Lion Ladies China Roses in NY U.S. My Second Home
From the Editor As a visually driven news, culture and opinion magazine, Mei Magazine explores Asian American women’s past and present lives, as well as gender issues and women’s perceptions of themselves. This special issue of Mei Magazine focuses on the lives of Chinese American women in New York City. They are from different generations, different professions, and even different cultural backgrounds. They have different understandings of being a “woman”, being themselves and being happy, but they are all China roses in the U.S.. Junru Huang, Managing Editor
Table of Contents Lion Ladies page2
The lion dance club Chinatown Community Young Lions and three generations of Chinese American women
China Roses in NY page10
The lives of five Chinese women of different generations and professions
US My Second Home page18 An 84-year-old first generation female immigrant and her 24-hour health care worker
Editorial Board Terry Eiler Anita Vizireanu Becca Quint Bryan Thomas Cayce Clifford Darcy Holdorf Emine Ziyadinova
Heather Haynes Jim McAuley Joel Prince Matt Adams Madeline Gray Maddie McGarvey Mitch Casey
Patrick Traylor Patrick Oden Priscilla Thomas Rebecca Miller Samantha Goresh Wayne Thomas
Three Generations of Chinese American Women and A Lion Dancing Club story and photos by Junru Huang
Kristin Tom-Lew dances holding the lion head during the finale of the 2012 Chinese New Yearâ€™s parade.
(From Left) Katelyn and Kristin Tom-lew perform the lion dance during the 2012 Chinese New Year’s Parade.
am-Tam,” “Tong-Tong,” noises of chau gongs and drums echo for blocks during the finale of the annual Chinese New Year’s parade. Thirteen colorful lions move up and down among the crowds on Mott Street, one of the oldest streets in New York’s Chinatown. A bright red lion dances in the center, shaking its head and flicking its tail with energetic movements, the shinning outfit shimmering in the afternoon sun. A brown pair of women’s UGG boots jumps in and out under the delicate fabric of the lion’s tail. The girl who wears them is 17-year-old Kristin Tom-Lew. Kristin’s grandmother, Valerie Tom is currently the executive director of the Chinatown Community Young Lions,
a lion-dancing club for youth ranging in age from six to 17. She founded the club in 1972 because her son, Brian, wanted to learn the dance but had a hard time getting into any of the lion dance clubs in Chinatown. Back then, all the lion dance clubs were made up of Chinese who were born in China. These organizations separated themselves from Chinese Americans who were born in the United States. “Brian was not born on the other side. He’s American and they didn’t recognize him,” says Valerie.
As a result, Valerie and her ex-husband bought a lion head and other lion dance equipment for Brian and five of his friends. They created a non-profit organization for any young people
love lion dancing because I was born to it and it just came to me.” – Kristin Tom-Lew
Lauren and Kelly, from left to right, watches their cousin Krstin’s performance.
who wanted to learn traditional Chinese lion dance. Nine-yearold Brian was the first teacher in the club. He learned the lion dance from watching other lion dancers in Chinatown.
When Valerie founded the club, her daughter Kathleen was seven years old, and became interested in lion dance. At that time, no girls in Chinatown performed on any of the teams. Kathleen joined the club and began to learn to drum from her brothers and their friends. She also did the lion head dance when needed. “I don’t know why females were not into the lion dance back then. I’m not sure what people thought. I wasn’t interested in what people thought, we were just doing it for fun,” says Kathleen, who became the first female drummer on a lion
dancing team in New York’s Chinatown.
The club started out with just six members. There are now approximately 250 to 300 active members, among which there are 25 to 30 girls. In the 40 years since Valerie founded the club, over 3,000 kids have come through the program. Besides the major parades during Halloween and the Chinese New Year, the club is also hired throughout the year for a variety of events including restaurant functions, weddings and birthday parties. The lion dance is more than a tradition— it’s also a religious ceremony in which the dancers act as guardians and harbingers of good luck to come. The team danced in a grand mall in Flushing, Queens when it was opened— lions went around the
whole mall, giving blessings to all the stores.
All of Valerie’s children and grandchildren are involved in the club. Valerie’s granddaughters, Kristin and Katelyn, both play important roles on the team. Kristin is a great lion head dancer and everybody celebrates Katelyn’s outstanding drumming skills. Kristin’s earliest memory from lion dance was when she was two years old. “I was sitting on the wagon and people pushed us around in Chinatown during the New Year Parade,” says Kristin. She started learning the lion dance at three years old, when her grandmother and her mother bought a little lion head for her to play with. The lion dance helps keep the family close across generations. Kristin is one of the best female lion dancers in the group.
She dances just as effortlessly with the heavy lion’s head as any male dancer. Kristin is talented at sports and is the captain of her high school basketball team. She is also a star player on the New York Rokits Girls Basketball Team, a basketball team for girls under 18 in Chinatown. For Kristin, the biggest challenge in lion dance is drumming where “there’s an up beat, a low beat, three balances— and it has to be really smooth.” Her sister Katelyn seems to have an innate sense of rhythm and is a talented drummer. Dancing with the heavy lion’s head is more of a challenge for Katelyn. At the very end of the New Year’s parade finale, Kristin lifted Katelyn up on her shoulders as she held the
women can do anything that a man can do, and even better”. – Valerie Tom
(From Left) Katelyn, Kathleen, Kristin and Valerie at Valerie’s home on Mott Street in Chinatown.
lion head for a cheering audience.
home,” says Kathleen.
When Valerie was born over sixty years ago, Chinatown in New York was only six to seven blocks. It now spans almost 40 blocks, and the population is 25 times larger. Limited space has caused many of the second and third generations of Chinese to move to other places such as Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey. But Valerie and her family have no desire to leave. “It’s so convenient to live in Chinatown and we all love Chinatown. It’s
Valerie, Kathleen, Kristin and Katelyn all call themselves “ABCs,” short for “American Born Chinese,” which is a term Chinese Americans use to differentiate themselves from Chinese who are born in China. To them, Chinese Americans are different from either Chinese or Americans since they follow both Chinese traditions and American values.
Kristin and Katelyn are fifth generation immigrants. Their great-grandfather came from Toishan, Guangdong, China to New York in the late 1800s. The entire family has resided in New York’s Chinatown for over 100 years.
Though Chinatown has expanded since Valerie’s childhood, she feels that her granddaughters’ lives are not as different from her own as one might expect. On weekdays they go to Chinese language school after American school. On Fridays, they go to Girl Scout meetings. They go with their family to church on Sundays.
(From left) Chris Perez, Kristin Tom-Lew, Jimmy Ng and Timmy Li, Kelly Tom relax at the celebration dinner after the parade.
Valerie Tom at home on Mott Street in Chinatown.
The family still practices many Chinese traditions. Along with the lion dance, they also like eating noodles on birthdays to represent a long life. They still keep the tradition of wearing red for good luck to celebrate the New Year.
“On Chinese New Year’s Eve, we worship our ancestors by lighting a candle and incense as well as serving chicken and the suji– all the traditional Chinese dishes for the ancestors. The only difference is, as American born, we don’t usually cook Chinese food. It’s easier for us to buy them cooked,” laughs Valerie.
Valerie’s ex-husband was a Scottish man who she met in high school. They had four children together. “I think women can do anything that men can do, and better,” says Valerie, “because
we have children and we are forced to multi-task— we have to both work and take care of the family. A man has a tough time doing all of that. He goes to work and comes back and he’s tired. A woman’s job continues.” Though all of her daughters married Chinese Americans, Valerie says she would not mind if her daughters and granddaughters date men from other ethnic groups. Her daughter, Kathleen, still prefers her daughters Kristin and Katelyn to date and marry Asians. “I don’t know why, I just prefer them to stay with Asians,” she says. Kathleen is an elementary school teacher in Queens. She is the strong woman that her mother raised her to be, with both a career and a family.
want my daughters to be strong and independent women...I prefer them to go out and date Asians but they would not dependent on their husbands.” – Kathleen Tom-Lew
Kristin talks with her mom Kathleen after the celebration dinner of the lion dance club.
“I want my daughters to be strong, independent women, so that they can stand on their own and don’t have to depend on anybody,” says Kathleen.
After the last dance, lions walk on by one into the club at 19 Mott St. to the loud cheering and music, marking the end of the annual show. Dancers take off the costumes and go to a Chinese restaurant, where Valerie orders two big tables of food as celebration. Teenagers laugh and joke around with each other as families and relatives chat about life at this annual reunion. When the night comes, the banquet is over. People say goodbye to each other, pack up the costumes and walk home down the dark streets of Chinatown.
China Roses in New York
story and photos by Junru Huang
In her famous novel, The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan describes the traditional cultural definition of women and men in China as, “For woman is yin, the darkness within, where untempered passions lie. And man is yang, bright truth lighting our minds.” Chinese women did not immigrate to the U.S. in significant numbers until late 19th century. According to Judy Yang’s Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco, early Chinese female immigrants were either merchants’ wives with bounded feet living bounded lives, or cheap labors who were working hard in factories, laundries or restaurants yet still confined to the domestic sphere within Chinatown. However, 140 years later, the lives of Chinese women in the U.S. are much more diverse than they have ever been. In this special issue of Mei, we feature five women who share their stories of life in the city of New York.
Bo Lam uses her fingers to trace the name of ther hometown on the table.
Bo Lam Tom Bo Lam Tom is 89 years old and lives in an apartment on the border of Chinatown with her 24 hour home care worker. Her life is split into two halves– the first half was back in China, the second half began in1962 at age 40, when she came to the US after getting married in Hong Kong. Aging is slowly wiping away many of her memories. She was born in the 1920s in Kaiping, Guangdong, where her father was a businessman. Born rich, she was welleducated and went to college in the 1940s, a time when only women from wealthy and open-minded families in China were able to go to college. Bao Lam still maintains her beautiful traditional Chinese handwriting. She learned how to write with brushes, but has since changed to pens. When talking about her hometown, she can’t help but use her fingers to trace the name of the hometown stroke by stroke on her desk. She was a teacher in mainland China during the 1940s. In the late 1950’s, with the help of her students, she moved to Hong Kong because of the political changes happening in China. In Hong Kong, her students introduced her to the man who would become her husband. After they married, the
Bo Lam writes her name, place of birth and her father’s name in traditional Chinese.
couple moved to the United States, where she gave birth to a son and a daughter. Compared to her decent job back in China, she has worked many tough jobs in the United States in order to make a living and support her family. Bao Lam’s husband was twenty years older than her. He passed away many years ago. When asked if she misses China, she closes her eyes and sighs, “Nobody that I know is alive in China anymore.”
Fay Chiang Fay is a poet, a painter and the director of Project Reach, a non-profit organization working with at-risk youth in Chinatown, New York. She was born in Chinatown but her family moved to Jackson Heights, in Queens, when she was three years old. They ran a hand laundry. “For myself, it was a life-long journey to figure out what to keep from the traditional Chinese culture and what to take from American culture to make my life whole,” says Fay, who was
raised in a traditional Chinese family. Her parents gave birth to three girls before they finally had a boy. Although their family was poor, they felt it was important for them to have a boy to carry on the family name. When the entire family gathers for New Year’s dinner at her grandma’s tiny apartment, men sit in the living room while women sit in the kitchen. Fay was born on New Year’s Day of the year of the dragon and her grandma would always say that she wished Fay had been a boy since that special birthday would be so good for a boy. Despite experiencing such inequality within her own family, Fay has grown up to become a strong, independent and socially aware woman. When she was young, she was involved in the anti-war and women’s rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. She sees herself as a feminist. Fay has two children but she never married their father. She thinks marriage is a personal choice and she chose not to. Fay works with young people at risk in Chinatown including people with HIV/AIDs, and collective artists on different issues. She has been living with breast cancer for 20 years.
An old photo of Fay when she was young.
Fay works in her office at Project Reach.
Mei Chan works in the kitchen of Asia Roma where she is both the owner and head chef.
Mei Chan Mei Chan is the owner and head chef of Asia Roma, an Italian bar and restaurant on Mott Street in Chinatown. On any given evening, you can see her running in and out of the kitchen wearing a mini skirt and high-heeled boots. Most of her customers are Chinese Americans, whom Mei has known for a long time. The bar is near several funeral homes. Sometimes after a funeral, people will take friends to Mei’s bar for a drink. The bar opens in the afternoon. When is it not busy, Mei sits with her 10-year-old Chihuahua, Angel, and surfs the internet on her iPad. After her divorce, the dog has been her baby– her only daughter is now attending college in California. Cooking comes naturally to Mei. “You know how to cook or you don’t. If you know how to cook then you can cook everything,” Mei says. She taught herself how to cook Italian food, and feels that she is now better at cooking that than the Chinese food she grew up with. Mei moved to New York from Hong Kong when
she was four years old. Her family lived on the border of Chinatown on the lower east side of Manhattan. Although she was born in Hong Kong, Mei still considers herself Chinese American rather than Chinese because most of her memories are from growing up in the U.S. Mei’s father worked in a Chinese restaurant and her mother worked in a garment factory like many other Chinese immigrants at the time. They were less traditional than most other Chinese parents and allowed Mei the freedom to make many choices for herself, from the friends she chose to the direction of her education. Mei doesn’t think running a restaurant is harder for women than men. “Maybe men are stronger but other than that, I don’t see any difference in running a business. It’s long hours, it’s stressful. But it’s a business where you meet a lot of people, good and bad. But whatever you do, whatever business you are in, you put 100 percent of yourself into it, you always find some rewards in it,” says Mei.
Joanna Lou in the basketball court of No.52 Middle School, where she has been playing since she was 14.
Joanna Lou 32 year-old Joanna is the oldest member of the New York Rockits Women’s Basketball team. She has been playing for the team since she was 14. Joanna was born in Chinatown. Her childhood was filled with hanging out on the streets of Chinatown with her Chinese American friends since both her parents worked long hours to support their family. She started playing basketball with her friends and eventually they joined the New York Rockits. Every Sunday, the girls practice with their coach at the gym at the No.56 Middle School. “Basketball plays an important part in my life.” says Joanna, “I work long hours in a bank. Basketball is the best way for me to re-gain my energy.” Joanna says she has been a tom-boy since she was young. She has always enjoyed sports and fierce competition. Being American-born, Joanna thinks of herself as more American than Chinese. “Since my parents were so busy when I was young, they really didn’t have any time to give me Chinese cultural input. I learned all the Chinese traditions from my in-laws.” However, she does feel a strong attachment to the Chinese community. After giving birth to two kids, Joanna moved out from Chinatown in Manhattan to Chinatown in Flushing. “I never thought about leaving the Chinese community,” says Joanna.
Grace answers a phone call in her office.
Grace Meng “I’m very traditional.” Says Grace Meng, the assemblywoman of District 22 in New York City. “I’m even more traditional than many of the Chinese women nowadays. I cook every day for my family. Family always comes first to me.” Grace is the youngest Chinese American woman elected to New York City’s Assembly. She was born in Queens to Taiwanese immigrants. Her father used to be a famous politician in Chinatown and her family’s influence inspired her political career. “I love politics, I love working with people.” says
Grace. She earned a bachelors degree from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. Grace’s office is on the 38th street of Flushing, New York. Flushing is now one of the biggest enclaves for Chinese immigrants, especially new immigrants who are from mainland China and speak Mandarin. There are often long lines of people waiting to see Grace and her assistants. Most them are elder Chinese who have questions about many things including housing, health care and welfare. Grace is known for her insistence in promoting rights for elder people and youth. Grace considers herself to be Chinese American rather than pure Chinese or American. “On one hand, I’m born and educated here in the U.S., I’m first American.” Says Grace, “But on the other hand, I’m from this Chinese community. My family are all Chinese. I would love to give back to the Chinese community in New York.”
Employees of Kanzhongguo Magazine walk on Main Street in Flushing, New York during the Chinese New Year’s Parade.
My S ec o nd Home
story and photos by Junru Huang
i Cuinong’s window on the 38th floor of Confucius Plaza looks out over the picturesque Manhattan skyline. The residents of Confucius Plaza are almost exclusively Chinese Americans. There are two beds in the studio. Eighty-one-year-old Li sleeps on the bigger bed. Zhao Yanyan, her home attendant who stays with her 24 hours a day, sleeps on the other bed across the room. They speak to each other in Toishanese, a dialect from Toishan, a city in China’s southern Guangdong Province. Despite their 25-year age difference, the two women share quite a few things in common. They are both from Toishan, a coastal county that contains 16 townships in Guangdong. Toishan is famous for
Li draws her eyebrow on in the morning.
Li Cuinong, left, takes medicine while Zhao Yanyan, right, has breakfast at Li’s apartment.
A photo of Li before she came to the U.S..
The view from Li’s window.
being the origin of many Chinese Diasporas— 1.3 million people originally from Toishan currently live outside China. Both women have also lived in this country for about 30 years. Since they moved to the U.S., both women have never lived outside of New York’s Chinatown. Li Cuinong immigrated to the United States with her husband Li Wanchui in 1982. As soon as they settled down in New York City, they began the slow process of applying for the proper visas so that their children and grandchildren could join them. By 1992, the entire 23-person family had successfully immigrated to the United States.
read English. All of them have spent their entire lives in Chinatown, working in either restaurants, garment factories, or as home care workers. They rarely gather together except for an annual New Year’s family reunion at Li Cuinong’s apartment. There is a piece of paper with all the phone-numbers of her sons and daughters attached to Li’s desk, but she is notorious for being “bad-tempered” and picky, so she does not speak to her family often. Her children had to keep seeking new home care attendants for her until, they found Zhao Yanyan, who never argues with her. Zhao has been working with Li for almost two years.
Li Wanchui’s sister married a Chinese American soldier during World War II and immigrated to the United States in the 1940s. After the Cultural Revolution and China’s “opening up,” her family started to think about moving to the United States.
During her first eight years in the country, Zhao stayed at home with her daughter and two sons. In 1991 she went to work at a garment factory. Working in the garment factory was intense— Zhao usually worked from 8am until 10pm. “We got paid by the number of pieces we made. If we don’t make it, we don’t get paid,” says Zhao, who made $800 a month, which was a decent salary among Chinese American female workers at the time.
Among the three generations of Li’s family in the U.S. , only the youngest can speak and
Zhao’s husband is now retired. He lives with their two sons and does all the housework. During the day, he goes to the Zhaoziqitang Club in Chinatown, a club for people coming from Sanhe Township in Toishan, to play
But for the Chinese Civil War and the following political movements including the Cultural Revolution, the Li family would never have imagined that one day all of them would be living in the U.S.. Li Cuinong’s grandfather in-law had come to the United States in the late 1800s as a railroad worker and got his citizenship in the early 1900s. Instead of settling down in the US, he chose to move back to China. With the money he had earned in the US, he was able to buy property in his hometown and started his own profitable business. After the Communists took over the regime from the Kuomintang in 1949, Li’s family lost everything they owned.
Once she got to the U.S., Li worked in a garment factory and her husband worked at a Chinese restaurant. She retired from her job six years ago and a year later, her husband passed away. She has since moved into the studio apartment in Confucius Plaza, one of the bestknown landmarks in Chinatown among Chinese Americans. The rent is only $230 a month because of the social warfare that she gets. She also receives a $900 monthly stipend from the government. “I don’t regret immigrating to the US, they take good care of old people.” Says Li.
Zhao Yanyan got her green card through marriage. Zhao’s husband is 20 years her senior. When he came to the U.S. he got a job at a restaurant in Chinatown. After getting his citizenship, he went back to China, planning to marry his girlfriend, only to find that she had married someone else. Through a matchmaker, he met Zhao and took her to Hong Kong where they got married. On May 27, 1981, Zhao came to the United States with her husband and their three-month-old daughter.
In 2006, Zhao quit the garment factory industry because it became too exhausting as she got older. In 2007, she went to a home care training program and earned a certificate to work as a home care worker. “Working as a home care worker is so much easier. You don’t have to work under stress, although it takes a lot of patience and you have to deal with a lot of trivial things,” says Zhao.
Zhao Yanyan makes a phone call on Mott Street, Chinatown when getting groceries.
Zhao Yanyan cleans dishes in the kitchen of Zhaoziqitang Club.
mahjong with friends. Sometimes, Zhao gets groceries for her husband and brings them to the club for him, where there is a kitchen and a big common room with mahjong tables, in an apartment building that is over 100 years old. Since Zhao
started working as a home attendant, she only goes home once a week. The clubhouse is a place where she can visit with her husband and friends.
Every morning, Zhao helps Li wake up around seven. She
Li Cuinong, right, plays Bingo with other old ladies at the Community Room of Confucius Plaza.
helps her shower and makes breakfast. Sometimes she takes Li to the Community Room downstairs, where Li plays Bingo or attends other activities held by social workers for the elderly residents of Confucius Plaza. While Li plays, Zhao goes to Mott
Street to get groceries for the day. Sometimes when there are no activities in the Community Room, Zhao goes with Li for a walk. In the evening, the two watch TV for an hour before Zhao helps Li get ready for bed. “Days are slow,” says Zhao.