Vanessa Hua

Explore. Write. Connect.

The Dim Sum Revolution

San Francisco magazine

Even after Zhen Li leads a rousing chant—“Workers organize, everybody wins!”—no one else wants to step up to the microphone. Tiny and bespectacled, her hair in a jet-black bob, Li has the look of a Chinatown matron, one of those tenacious hagglers who elbows her way through the crowds on Stockton Street to purchase jade-green gai lan and silvery carp. Wearing jeans, sturdy black shoes, and a puffy striped jacket, she exhorts her fellow proletariats to join her up front and holds out the mic to a nearby woman. The woman tries to beg off, pleading, “I’m sick—my throat hurts,” but cheers draw her to her feet, and she sheepishly echoes Li’s rallying cry.

On this rainy evening in early December at the Chinese Cultural Center, Li and dozens of workers—mostly women, mostly middle-aged and older— are celebrating with greasy takeout, cake, a slideshow, and speeches. While some are clearly shy about speaking in public, they are no longer scared. They’ve already achieved the impossible: Their solidarity has won them an astonishing sum—$4 million—from a powerful employer that had systematically undercut their wages, pocketed their tips, and forced them to work under brutal conditions. And it wasn’t just any business that Li and her comrades had taken on: It was Yank Sing, San Francisco’s most lucrative and popular purveyor of dim sum, those small plates of har gow, siu mai, and other doll-size delicacies that the restaurant serves to more than 1,200 customers a day (and that’s a slow day).

The journey to restitution for Li and her coworkers began two years ago, when Li discovered that she wasn’t alone in feeling abused and underpaid. Her official work hours were 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but often, she says, her bosses forced her to stay, unpaid, an hour or two longer to prepare food and take care of her station. Unbeknownst to Li, a few coworkers had been meeting with the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA)—a scrappy and strategic advocacy group that’s been organizing low-income laborers for decades—in an effort to bring change to Yank Sing. One of her coworkers approached her, saying, “We need your help.” When Li discussed the idea with her husband, he tried to stop her from joining the nascent campaign. “What if you don’t win? What if you lose your job?” he asked. “Your employer is so wealthy, so powerful.”

Despite his resistance, Li persisted. “I was pretty scared. It was just a few of us going to meetings,” she tells me, speaking in Cantonese through a translator. “But with all the support and encouragement, I started to have more courage.” Before long, she would prove her mettle, becoming one of the insurgent group’s most stalwart leaders.



Chinese Farmers, American Farms

New Yorker

Albion is a tiny town of rolling hills and kettle lakes in Indiana, two and a half hours from Indianapolis by car. These days, it’s also the site of a training program that sheds light on the changing nature of American agriculture: Chinese pig farmers have been traveling to Albion for lessons in breeding swine from a man named Mike Lemmon.

The $4.7 billion sale of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, to China’s Shuanghui International closed last week. The deal has highlighted China’s hunger for U.S. expertise in pork production; it has also raised concerns stateside about foreign threats to food safety and the U.S. economy. But it’s hardly the first Chinese foray onto American pig farms: for the past couple of years, Chinese companies have sent workers to study pig farming with people like Lemmon. Read more >>


California Sunday magazine

In China, Daniel Wu is a huge celebrity. In his hometown, he’s just like everyone else. Read More>>

The New Gold Mountain

San Francisco Chronicle
As a boy, Hong Mah did not miss his father, for he lived in a village of no fathers.

In the days before World War II, all the men were gone. They worked overseas to support wives and children left behind in the land of floods and bandits, returning only to marry, father children or die. Read more >>

The Making of a Cyber Dissident

San Francisco Chronicle

Right away, he knew he was being followed.

On a steamy summer morning in late July, Cong Thanh Do left his hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. Plainclothes policemen began tailing him on foot and on motorcycle, weaving through the crowds on Dong Du Street.

What did they know?

Dubious Donations

San Francisco Chronicle
A San Francisco nonprofit group paid $108,000 from a state grant to two individuals and two companies who then made donations of nearly identical amounts to Kevin Shelley’s successful 2002 campaign for California secretary of state.

The money came from a $500,000 taxpayer-financed grant that Shelley himself arranged in 2000 when he was majority leader in the Assembly.Read More >>