When you’re slipping your jeans on in the morning, do you ever wonder about the people who made those jeans? I often do, even though it’s an uncomfortable thing to think about. I’m certain that many factory workers overseas also wonder about the buyers of the things they make. I recently had the privilege of hearing the life story of one Chinese factory worker, and I was riveted. I’d like to share it with you.
One of my sewers, I’ll call her Jean, recently told me about her childhood as a factory worker in Hong Kong. Jean is 60, and has been living in Canada for 23 years, but she told her story with great animation and vivid detail, as though it was just yesterday that she occupied those factory floors.
Jean is a gifted seamstress, carries around a confidence clearly earned from decades of experience, and she expresses opinions with impressive conviction considering her discomfort with the English language. But it didn’t start out that way.
Born in Hong Kong in 1952 to a very poor family, she was sent to school for only five years. This education ended at age 13. She was small for her age, still looking very much like a child, and she was obsessed with fashion — her big dream was to sew fashionable clothing. A local woman taught sewing classes, but Jean’s mother would not part with the paltry fee. She begged and begged, but to no avail. There was no sewing machine at home, so she collected fabric scraps that were being thrown away, and sewed dresses for herself by hand.
At thirteen Jean landed her first job with the help of a family friend. The job was at a thread factory where huge machines spun and whirred overhead. At first she had the lowliest job, gently pulling the fibre from its fluffy state with her fingers and feeding it into a machine. Later she graduated to the big machines that twisted and wound the thread, a job that involved pulling on big levers overhead. She says that she loved it, and enjoyed being exposed to the various tasks within the factory, even though she worked very long hours for a meager salary.
Not only was the wage miniscule, it was normal then for factory employers to hold back half of a worker’s pay for a full year. If at the end of the year you had done a good job, and continued to work at the factory, the retroactive pay would come; if not, you were out of luck.
At fifteen, Jean went to work in a wig factory. Her job? Brushing hair. She says she was curious about every job in the factory, and was lucky to have employers who let her experience many of them, keeping her stimulated. Still, the work she dreamed of was sewing.
Jean’s brother married when she was 16, and her new sister-in-law took her under her wing, teaching her how to sew and allowing her to practice using her old foot-pedal machine. When the couple moved to Kowloon to work as sewers in a clothing factory, Jean went too. They helped her get work there, and they sewed side by side, helping her along. At first the long rows of workers intimidated her, and the speed of the machines was overwhelming, but she was quick to learn and adapt. Finally her dream of sewing clothing was becoming a reality.
Still a teenager when she met her husband, she enthusiastically taught him all the skills she had learned. They continued to work together in garment manufacturing, sometimes from home and sometimes at factories. Despite the long hours, she says she loved it. They followed their son to Canada after he came here to attend university, and she has spent many years in Toronto sewing for local designers, including Red Thread. We’re lucky to have her.
As this vibrant and intelligent woman told me her story, I wondered how different her early experiences might have been if she had been born into different circumstances, and what opportunities she might have grasped. And by extension, it reminded me (as we should often be reminded) that the only thing that separates us from the impoverished, the exploited, and the oppressed, including many of the people who make our clothing under conditions that we would never tolerate for ourselves, is the luck of our birth.
Red Thread Design