An Oral History of the Women of One Chinatown
My hometown is one of the biggest Chinatowns on this side of the world. A predominantly Cantonese area, it was famous for years as a hotbed for counterfeit goods; I don’t think my parents ever paid for a real DVD because you could get high-quality pirated ones for $2 or $3 just about anywhere. One of the most notable spots in town was Pacific Mall, the largest Asian mall in the West, whose counterfeiting prowess is so legendary that it’s listed by the United States Trade Representative and has been raided more times than I can recall. But knockoff purses and recorded movies weren’t the only illicit cash flows in town.
My aunt, born in Hong Kong to a poor family in Yau Ma Tei, was the only girl out of four kids. The second-born child and an excellent student, when she graduated high school she was the only one who wasn’t allowed to attend college. It would be a waste of their very limited money, my grandpa reasoned, plus she’d become far too stuck-up to get a man if she went to college. She was part of a generation where that form of sexism was typical, especially for lower-income families. This confluence created an impassable ceiling for many women of her time. Markham was built by that very generation, having flown or sailed across the Atlantic and settled into a new land. As a result, the mothers and aunts in my town were often left without educational qualifications and sometimes even English-speaking ability, having kowtowed and followed their husbands to an unfamiliar country.
Largely unable to (and sometimes discouraged from) finding their own jobs, the town witnessed the sprawling growth of an alternative economy built up by women and their cash hustles. My mom sold earrings at the local nursing homes. My aunt took care of community elders on weekends. Some were duped into pyramid schemes. But, most prolific of all were the teachers.
My friends at school went through portfolio prep, violin lessons, math tutoring, even tennis classes all through a network of women who were perhaps unqualified on paper but whom the community could vouch for. They were teachers you couldn’t find ads for, who were paid with $20 bills shoved into the hands of their students when parents dropped them off.
My piano teacher was a woman who taught out of her home; my mom heard about her through word of mouth. Lessons cost just a fraction of those at Guitar Center or School of Rock, and my mom could actually communicate with her in their mother tongue. I was told once that her husband was a “dai-lam-yun”, a big man whose character is subsumed by his ego, so much so that my teacher had to limit her classes to a part-time hobby.
Some of these women taught to supplement their husbands incomes without appearing a threat to the nuclear dynamic. Others taught because they were so bored being housewives. Regardless, the teachers represented a generation of women whose interests weren’t given the space to grow, who carved out their own spaces to cultivate these talents hidden behind the facade of a middle-class Asian-American suburbia.
To me, these housewives are a masterclass in resilience and, importantly, growing in inhospitable environments; a country of white people complaining that there are too many Chinese people, a familial culture of reducing women. I’m grateful to have learned so much from them. These days as I navigate the unfamiliar land of higher education, I wish my aunt could be here too.