Voices of America series 1: the immigrant

The Scotsman, October 31 1988

It is twenty one years since the night when a middle-aged Chinese man slipped quietly off his merchant ship in the sprawling harbour of New Haven, Connecticut and padded away into the darkness to become an outlaw.

Behind him in Hong Kong, the man had left his wife and five children living and sleeping in a room no bigger than one of his old ship’s cabins. It was for them that he was embarking on the life of an illegal alien – for the chance that in America, he could make their dream come true.

This dream once moved the world. About a hundred miles south of the point where the man jumped ship, it is spelled out in ringing tones in the message on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

Close by the statue, lies the squat red-brick mass of the Federal Immigration Station, the old spikes on its roof rusting in the moist Atlantic air. Its very different message is captured not in an engraved poem, but in the name by which it has been known to thousands of migrants whose journey towards the dream has ended in frustration and rejection behind its walls – the Palace of Tears.

The Chinese man knew the risks: every hovel in Hong Kong had stories about the elusive dream, the arrests and expulsions, the grinding work, the ones who suffocated in car boots as they were smuggled across borders, the others who ended up homeless and broken on the streets. None of this stopped him dreaming.

Twenty one years on, Yee Wong Yam sits in a smart Chinese restaurant in the provincial city of Winchester, Virginia. It is a good restaurant. He owns it. He owns two others in the town. He is a successful man, winner of the Outstanding Business of the Year award from the city’s chamber of commerce, a millionaire, an American citizen. He is the son of the Chinese man who slipped ashore all those years ago and he is proof that the dream is still alive. Battered perhaps, but alive.

His story, like that of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants before him, exposes the philosophical back-bone of America – the relentless determination to compete and succeed, the passion for private enterprise, the almost aggressive belief in the family and the blind love for America and for a dream come true.

Yam was born in China in 1953 in a family which had been relatively wealthy until the Communist revolution in 1949. “When I was seven, we went to Hong Kong. We had no trouble to leave China because we had given up all our property but we had no permission to be in Hong Kong.”

Life was work. The family paid $125 a month for their cramped room. His father worked at sea. His mother worked in Hong Kong. The children were minded by grandparents until they were old enough to work too. When he was eleven, Yam started putting in 15-hour days as a dishwasher in a restaurant, earning 35 cents a day. There was only ever one way out.

“Most of the Chinese people of that time wanted to be in America. We knew it was a heaven for people who would work. There was land there and opportunity and a chance to start a business. We knew anybody can make a success in America if they will work.” Yam’s father managed to get his family papers to allow them to stay legally in Hong Kong. Then, in 1967, when Yam was 14, his father stepped out in America on that dark night in New Haven harbour.

For four years, Yam’s father vanished into the Chinese community in Washington DC, washing dishes for a living, unable to speak English, afraid to strike out on his own, until finally he got the break he needed when a Chinese restaurateur agreed to sponsor his application for a green card which allowed him to work legally.

Yam and his mother and brother and sisters were summoned from Hong Kong in 1971 to start the dream. Life was still work. The whole family had less than $300 between them. On his second day in America, Yam, now 17, was sent off to an uncle in up-state New York to cook food and make salads in his restaurant while the others stayed in Washington to work.

Six months later, in 1972, they got the chance they had been waiting for. “A distant family relative found an old restaurant for my father. The Chinese community is very close always. They help each other out. Some Chinese people lent us money without interest – $35,000. We just had to pay them back when we could.”

The whole family moved into the new restaurant in Harrisonburg, a small town a hundred miles southwest of Washington in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They renamed the restaurant the Golden Chinese and sold the only oriental food for seventy miles.

“Every member of the family worked there. My brother was eleven. He had to wash dishes but he was too short to reach so we had to build him a little platform to stand on. We worked seven days a week from nine in the morning till around midnight. Then I would drive to Washington to get supplies for the next day, finally go to bed around three o or four o’clock. No-one drew a salary. Business was not that great but we could pay back the money after a year.”

Within the next year, working under the same punishing regime, they saved enough cash to back one of Yam’s sisters in opening her own restaurant in Petersburg in southern Virginia – Golden Chinese Two. Another year and they backed another sister with a restaurant in Front Royal in northern Virginia – Golden Chinese Three. This sister spoke no English and Yam, who had taught himself the language, went to become her manager.

Three years later, in 1978, Yam struck out on his own when he heard of an old American diner and beer joint for sale in Winchester, a couple of hours drive to the north of the family’s first restaurant. Yam borrowed $10,000 from his father and another $10,000 from the bank to buy the goodwill on the business and renovate the building. In late 1978, he opened Yam’s Family Restaurant.

He worked as cook, waiter, janitor, dishwasher, barman and greeter all at the same time, up at five in the morning, still working at midnight. He sold American food during the day and Chinese food at night. The business started to grow. After a year, he took a lease on the shop next door and expanded so that he could seat 100 people. He hired staff to help him, ploughed his profits back into the business, refurbished the whole place again and then, just as he was making enough money to take it easy, he bought a second restaurant. And then, this year, a third.

“I look forward to the day when I won’t have to work a 20-hour day but financially I am still building my foundation. I am not a greedy person. I could go to New York and earn ten times as much. I stay here because I cannot let people down. People here trust me. Banks have lent me money. I must not let them down. A reputation is hard to come by and easy to lose.”

Yam’s story is an American classic, straight off the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, but he is the first to recognise that it is not typical. “The dream is starting to fade,” he said. “It gets more difficult. Land is getting more scarce. More and more people are coming in.” Many still find a palace of tears.

Not far from the centre of Washington DC in a dark and dirty patch of waste land, there lives a small and miserable community which is named The Bridge Club after the concrete bridge under which they shelter. Its members are Salvadorean immigrants who have been locked out of the dream and have retreated into alcoholism. Two of them died this summer: one sat down in a drunken daze on a busy railway line and was crushed; the other fell asleep drunk under a broken gutter on a rainy night and drowned in a puddle.

Francisca, aged 46, left El Salvador. There, she was a prosperous member of the middle class. She owned her own shop and home until the Government’s death squads frightened her away. InĀ  Washington, she scrubs floors for a living. “I am OK. At least I have work. There are many people who spend all their money to come to America, they get no work, they have nothing. They can stay here on the streets or try to go home. But there is a war there. Some of them go back and join the guerrillas. What else should they do?”

The Seoul Olympics threw a media spotlight on Korean immigrants in the United States uncovering a miserable world of stress and mental illness. Korean families who have a reputation for hard work and commercial success turned out to be riven with alcoholism and domestic violence, the result of relentless work and a kind of cultural claustrophobia in a community which is sealed off from the rest of the country by its own language, churches, newspapers, and even phone books.

Even Yam with all his material success has suffered. His marriage to an American woman collapsed under the strain of his working hours, and he has lost custody of his two sons.

The personal difficulties of individual immigrants are now being aggravated by a new mood among Americans who, shrugging off their own immigrant past, are starting to show signs of hostility to the homeless and the tempest-tost. Senior Republican senator Alan Simpson identifies uncontrolled immigration as “one of the greatest threats to the future of this country”. New laws now control immigrant labour and penalise those without papers.

Yet for all the hardship, the dream still magnetises the world’s poor. Some nine million immigrants are expected to settle in America in the 1980s, the highest figure for any decade since the turn of the century. The vast majority are from Asia and South America.

Yam hears of other Chinese people still trying to leave Hong Kong to chase the American dream. They go to Mexico and come across the Rio Grande by night. If they are caught, they just keep trying. A few weeks ago, two died in the back of a refrigerated truck in which they had hidden to make the crossing.

“Once in a while, I get homesick, but not often. I am not ever going back to China. I am for America. If it ever came to war, I would defend America. Without America, I would have nothing.”