Cover for BAO: Holding Up More Than Half the Sky: Chinese Women Garment Workers in New York City, 1948-92. Click for larger image

Holding Up More Than Half the Sky

Chinese Women Garment Workers in New York City, 1948-92

Bao looks at the dramatic 1982 strike of 20,000 Chinese-American garment workers (most of them women) and explores the profound transformation of family culture that enabled this uncharacteristic militancy and organized protest.

In 1982, twenty thousand Chinese-American garment workers–mostly women--went on strike in New York's Chinatown and forced every Chinese garment industry employer in the city to sign a union contract. In this pioneering study, Xiaolan Bao penetrates to the heart of Chinese-American society to explain how this militancy and organized protest, seemingly so at odds with traditional Chinese female behavior, came about.

Bao conducted more than a hundred interviews, primarily with Chinese immigrant women who were working or had worked in the Chinatown garment shops and garment-related institutions in the city. Blending these poignant, often dramatic personal stories with a detailed history of the garment industry, Chinese immigrant labor, and the Chinese community in New York, Bao shows how the high rate of married women participating in wage-earning labor outside the home profoundly transformed family culture and with it the image and empowerment of Chinese-American women.

Bao offers a complex and subtle discussion of the interplay of ethnic and class factors within the garment industry in New York City. She examines the exploitative paternalism, rooted in ethnic social and economic structures, by which operators sustained low wages and marginal working conditions. She also documents the uneasy relationship between the ILGWU and rank-and-file women garment workers whose claim to direct representation was essentially ignored by union leadership.

Through the words of the women workers themselves, Bao shows how their changing positions within their families and within the workplace galvanized them to unite and stand up for themselves. Passionately told and prodigiously documented, Holding Up More Than Half the Sky is an important contribution to Asian-American history, labor history, and the history of women.


"Bao does an excellent job in not only portraying Chinese women workers' work and lives, but also revealing that the Chinese women's labor history in New York's garment industry is also part of American labor history, and they can only fully be understood through the complex interactions of race/ethnicity, class, and gender."--Wei Li, The Journal of Asian Studies

"Bao uses her formidable linguistic skills and insider perspective as a female Chinese immigrant who lived with worker families in Chinatown. . . . Distilled from over 100 interviews . . . the varied voices of several generations of garment workers are poignant, feisty, articulate, and analytical about their objective conditions and expressive about their subjectivities as workers, immigrants, wives, and mothers."--Choice

"A significant reference for scholars of women's studies, Chinese-American history, immigration history, and labor history."--Huping Ling, American Historical Review

"Offers a nuanced picture of transformations in personal and family life. Particularly successful are the portrayals of women's growing financial and emotional centrality in the family and of relations among Chinese women born in different parts of the world."--Adam McKeown, Journal of American History

"Xiaolan Bao's book makes a significant contribution to the literature on Chinese American historical experiences. . . . This excellent case study is a fine example of serious empirical investigation."--Renqiu Yu, Journal of American Ethnic History

"Bao's research . . . offers valuable insights into the intersection of race and class, one of the central questions in her book. . . . Bao's work reminds us that to fully appreciate how the two dimensions of race and class intersected, we also need to take a gendered perspective."--Left History

"Theoretically informed and thoroughly researched, this multilayered study demonstrates the author's grasp of the complex experiences of the Chinese garment workers and their place within the larger historical context."--Business History Review

"Xiaolan Bao has written a moving and important book about Chinese women in New York City's garment industry. Because of her reliance on more than a hundred oral histories, she makes the women speak for themselves as well as inform the reader. Historians of immigration and women will find this a gem."--David M. Reimers, author of Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America

"This monumental study thoroughly examines the peculiar nature and situation of the Chinese female garment workers and their relations within their community and family, with their employers, and with the American unions. Xiaolan Bao's use of interviews, newspapers, and other sources in both Chinese and English makes this work particularly valuable."--Sue Fawn Chung, author of Power and Influence: The Hongmen Zhigongtang, a Chinese Secret Society in the American West


Xiaolan Bao, an associate professor of history at California State University at Long Beach, is a contributor to The Politics of Motherhood: Activist Voices from Left to Right and other books on women's history.

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