We Built New York: May Ying Chen

May Ying Chen

“My name is May Ying Chen, and I was born in Boston, Massachusetts – the first of my family to be born in America. That’s why my grandfather gave me the name May which is the same Chinese word for America. My parents were immigrants from China and Hong Kong, and they gave me values of education, food and family, humility and self-respect. I had a lot of typical ‘girl’ jobs in my life, including babysitting, sales clerk in big and small stores, office work in a big library, small college office, and a Chinese tea company. I studied to be a teacher, but when my family moved to New York in 1980, public schools were facing the city’s economic crisis and cutbacks, so there were no teaching jobs.

I went to high school and college in the turbulent 1960’s, when we believed that everything in life is political. I was lucky that most of my jobs related to something I believed in. Jobs and work were tied together. Even though job recruiters back then were allowed to designate certain jobs “for men only,” women were fighting for more equal treatment at work, and I supported a lot of the demands for Women’s rights. I was proud and happy to be in the workforce getting my own paychecks, and it actually felt funny (in a good way) to retire after working continuously for 40 years, and to get paid (pension checks) without having to work! More than forty years ago, I was lucky to meet and marry Rocky Chin through volunteer work in the Asian American community. He is a solid partner and soul-mate in raising our two children, and now babysitting four grand-children, while staying active with community, friends, and family.

I worked in the garment workers’ union for 25 years, my longest and best job. There were many challenges: sad hardships faced by the immigrant workers, job losses as the garment industry went global, anti-union bosses and governmental policies, the tragic impacts of 9-11. The people were wonderful, and there really was a deep sense of family and solidarity and team work in the union that kept us going. I got my union job after a huge strike of the Chinatown garment workers in New York City in 1982. I was working for the hotel and restaurant union and was called to support two massive rallies in Columbus Park. It was amazing to see close to 20,000 Chinatown workers cheering for union speeches and marching down Mort Street on strike! Almost every family in Chinatown had garment workers, or employers. This was such a big industry for decades, until the millennium, and 9-11.

Local 23-25 did a lot for the workers and community. Our families had good health care benefits. There was a small day care center. Workers and union were active in politics, registered to vote, and lobbying in New York City, Albany, and Washington, DC, for good jobs, fair treatment for immigrants, women, and all workers.

What matters most to me then and now is to make a better world for family, friends, immigrants, and workers. I am very grateful for the jobs, adventures and experiences I’ve had. I hope young people can open their minds and hearts to other people, find good friends, mentors, and partners in life, and enjoy a bright future.”