One sewing machine, two stories:
Some artifacts in our collection hold the stories of multiple individuals. This ca. 1972 Singer industrial sewing machine, recently donated to the NYSM, belonged to Tsui Ping Chu, an immigrant from Hong Kong. Chu used it in her home to sew clothing for her daughters and herself. For her, sewing was a hobby, an enjoyable pursuit that also allowed her to connect to her family history back in Hong Kong, where her family worked in a textile business. Her daughters and husband recall hearing the sound of the sewing machine in the evenings, her pride in the textiles she created, and the happiness it brought her.
Prior to Chu, this Singer industrial sewing machine was used in a sweatshop in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Garment work was a common employment for many immigrant women in the Lower East Side, and Chinatown was a major garment production center. Labor regulations brought about by earlier accidents, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, as well as the growth of union representation in some shops, meant that it was a safer occupation than it had once been. Garment work was not easy though, and Chinatown garment shops unionized later than those in other immigrant communities, meaning low wages and long hours were prevalent.
To Chu, the sewing machine represented a pastime that she loved and a connection to family. To the women who used it before her, it likely represented both opportunity and grueling work.