The Sewing Machine Girl – Short Story by Charlie Chin

By Charlie Chin. Posted April 12, 2024

     Imagination can be more powerful than facts or knowledge.  I learned that back in the 1980’s when I was working at the then Chinatown History Project in New York City.  I was asked to come into the local Chinatown elementary school and talk about Chinese American history to the students.  The United States recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1979 had caused a new wave of ethnic Chinese immigration.  Some of these were rich and educated; they went right to the suburbs.  Most of the working class came to the Chinatowns.  There, predictably, most of the inner-city schools were over extended, under resourced, and had trouble teaching the most basic things, let alone the history of their minorities.

     One of the local teachers in charge, Julie Leong, was trying her best to correct the wrongs she had suffered when she was an elementary student in the same area.  As a child in the early 70’s her fourth-grade class had been told at the beginning of the school year that the girl student who got the highest overall score on her grades was going play the role of Snow White in the annual school play.  Julie said that was what she wanted more than anything in the world.  And she began to study in earnest to ensure that she would be the lucky girl who would play Snow White.

    Well, the end of the year came, she was the highest scoring child in the class, and the teacher announced that Shirly O’Connor would be playing the role of Snow White in the school play.  When Julie burst into tears, her teacher asked why she was crying, and Julie sobbed that she had the highest score of all the students, higher than even little blond Shirly O’Connor who got the coveted role.  The teacher hugged little Julie and explained,

    “Oh my, yes dear, you have the highest score, but you see the play is about a girl called Snow WHITE.  The girl that plays her must be White. Now, don’t you see, you couldn’t play that character could you?”

     When Julie became a teacher, she dedicated herself to making sure that kind of thing didn’t happen in any of her classes.  She asked me to come in, commenting,

    “Most of these kids are the children of immigrant garment workers.  Their families are new to America and don’t trust anybody who is an official.   We do the best we can but it’s a challenge.  When we send them home with a questionnaire, with questions like, “where are you from?, where do you live? “How many people are in your family?   When the papers are returned, they’re blank.  The principal and the school system don’t understand that these folks are coming from places where the government uses information like that when they want to sweep people up and arrest them.  These immigrant kids have the Chinatown street gangs on one side, and the immigration people hounding them on the other side.  They’re walking a tightrope.  When they leave school, most of the kids will go to the library on East Broadway, until dinner time.   It’s the only safe place for them to go and do their homework.  They’re pretty much Latchkey kids, both parents are working long hours, so there is little supervision at home and often their parents don’t speak English as a first language.  Could you possibly come in and give a lecture on Chinese American history?”

Chinatown garment factory. Photo by Bud Glick from Tenament Museum website.

     I was more than happy to do so.  I brought historical photos and maps to show to the class.  The kids were fascinated.  Many had no idea that there were Chinese people in America by 1700’s and 1800’s.  They were amazed that the streets they knew so well in Chinatown, were at one time Jewish, German, Irish, and Jewish communities. When I came time to wrap up, I asked a few simple questions to get the conversation moving.

     “How many of you were born in the USA?”  About half raised their hands.

      “How many of you have mothers working in the garment factories?’  With a little hesitation, all of them, one by one, raised their hands.   The next question was “What’s it like working in the sewing machine factory?” One of the boys, raised his hand,

     “My mom works in the factory till very late, but that’s because she trying to meet the sewing machine girl.”  I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, so when I asked him, he told me this story.

   “When my family first got here, my father found work in a restaurant, but my mom couldn’t get a job.  They said, if you can’t speak English, I can’t use you.  She came home to make dinner and our neighbor met her in the hallway and asked her why she was sad, and my mom said it was because she couldn’t speak English so she couldn’t find work.  The neighbor laughed and told her, come with me tomorrow to the Garment factory, you can get a job there.  I’ll talk to the manager; you’ll have a job don’t worry.”  My Mom wasn’t sure, but she had nothing to lose so the next day she went with the neighbor to the factory on Mulberry Street and Canal.

       The place was a long room, with dozens of sewing machines lined up and woman busy sewing at the machines.  My Mom looked and saw that the was a pile of cut pieces of clothes on one side of the sewing machines and a pile of finished dresses on the other side.  Mom thought to herself, I could do this.  So, the manager said she could take machine number 24 and my mom began to sew.  When she had a question or wasn’t sure what to do, the other women helped her out.  After several hours the sun began to go down and the other women started to leave.  They told my mom it was O.K., time to leave and come back the next day.  My Mom left and went home.  The next day she returned and took her place in the line of sewing machines.  The day was hot, and the windows were open, but the air didn’t move.   As my mom kept trying to sew, the heat was getting worse and worse.  She’s very stubborn so she didn’t let the heat and the humidity stop her.  She just kept staring at the needle going into the cloth and putting the finished dress in a pile on the other side.  She just kept sewing and sewing and sewing.  After a long time, she looked up and saw that only she and another young girl were left in the garment factory.  She looked around and asked,

     “Young Miss where is everybody else?”  The girl smiled a strange smile and said,

    “They have all gone home Auntie.  You look tired too.  Why don’t you finished and come back tomorrow?”  My mom thought this was a good idea, so she got her bag and went to the freight elevator that went downstairs.  But as she walked down the hall, she had to rub her eyes.  They were sore from staring at the needle all day long.  So, she went into the Ladies room to splash some water on her face and rinse her eyes.  She finished and was going to the elevator again when she heard a funny sound.  It sounded like this.  “Ching, ching, ching, ching.”

    She didn’t know what it was, so she went back to the long room with all the sewing machines and saw a strange sight.  The girl she had been talking to was sitting at a machine, but she was sewing very, very fast.  Her fingers were a blur, her feet looked like they were dancing on the pedals, and the dresses were flying out of the side of her machine like a flock of birds leaving the nest.  As the girl sewed the dresses, the drops of sweat from her brow fell on the machine and when they hit the machine they turned to dimes, into quarters, and even silver dollars.  They hit the machine and made that sound, Ching, ching, ching.  My mom was surprised and asked, “What is this?”  The girl stopped, she cursed and swore.  She shouted, “Now you’ve spoiled it.”  Mom asked, “Spoiled what?”  The girl was angry and shouted, “I can tell you because It doesn’t matter now, but if you are the last one in the garment factory and sew as fast as you can, when you sweat on the machine, the drops will turn to coins.”  The girl was still very angry, and cursed under her breath, as she stooped down and gathered up the dimes and quarters on the floor.  She headed for the elevator and mom asked,

    “Does this always work?”  The girl got on the elevator and shouted, “It always works but don’t tell anybody else.”  Now, mom was left alone in the garment factory, and she thought, “This is a strange thing.  But this is a America, a new country with different ways.  Maybe it’s true.

     She sat down at her machine and began to sew.  She began to sew as fast as she could.  Her hands were a blur, her feet moved like she was running, and soon the dresses on the side of the machine began to pile up.  As she worked, of course she started to sweat.  And as the drops of sweat fell on the machine, they made a sound.  “Ching ching ching.”  In an hour she had more money in coins lying around her machine than the whole day’s work she had already done.  She gathered up the coins, put them in her purse and went downstairs to go home.  As she walked along Canal Street, she looked up at the factory windows and saw that all the other garment factories were dark.  It was true, she had been the very last one that was still working.

Chinese women garment workers in 1980s. Photo from Womenworld.org

    On the way home she stopped by the last grocery store open that night and bought roast duck, cha siu, and sweet oranges.  When father sat down to dinner, he wondered, “Can we afford this?”  Mom laughed and said, “We can eat like this every night, now that I know how to make money with a sewing machine.”

        The next day mom looked for the girl, but she wasn’t there.  In her place was another older woman, who was crying.  Mom asked her,

   “Why are you crying?”  The woman explained, “We just got here.  It took so long, and we didn’t expect everything to be so expensive.  I don’t know how we’re going to survive.”  Now mom was sorry for the woman and thought her story is just like ours.  I’ll help her out a little.”  So, she leaned in so others would not hear and explained the trick that the sewing machine girl had told her.  The woman was doubtful but nodded her head.

    The next day when mom went to work, she saw the woman was smiling.  Mom leaned over and asked, “Did it work?”  The woman smiled even more and said, “It worked, I didn’t believe it.  Nobody did.”  Mom became frighten, “Who else did you tell?”  The woman was confused, “Why I told everyone.”  And then as the day went on, my mom saw that nobody was leaving, everybody was staying late.  She waited until she couldn’t stay any longer.  She went home and as she walked along Canal Street that night, she saw that all the garment factories still had their lights on.  None of the sewing women in the garment factories were leaving, all the women were staying as late as they could.”

     I looked around and the kids in the class were all nodding in agreement.   Seems that all the children in Chinatown knew the story.   If your mom works in the garment factory, it means she won’t be home until very late.  This is because she is hoping that she will be the very last one in the garment factory so that her sweat will turn into silver.

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Author’s Bio:  Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).