What happens when a group of Chinese immigrants visits a museum which transports them back to turn-of-the-century New York? Nervous giggles, wide-eyed anticipation, stunned silence, and a flood of curious questions.
About two dozen students from the Chinese Progressive Association visited the Tenement Museum on July 31 as part of their English as a Second Language program. They met “Victoria Confino,” a 14-year-old Sephardic Jewish immigrant. Role-playing as a family of immigrants looking for a place to rent in Lower Manhattan in 1906, the Chinese students did not immediately understand what was going on. But when she ushered them into her tiny living room in a tenement apartment on 97 Orchard Street, the questions poured out.
How much was your rent?
What did you eat?
What did you wear?
The students – some of them kitchen workers, cooks, nail salon and factory workers, students, caregivers and housewives – looked around and kept their thoughts mostly to themselves or shared them with a classmate nearby. They belong to the ESL beginners class and spoke very little English.
An actress played Victoria, wearing an old fashioned dress with an apron and speaking with a strange accent. The real Victoria was a garment worker who came to the U.S. via Ellis Island and lived in a Lower Manhattan tenement. She eventually married, had two children and moved to Brooklyn with her family. She died in the 1980s, according to museum educator Judy Levin. The tour was organized by CPA Executive Director Mae Lee and was coordinated as part of the museum’s Shared Journeys program for recent immigrants.
Gathered around Victoria as she passed around a yellowing photograph of her family, the students learned that immigrants to New York in the early 20th century lived in tiny apartments in tenement buildings. Rent was $20 a month and it did not matter how big a family was. They learned that Victoria’s family ate rice and vegetables and cooked the food from their home country. She asked the Chinese students if they still ate Chinese food and they all nodded.
“The goal of this program is to provide recent immigrants with a historical context in which to understand their own experiences,” said Levin, who moderated the tour.
The students asked about clothing. Victoria said she wore long dresses and leather boots and that she had only two pieces of clothing that she washed every week. She passed around a pair of trousers to show what the menfolk wore. The students found it funny that the striped trousers looked like pajamas. Kit, a nail salon worker from Queens, asked how Victoria washed and ironed her clothes. Victoria showed the students a small basin filled with water and a bar of bath soap. Then she asked Kit to lift the heavy metal iron used to press the clothes.
The students asked more questions, which were translated by the bilingual teachers who joined them in the tour. Why did you come to New York? Where did you buy your dress? Where did you sleep? Did you work? Did you have friends? Did you speak English? Did you face discrimination? At one point, Kit became personal and wondered if Victoria had a boyfriend. She gamely replied that she is too young to be in love and that in her family, it was her father who chose who she was to marry. One Chinese student made a comment that arranged marriages were also practiced in China in the past.
A question that generated the most reactions was, oddly enough, about heating. A student asked how Victoria’s family kept the apartment heated and how much it cost? She showed the students a coin-operated heater attached to a wall and said a quarter could heat the entire apartment for several days. The students began to compare heating costs in circa 1900 to their monthly bills. It was almost laughable to them that the cost of heating in that era was the same as a 30-minute parking meter today.
The students learned more from Victoria that mirrored their experience: That her family spoke in their native language at home and that she had to learn English in a children’s school. That she sewed aprons for her father’s business and that she did not mind not being paid because she was working for the family anyway. That she liked her neighbors but that she faced discrimination from the Russians. “They laughed at me and called me Minola after the cooking oil because of my pale skin,” she said acting out as if she was being persecuted.
When asked, Victoria said she did not know any Chinese people because they lived in another part of Lower Manhattan far from her building.
The students did not quite pick up on Victoria’s work as a seamstress. But Levin pointed out that the garment industry was born in Lower Manhattan by the European immigrants. Chinese immigrants would later become the backbone of the industry, which heralded New York as the world’s fashion capital. (The industry collapsed in late 1980s, leaving many residents of Chinatown jobless and the women turning to nail salons and caregiving for work.)
Then something Victoria said hit home. She said she loved being an American but she’d be much happier being back in her home country. The students fell quiet, some nodding out of empathy or in agreement or both.
Sam, one of the students, broke the silence. He said he liked being Chinese and also being in America but wished he spoke better English.