By Jian Huang
“Fire!” a neighbor shouted. We woke to sirens making their escalating howl up our street. It was a little after 2 a.m. Out our bedroom window, I saw black smoke inside the second floor windows at Mom’s factory next door spilling out like charcoal pillars that disappeared into a dark January sky.
Firefighters told us to get out of our house in case the fire reached our building. Mom had only enough time to wrap a blanket around me while Dad grabbed our most valuable possession: our residence cards. I stood on the moonless street, still half asleep, unable to believe the vivid flames that illuminated this corner of South LA.
My mom had worked at this garment factory on 23rd and Main streets for eight years. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week. She worked on my birthday, on Dad’s birthday, on her birthday. For Christmas and New Year, she got half the day off. She said she was lucky she had found a factory whose manager spoke Mandarin, that it was right next door to where we lived, so she could keep an eye on me after school.
An industrial-grade Juki can sew up to 8,700 stitches per minute at maximum speed. The most cost-effective way to mass produce clothes is to assign a worker a specific station where she makes the same type of piece over and over; 250 shirts at 10 buttons apiece, 500 skirts with one elastic waistband each, 300 left inseams on a double stitch machine. Each garment is assembled, stitched, folded, hemmed, steamed, pressed, trimmed, bagged, and tagged. Orders usually arrive pre-cut from the manufacturers to ensure maximum efficiency — stacks of uniformly cut cloth wrapped in rubber bands like make-believe winnings from a game of cards. For garment factories, earning a manufacturer contract was competitive, no matter how little it paid.
“They’ve all been counted,” Mrs. Cheng, the owner, would say when unloading an order off the freight elevators to the factory floor. She would say this in Spanish, in Mandarin, and in her native Vietnamese so that all 10 of her workers understood. It was a warning that the manufacturer who issued the contract knew exactly how many garments to expect in return, in case any worker thought to make an extra blouse for herself. Theft among workers was a big problem.
Orders varied from a few hundred pieces to thousands, depending on what the Fashion District manufacturer demanded. The months leading up to the holiday shopping season were the busiest. Buy this, have this, own this. A freshly made shirt from Mom’s factory had to be steamed twice so it wouldn’t smell so much of petroleum from the sewing machines.
Every stitch was a means to survive. Mom was grateful to have work. It took two wage-earners to support our family; she worked longer hours than Dad did, but still she couldn’t compete with his minimum wage job as a motel clerk.
Work meant food. Work meant rent. Work meant she could send a few dollars back home each month to Grandpa in China. She left the house at dawn, came home at night, made dinner for me and Dad, and worked some more. The lights in our living room dimmed when she started up her home machine. Every night the floors of our house vibrated like a scene from Jurassic Park. The television shook when she stitched thick fabrics like denim. I was in middle school then, in the mid-90s, and the politicians on TV said they were bringing jobs back to America; it was a good thing to be “Made in the USA.” Shop till you drop, but shop American.
The Fashion District was full of clothes that were “Made in the USA.” Big brands employed the little brands, who employed distributors to hire manufacturers that subcontracted with local garment factories. Ten cents a collar, 12 cents a hem, 15 cents a zipper. On a good month, Mom made $4, or even $5, an hour.
American-made came with its own price tag. Fabrics frayed regardless of origin. Fibers got picked up by the factory fans swirled in the air and landed in Mom’s food, on her hair, on her eyelashes, in her nose. She bought a painter’s face mask from the 99 Cents Store, but stopped wearing it after a few hours because it was too hot. She said she couldn’t breathe with it on. She often coughed in her sleep.
My parents fought about money at dinnertime and at the grocery store. Whenever a new bill came in the mail, they would fight some more.
Mom said the manufacturers cut corners to save money; synthetic fibers instead of cotton, plastic buttons instead of metal ones, zippers that were short by half an inch. Every year, the contracted price per piece went down. If her factory didn’t take the order, another, hungrier factory would. And there was no shortage of hungry factories–or people– in the USA.
She had been in America for a few years working in other garment factories, before she found this job. Her first garment job at the Eastern Building downtown had only one window. She used to bring me to work with her after school and let me nap in one of the large canvas baskets. Like a lot of the jobs one would find without knowing the language, this one happened by chance — when she saw the owner dumping garbage with Chinese written on one of the bags.
When Mom had saved up enough money to buy a used Juki for $600, she worked from home, too. The take-home stuff, she told me, were pieces that more seasoned workers wouldn’t touch. They gave those to the desperate workers, newly arrived immigrants from South America or Southeast Asia looking to make money. These pieces were of coarse material, with sharp corners, zippers with fine teeth that took a long time to line up.
At home, I often caught Mom asleep at her machine. Sometimes she made mistakes and sewed the wrong sides together, so I would help her pull apart a few hundred collars with iron thread clippers that left indentations on my fingers.
T-shirts came in four pieces and were the easiest to make. Pants and skirts were hard because of the elastics and zippers that had to be attached. Ruffled trims and curved seams were the most time-consuming. More time equaled fewer pieces. Fewer pieces meant less money.
When I needed clothes, Mom took me to the Fashion District where the clothes she made were shipped. The distributors sent the good quality stuff to wholesalers that sold to boutiques and shopping malls on the west side of town; places where we couldn’t afford to buy the clothes she made. What we could afford was the leftover stuff, the low-quality, irregular pieces tossed into piles on the pavement along Santee Alley. Dust them off and it was good as new. Some of the clothes were dressed onto old mannequins with scotch tape holding up its price tags: $10 for a pair of jeans with no brands, 5 x $10 plain t-shirts, $20 for a knockoff Adidas jacket to keep the rain off me at school. She always bought clothes for me that were a size or two larger so I could wear them for a while.
We had no health insurance for her cough. No doctor saw her when the needle on her machine punctured her index finger, splitting her fingernail in two. She told me she couldn’t be broken. She kept most of her pain to herself, but sometimes I would catch her in tears when she listened to old Chinese folk songs about missing home. In America, we were strangers. “Registered Alien” was the official designation on our residence cards; alien to a country, alien to its language, alien to a culture that kept consuming us. TV said that fashion was more than clothes. Fashion was an outward expression of our inner lives–we were rich or poor, thoughtful or brute, attractive or ugly–all based on the clothes we wore, the clothes that people like Mom made. Fashion defined our place in the world.
The fire was blind to these social distinctions. The orange inferno engulfed the factory that morning, blocking the one narrow staircase in the front of the building and the freight elevator in the back. There were no other exits.
The firefighters left the still-smoking ruins a little before dawn. The next day, Mrs. Cheng called to say she would try to salvage what she could. She said that maybe the fire came from one of a short-circuiting Jukis. Maybe the petroleum-stained floors made it worse. Maybe the synthetic fibers added to the flames.
Mrs. Cheng never reopened the factory. Mom never got her final paycheck. She took the bus to Lincoln Heights a week later to look for a new job. She hoped that she would get lucky again and happen upon someone else disposing a pile of garbage with something written on it in Chinese.