Guilds, Unions, and Garment Factories: Notes on Chinese in the Apparel Industry

By Lai, Him Mark; Jeung, Russell | Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Guilds, Unions, and Garment Factories: Notes on Chinese in the Apparel Industry


Lai, Him Mark, Jeung, Russell, Chinese America: History and Perspectives


This volume of Chinese America: History & Perspectives includes several essays on Chinese labor guilds, labor unions, and the apparel industry. The following write-up is intended to provide relevant background information to better help the reader understand how each essay is related to a particular stage in history and how they are interrelated. This write-up is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the complex issues surrounding the apparel industry

CHINESE IN THE APPAREL INDUSTRY

The identity of the first Chinese in California to have sewed apparel for the market is now lost in the historic past, but the shortage of females, who would have normally been hired as workers in the sewing trades in California, created a need that was filled by willing Chinese male "seamstresses," a phenomenon that distinguished the industry in the San Francisco region from the industry in the rest of the United States. Thus, by the late 1860s the Chinese impact on the industry was already noticeable so that Rev. A. S. Loomis noted that "Pantaloons, vests, shirts, drawers, and overalls are made extensively by Chinamen," and the 1870 Census counted 110 Chinese in the sewing trades. (1) As Chinese continued to enter the industry, the San Francisco Morning Call ran an article reporting the following on May 27, 1873:

   Next, if not superior in importance to the Chinese cigar factories,
   are the Chinese clothing factories of which there are altogether
   28, including 3 shirt factories.... These factories employ
   from 50 to 100 men each and their employees number in the
   aggregate about 2000.

By 1876, Chinese workers had become a considerable percentage of workers in the sewing trades in California, as shown in Table 1. (2)

However, these figures did not include the many Chinese working by the piece outside the factories. Rev. Otis Gibson estimated during the same period that 1,230 Chinese were "sewing on machines" and 168 were "working on clothing for Chinese." (3)

Four years later the 1880 manuscript population census counted the following numbers in the apparel industry shown in Table 2.

If tailors and seamstresses were included, the total number in the needle trades appeared to be no more than 2,000. (4) By this time Chinese were sewing most of the ready-made clothing and nearly all underwear. (5) Approximately 80 percent of the shirt makers were also Chinese. (6)

The Chinese community in nineteenth-century America was largely concentrated in California and was an overwhelmingly bachelor society with few females. San Francisco with its large Chinese population became the center of Chinese activities in the apparel industry. In 1885 the San Francisco Municipal Report tabulated 38 tailors, 2 shirt makers, 64 clothing shops, 15 ladies' underwear shops, 30 shirt factories, and 25 overalls factories, with 1,229 employees. Unlike the situation found in the larger society in America, where female laborers were used as sewing machine operators, the Chinese employed in the apparel industry in the San Francisco area was based on an all-male workforce.

However, even while the apparel industry centered in San Francisco was trying to grow, it faced stiff competition from large apparel manufacturers on the Eastern Seaboard, who had a greater and more efficient division of labor as well as newer equipment. Thus the industry was under great pressure to keep costs down to ensure profitability. This pressure served to spur the development of organizations to regulate and protect group economic interests, taking as models the guilds that had existed in China. (7)

In China's preindustrial economy, guilds were formed by merchants, journeymen craftsmen, or artisans in particular economic sectors to perform such functions as regulation of competition as well as resolution of disputes among members. The members were on a more-or-less equal basis, with little differentiation between managers and workers. …

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