It is a long-standing tradition that if a Chinese restaurant is farther
than an hour's drive from the nearest large enclave of Chinese people (e.g.,
Flushing, New York or New York City's "Chinatown,") one of the
benefits provided employees of Chinese restaurants is
Now, some restaurants in smaller cities are on the ground floor of a building
owned by the restaurateur(s). The apartments above, unless in a truly high-rent
district, are partially rented to paying tenants and the rest used to house the
restaurant's employees. If the restaurant is a stand-alone or in a commercial
building, the restaurateur(s) then purchase a home in which all the employees
are housed. Now, some Chinese restaurant employees have homes or apartments of
their own (they're usually the higher-paid individuals, like managers
or bartenders). The waitstaff, chefs and porters live in the
"employee house," and all share the kitchen, den, and living room; the rest of
the rooms are typically two or three persons to a bedroom. Sadly, some employers
have been known to house four or more individuals in a room
(especially in a master bedroom) leaving these poor people with very little
privacy. Bathrooms are shared, too.
To those of other cultures who cherish their own living space in the world,
no matter how small or big, the phenomenon of living all the time with
one's co-workers (in very close proximity) may seem atrocious. To the Chinese,
it's a familiar way of life.
The Concept of the Extended-Extended Family
The Chinese are, culturally, very family-oriented. In fact, when addressing a
young man whose name you either don't know, or even at times if you do know his
name, and you're older, you address him as xiao2di4 (pronounced shao-dee);
or "little brother." Same with young women (xiao jia — shao2jie3 or
"little sister"). If one is slightly younger than the one addressed, than it's
"big brother" or "big sister" — elders are still "Sir" or "Madame" (in whatever
dialect you happen to be speaking.
One of my employees actually grew up in a corrugated metal shack on the
outskirts of Shanghai. The floor was dirt; they slept on cots under threadbare
blankets. Heat was provided, as well as fire for the wok, by a wood fire built in the bottom
of a sliced-sideways 50 gallon drum; the smoke filling the room and escaping via
a hole in the roof. Now, the reason why this man's family lived this way is
because they were near the bottom of the unspoken Chinese caste system; they
were from the farmlands; their dialect/accent gave them away. Mother and Father
had bank accounts; there was always food to eat (they weren't starving, or
forced to eat nothing but congee). However, this is the way that the suburban district
in which they lived dictated they live. Beside, if they'd even been successful
at renting a small apartment, the rent would've broken them financially.
This man now has his own spacious room that's centrally-heated, equipped with
satellite TV/DVD/CD and stereo, and hot and cold running water (I bet you take
that for granted).
The Chinese Restaurant Experience
For a while, my wife and I housed our employees in a large home that was
purchased, along with the restaurant, from the previous owner of the restaurant.
The place was a mess and required $70,000 in renovations just to make it
liveable. We, however, lived in yet another Chinese restaurant house; this one
owned by the partners in my wife's first restaurant; it was a lovely home and we
enjoyed it until the arrival of my wife's aunt, who made life unbearable enough
that we decided we'd move out. What to do? Here we were house-hunting, and our
huge (I mean nine-bedroom, two-kitchen, four bathroom huge) home wasn't nearly
We had always told our employees that we're the type of employers who would
never ask them to do something we wouldn't do (or haven't done) ourselves (this
applies to washing dishes and the particularly smelly and obnoxious job of
cleaning out commercial grease-traps). So why not live with them?
Planning The Remodeling for Comfort, Convenience and Privacy
The house was, at first, a capacious two-family dwelling, bordered on one
side by a very nice neighborhood of ethnic variety; all hard-working souls whose
homes were humble but in very good condition, lawns impeccably kept; shrubs
trimmed, driveways sealed, etc. Sadly, the other side of the neighborhood
is lined with filthy four- to eight-unit dwellings. Worse, neither landlords nor
tenants nor myriad visitors thereto care a bit about the appearance of these buildings. The police are
frequent visitors to this block and a fatal shooting occurred a on the next block over last
So when we moved in, the eyes of the "good" side of the neighborhood were on
us; being smack on the corner of the street that delineated the two
To the delight of all concerned (including a couple of older women from the
"bad" side of the neighborhood), we installed new windows and siding. We
re-planted the grass, trimmed the shrubs, and the employee who doubles as our
houseboy even planted a rather large vegetable garden in the back.
The more important part is what we did inside. Not needing two kitchens, one
became a communal dining/gathering room, used for the Mah-Jongg games
that are played most every night into the wee hours of the morning. The other's
equipped with the biggest fridge we could find (remember, there are nine of us in
this house) a big gas stove, and lots and lots of cabinets. There's a big-ass
instant hot water "Hot Shot" dispenser (thanks KitchenAid for teaching the pushy, selfish one in the bunch that he's not to wash his hands whilst someone else is using the other side of the sink) in one of the sinks, for making tea (or, in my case,
brewing coffee in a Melitta); or heating up ramen noodle soup. Ice and chilled,
filtered water are located on one of the fridge doors. Who could ask for more?
The building, having been a two-family (side by side) three-story dwelling
with a large basement and a dormered attic, couldn't have been better arranged
for our plan — our little "commune" on 1.45 acres. The attic finished off into
two large rooms nicely. One of the master bedrooms is my wife's; the other
belongs to the executive chef and his wife. The chef's daughter and one of our waitresses
have chosen to share a room. I sleep in a tiny room in the dormered
attic; my "den/office/workshop" is in the room below. The rest of the bedrooms
and what was a dining room are all single-occupancy, locked-door spaces for our
employees. New employees are astounded that they're not doomed to the
"dormitory" style of housing found with other employers.
By design, the two bathrooms used by my wife and I (and the two ladies and
the houseboy) are on one side of the house. The ladies are quite clean about the
bathrooms and so am I and so is Xiao Yang — the sushi chef who doubles as houseboy — who cleans up the
little things like garbage pails and occasionally surfaces. The rest of the guys
get to argue about cleaning the bathrooms on the other side of the house
(they're awful about keeping the showers/toilets clean; but then again, it's a
cultural thing that I've grown used to. I just don't look in there any more.
Pros and Cons of Communal Living
The most peculiar thing about the house is that it's a house of staircases.
Since we broke-through on two floors (the attic and basement floors are accessed
by one staircase apiece) there're a total of three stairways running from
different levels all over the place. One of the units was bigger than the other;
so that staircase is winding, with two landings; the other one has a single
landing. On the ground floor of each staircase, the shoes are neatly lined up
alongside sandals (the Chinese never wear their shoes on the carpeted
areas of the house). I am so infrequently on the opposite side of the house from
mine; I forget whose room is whose. Should a telephone call come in for one of
them on my cell, it means I get plenty of exercise trying to figure out who it
is. Most of us have cell phones, but some don't. There is a land-line in the
house, but it's rarely used for calls. A DSL router is now finally attached to
it; and the satellite dish system needs a tether to it for some unknown reason.
The security system is also attached to the land line (that was
installed after our one and only break-in; early on in the game; just kids,
probably, 'cause they took booze and a pair of computer speakers and took
neither computer nor woofer (anyone want an inoperable Altec-Lansing woofer,
minus the tiny speaker that controls the whole deal?) The televisions are far
too large and far too heavy for anyone but a pro to get out of the house unseen.
The only downside about communal living is that even though we have our own
spaces; there're still people in the house most of the time. Sexual spontaneity
rarely occurs, and when it does, it does so ever-so-quietly! My singing
rehearsals (ones I can record and play back) are limited to the time between
when I get home and when Xiao Yang goes to bed downstairs. And there are rare
times when I'm having trouble getting to sleep, and in the distance I hear the
clackety-clack of the mah-jongg tiles and the yelling of the players (some
intoxicated, some not). I have not once needed to tell them to keep it down
(except when a real fight ensued, necessitating a 2:00 a.m. drive to the
hospital because one poor fellow was hit over the head with a chair and had a
nasty gash. Turns out he deserved it, and upon healing, was dismissed for being
Lots More Pros Than Cons
Which brings me to the neat thing about living with old-school Chinese
people. Those who work hard for their money and are God-fearing (Buddhists all
of us) believe that stealing will only cause you suffering in the next life; so
they're (99% of the time) incredibly honest people. Not just cash-register
honesty; from-the-heart honesty. I like that. (It also comes in handy when I
scream at the top of my lungs about leaving dishes in the sink (there's a
dishwasher) and leaving lint in the dryer (they just don't seem to get the
hang of it and I fear a fire) — they come clean about it.
Only two of the employees have a wife and kids in New York City a weekly trip
home is a must for them; the rest leave for the day once a week to see friends
or go shopping, but they haven't homes anywhere but with us.
So imagine how energy-efficient
it is to heat water with one gigantic furnace for all of these people, and have
four zones on the heating furnace. Two furnaces instead of nine *must* save
energy somehow. The thermostats are timed to go down a full 15 degrees during
the day, yet the house is quite well insulated and so large that it has a
"memory" for heat and but for the coldest days is warmer than
the turn-down of 53 degrees inside when we come home. Air conditioning is not
central; but we keep an eye on who uses it (many do not) and that it's turned
off when we're out. I'm certain that one big refrigerator does a much more
efficient job than nine little ones (most of which would be nearly empty).
Television watching on one of the four Chinese channels we get is usually done
communally; which is both energy-efficient and also keeps nifty rapport
going about opinions on the issues of the day (or the entertainment of the day).
Other benefits of having employees in the house: coffee
brought up hot each morning before I get out of bed; no vacuuming, ever; people
are ever-so-polite about how one's laundry is handled (oh, yeah; there're two
huge laundry machines in the basement) and socks rarely grow little legs and run
away (or worse, end up behind the washer or dryer). And each summer
brings Xiao Yang's bounty from the garden (we all chip in with weeding and
The cost of the house, incorporated into the purchase of the restaurant, was
only $50,000. Add the initial $70,000 to make the house livable, and another
$45,000 to make it comfortable. That's a bargain for what we call our "mansion."
Sure, there's no stately lane leading to a porte-cochere (only a heated
garage and parking outdoors for three cars). Nor is there a butler's pantry, a
library nor drawing room. No tennis courts. No fountains, no acres of
expensive landscaping, no greenhouse, no coach house, pool nor guest cottage
(nor other typical mansion appointments I can't now recall).
One of my friends asked me if at night we all say "Good night, John Boy...
Good night, Elizabeth... Good night, Grandma..." like they did in The Waltons*, but in Mandarin. Nope.
However, when we get older and sell the restaurant (and, presumably, the
house) I think I'll miss it a great deal.
Communism Rears its, er, Head...
I guess there's something good to be
said for one of the myriad facets of the communist ideal; share and
share alike; (in our own unique sorta way). I like our little commune.
Submitted for More Than Walls
*Thanks to DejaMorgana for correcting my lack of research regarding the "Goodnight, John boy" quote.