The Worker

Interview by Robert O'Malley

(Wan Cheung, 65, sits in a room at the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) on Harrison Avenue. For about 25 years he was a restaurant worker in Boston's Chinatown. Now retired, he spends his days meeting with friends and volunteering at CPA.)

I was born in China and came to the US in 1972. I was 40 years old. At the time I was living in Hong Kong and working as a machinist on a ship. I had gone to Hong Kong in 1949. I was married in 1951 in Guangzhou, but my wife died from throat cancer in 1962. I have a daughter who lives in China and another who lives in Hong Kong. My children didn't want to come here; they were married and were already settled into their lives.

I worked on the boat for 15 years. I traveled around the world. But working on the ship was really hard. The waves made me feel uncomfortable all the time. The boat was not stable. And if we had a bad captain life could be even more difficult. Because of this I didn't really like working on the boat. In 1972, six of us - three sailors and three machinists - jumped ship in San Francisco. We were tired of moving around and decided to settle down. That's why I decided to get a job in the restaurant. At the time I arrived in San Francisco, the government wasn't so strict about immigration. I applied for a social security card and I got it in one week. When I came to Boston I was able to work in a restaurant. In 1986 I applied for amnesty and became documented.

I worked in Chinese restaurants for almost 25 years. I don't remember which restaurants because I worked for so many. Some of them have since closed. I retired in 1991 when I was 65 years old. I had a kidney stone operation and stopped working after that.

I worked in the restaurants after I came to the US because I didn't know English. I worked in Chinatown restaurants and I lived on Harvard Street. I usually went home at 1 o'clock in the morning and went to work the next afternoon at 2 o'clock. I had to wash the dishes; I had to peel the shrimp; I had to cut the pork. Then I would cook. I spent the whole day in the kitchen, from 2 o'clock in the afternoon to 1 o'clock in the morning.

It's a hard life working in a restaurant because we didn't have a break. We had to keep working all the way through. If I finished cooking one order I would soon have to cook another. I stayed in the kitchen the whole time I was there. The kitchen is hot and sticky. We work with knives so it's also very dangerous. After work I would just go home and sleep. And when I woke up I would go to the restaurant and do the same thing again. The work was hard but the pay was not that good. When I came to Boston in 1972, the salary was about $500 a month; and when I left the job in 1991 it was like $1,300 a month.

If I had been able to speak English I would rather have been a waiter. Being a waiter is better than working in the kitchen. I don't think I could get any better job in this country because I couldn't speak English. There were times when I thought about going to learn English, but I didn't have the time because I spent all of my time working and sleeping.

Because I worked in Chinese restaurants I didn't really need to speak English. I only stayed in Chinatown. My only entertainment, my only activity was going to see Chinese movies in a Chinatown theater. I didn't go shopping outside of Chinatown. I just stayed here. Chinatown has everything I need. I didn't drive. Sometimes I would take the T to go outside of Chinatown to buy something, but I'd only go with my friends. I would never go by myself.

I didn't really have any interest in finding out what Americans were like. I really didn't care. But I think America is better than other countries. It's richer and easier to get a job here. The best thing about America is the way the government treats elderly people; they treat them very well. I live in the elderly apartment now.

Before I came here I thought it would be really easy to find a job ; I thought I could quickly make a lot of money. But until I got here, I didn't really know that working here - working in the restaurant - could be so hard. But there really was no way I could have gone back. I had no choice. I had to stay here. When I first came here I thought about returning, but I decided I was too old to ever go home again.

I think if I had spent my life in China or Hong Kong, I would, in some way, have had more freedom. If I didn't want to work in the restaurant, I could have tried to do something else. I could have gone wherever I wanted to go because I would have known the language. In China I could have been more involved in the life around me. I would have been able to speak up and argue with people. I could have let people know what I thought and what I wanted. But here nobody listens.

In China I would have had more freedom to move around and communicate with others but I also would have worried more about my life and survival. In America I am confined to this Chinese community. I know that as long as I stay here I am safe.

I stayed in the US and followed the routine because I felt the government treats people well here. But I think I would have been happier if I had stayed in China. Since I came here, though, I really don't think much about it. I just follow the routine. I go to bed. I go to work. That's it. I really don't want to think. I know that thinking about it would be useless. Even if I think about it, it's not going to change anything.

I work to eat; I eat to work. That's the meaning of my life. One happy period of my life was the time I was able to see Chinese movies in Chinatown, but now I can't even do that because there's no Chinese movie theater now.

These days I wake up in the morning and first get something to eat for breakfast. I either eat my breakfast at home or go out to Chinatown to get something to eat. After I eat my breakfast, I go to Boston Common to talk with my friends. I go to the park at about 8 in the morning. I just walk around. If I bump into a friend we will talk. At noontime I go back to my apartment to eat because they serve lunch there.

In the afternoon I come to CPA to read newspapers or see if I can do something. Sometimes I help CPA to send out mail. Now they are preparing for their 20th anniversary. so I have been helping them collect ads. I go to each Chinese restaurant to ask them to sponsor us by putting an ad in our program book. If CPA has a steering committee meeting I will go to it too. When I was sick in 1991 I came to CPA for help. After I went to the hospital for treatment, I received many documents I didn't understand. I came to CPA for help, and they translated the letters for me. I knew the services here were free. Before I was sick I really didn't know about CPA.

Later in the afternoon I return to the park again. In the afternoon there will be older ladies there who can talk. We get together to talk about our past. We talk about nothing that's very real. We talk about our history. What else can we talk about? I don't have any girlfriends. If I had wanted to remarry I could have done that a long time ago. I don't have to wait till now to do it.

After I leave the Common I go home to cook dinner and go to bed. I am old now I cannot do anything. I live on a retirement plan and on SSI (Supplemental Security Income). The retirement money comes on the third of the month and SSI comes on the first.

I don't know what will happen tomorrow. I don't even know what will happen after I go to bed. I am old, and that's just the way it is.