 2013, seeks to afford workers greater protections and remedy such situations by allowing employees to place a hold on employer assets until claims of stolen wages are resolved. Cao still works as a waiter but is now also a community organizer with Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (CSWA). He mobilizes workers who have been exploited in similar ways, which is difficult to do in what has traditionally been a tight-lipped Chinese community, and organizes people to show up at rallies and protests around the city.

Quotes from Mr. Chen, owner of Happy Wok; Vincent Cao, waiter and community organizer; Wing Lam, executive director of CSWA.


Part 2: The Systematic Discrimination of Takeout Delivery Men

There is a widespread misconception that Asians don't experience discrimination (or poverty) in America because of the model minority myth. The reality is that they do, but they are often unable to speak up or choose not to for self-preservation. This is especially true for Chinese immigrants who work as delivery men. In most cases these workers do not speak English and only have an elementary or middle-school level education in Chinese. Some lack legal status in the country, another liability, because they immigrated illegally using snakeheads. These factors make them a vulnerable population who can easily be taken advantage of by police and others. I spoke to delivery man Lin Shan Liang who showed me a bag full of police citations he’d received for various commercial cycling violations. He was not aware of what most of them were for. One citation, which included several different violations, totaled up to $2,500 in fines; the largest single violation with a $1,400 penalty was for operating a vehicle while under the influence. Lin appeared not to know what the violation was for until I explained it to him in Chinese; he vehemently denied the charge that he had been making deliveries while drunk.

Jackie Lee uses an e-bike to make food deliveries from Jing Fong in Chinatown.

Jackie Lee uses an e-bike to make food deliveries from Jing Fong in Chinatown.

Most recently, delivery men who use e-bikes have been targeted by police in specific Manhattan neighborhoods, primarily the Upper East Side and Upper West Side. It is legal to buy and sell e-bikes in New York State but illegal to use them. Many other states in the U.S., including California, have already legalized e-bikes, which have proliferated in the last few years with models being made domestically and imported from abroad. E-bikes have become popular with delivery men because many of them are middle-aged and no longer have the physical stamina to be cycling the clogged streets of Manhattan 5-6 days a week; they’re career delivery men who have few skills and little to no English-language capabilities, which narrows down their job prospects significantly. X number of police raids have been made this year resulting in the confiscation of X NUMBER of e-bikes. When delivery men lose their bicycles their livelihood is directly affected; they cannot work if they do not have a bike. The fine to get their e-bikes back is $500 (more than one week’s pay); however, I have heard multiple delivery men say that the impounds were unable to locate their bikes even after they paid the fine. Alternatively, the cost of a new e-bike starts at $1200.

I have worked closely with Do Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at CUNY, who has been conducting research on delivery men and surveying both Chinese and Spanish-speaking workers. I plan to share his most noteworthy findings in this article and believe the results of his survey, which will be completed at the end of summer, will further demonstrate the ways in which Chinese delivery men are systematically discriminated against by the police.

Quotes from Lin Shan Liang, delivery man; Mr. Lu, president of all Chinese delivery men union; Do Lee, CUNY Ph.D. in sociology candidate and researcher.


Part 3: The Floating Lives of a New Generation

Previous coverage of this topic has tended to focus on the staggering debt that workers are saddled with as soon as they arrive in the country. But their story doesn’t end there, as most of them do eventually pay off the $60,000 or more they owe to smugglers. I spoke to a number of restaurant workers, primarily men in their 30s, who are debt-free and single, but express an acute sense of isolation and aimlessness in this country. They continue to sacrifice most luxuries in life, saving as much money as they can to cover the basic costs of living and then sending the rest home to relatives (or in some cases they bring family members to the U.S.). One cook who goes by the name O’Neil, age 36, told me that I was his first American friend after living in the U.S. for 15 years. Another cook named Henry, 32, complained that he wants to get married and start a family, but he doesn't have the time or means to find a girlfriend in the U.S. Instead, he has made plans to go back to China this summer, where friends and family can introduce him to a suitable match. Several of the workers I chatted with via WeChat seemed more willing to speak to me because of the fact that I'm a young, American woman. I was commonly asked questions about whether I have a boyfriend, what my apartment or bedroom looks like, and if I date Chinese men.

A worker cleans a table at Nom Wah in Chinatown.

A worker cleans a table at Nom Wah in Chinatown.

A Chinese documentary on YouTube called Floating Days taps into the dark side of the American Dream that a new generation of restaurant workers is experiencing: isolation, disillusionment, exhaustion, and a growing sense of frustration and aimlessness. Several of the workers I spoke to said the film mirrored their own lives. In addition to the loneliness of being adrift in a foreign country with no time to learn English or make new friends, this generation of workers is making all of the same sacrifices yet without a clear aim or sense of purpose—the kind that usually comes from starting a family. In 2010, the average marriage age in China hovered around 25 for men and 23 for women. By comparison, Henry and O’Neil have forgone the normal timeline towards marriage and starting a family, hugely important milestones in Chinese culture. There is so much societal and familial pressure around these rites of passage that Chinese parents have been known to attend matchmaking expos on behalf of their children and unmarried women who reach the age of 27 are frequently referred to as "leftover women." 

The American Dream seems to hold up best when immigrants come here with the hope of improving life opportunities for the next generations to come, but when there isn't yet a next generation in the works, a worker's daily toil becomes narrow-mindedly focused on making money. Indeed, it's the reason most of these workers came here in the first place: to make more money than they could ever hope to earn in China based the dollar's favorable exchange rate. But when does the means of improving one's lot become the end, making money for the sake of money itself? Henry, for example, makes $3500 a month at his current restaurant and sends $2500 of that to his parents each month, whom he admits don’t have much need of the money and likely save most of it. When I asked O’Neil how much money would be enough for him to give up the exhausting lifestyle of being a cook, he responded: $2 million.

Legend KTV in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Legend KTV in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Colleagues from The Cottage, a Chinese restaurant near Union Square, dance to electro-pop in a private room at Legend KTV.

Colleagues from The Cottage, a Chinese restaurant near Union Square, dance to electro-pop in a private room at Legend KTV.

Probably the most telling sign of this trend that I witnessed was a night I spent with O’Neil and a group of his friends who work together at The Cottage, a Chinese restaurant near Union Square. Nearly all of them were single and appeared to be in their 30s or early 40s. We met around 11:30 pm on a Sunday evening at Legend KTV, a karaoke house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Most restaurant workers have Mondays or Tuesdays off since those tend to be less busy days for restaurants. The night was filled with drinking, eating, smoking, and singing along to C-pop lyrics played across a flat screen TV; later the lights were turned off and the disco ball turned on as the private room turned into an impromptu dance club. Jack, one of O’Neil’s friends, explained that their group of friends usually gets together for dinner or KTV every week or so. One person, usually a man, treats everyone else to a night out, spending $1,000-2,000 in one outing. A night out with friends is their way of blowing off steam and escaping from the monotony of daytime lives spent inside kitchens or behind cash registers. The night ended with a few of us ordering traditional dishes at a Fujianese restaurant in Sunset Park around 4 am. O'Neil sent me home in a Chinese taxi service and I was in bed by 5:30 am.

Quotes from Xiaodeng Chen, former delivery man and student at Brooklyn College; Henry, cook in Upstate New York; O’Neil, cook at a takeout in Brooklyn; Jackie Lee, delivery man at Jing Fong; Jack, delivery man at The Cottage near Union Square.