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Photos: 2 Cantonese Women Share Their Immigrant Journey

Left: Lisa Lai, 65, dances during breaks in the shop in Philadelphia. Right: Liang Runling, 56, stands for a portrait at Jamaica Pond, Brookline, Mass.
Left: Lisa Lai, 65, dances during breaks in the shop in Philadelphia. Right: Liang Runling, 56, stands for a portrait at Jamaica Pond, Brookline, Mass.

Recent reports of violence against Asian Americans have drawn attention to the challenges and discrimination many Asian Americans face — especially women.

While Asian women are often viewed as hard-working, independent, intelligent and economically prosperous, the stereotypes hide many issues, including anti-Asian racism, poverty and labor abuse. Preconceptions understate the realities of working-class Asian American women's lives. Many work in industries that were hit especially hard during the pandemic.

Portraits of two women living the Chinese American immigrant experience give insight into the complexities of their lives that defy stereotypes.

Asian women have been viewed as submissive, but these two are leaders in their homes and in their work. Liang Runling, a caretaker in Boston, and Lisa Lai, a cheongsam shop owner in Philadelphia, face barriers in language and discrimination and respond with an unwavering work ethic and dedication to family.

Liang Runling 梁润玲

When you enter Liang Runling's home in Brookline, Mass., on any given evening, you will find her in the kitchen making a meal for her family. From Cantonese steamed fish, roast duck, to slowly cooked soup, Liang pays homage to traditional Cantonese dishes.

"It makes me happy when people like to eat my food," she says.

Liang's journey to the Boston area is representative of many Cantonese immigrants whose hard work and dedication in their early lives lead them overseas. Cantonese people are a Chinese subgroup with roots in southern China.

Liang Runling, 56, sits with her husband, Chen Yuning, along the Charles River in Boston.
/ Shuran Huang
Liang Runling, 56, sits with her husband, Chen Yuning, along the Charles River in Boston.

Liang was born and raised in a small village in Nanning, Guangxi Province — the same hometown as Xiaojie Tan, one of the women who was killed in the Atlanta shootings.

She worked as a self-sufficient farmer for her family before moving to the massive city of Guangzhou at age 22 for better work opportunities. In Guangzhou, Liang worked at more than 10 different jobs, including as a caretaker, sewer, underwear vendor, hair stylist and cleaner.

She met Chen Yuning in 1989. They married two years later. Liang calls Chen "A Suk" (阿叔) and Yuning calls her "fei yi" (肥姨). Together, they saved enough money to start their own cleaning company. They had two sons: Jackie and Alex.

Liang wanted her children to have better educational opportunities than she had so they applied to move to the U.S. The family waited 14 years before their applications were approved in 2007.

Within a month of their approval, Liang gave up a big contract, sold the company, and said goodbye to her relatives.

Liang gives her son Jackie a haircut.
/ Shuran Huang
Liang gives her son Jackie a haircut.

"I only remember playing mahjong all night long with our close friends the night before we left Guangzhou," she says, giggling about winning all the games.

Alex and Jackie were 11 and 14 at the time. They stayed at their aunt's place in the Boston suburb of Newton, while Liang stayed in a tiny apartment with her husband in Boston's Chinatown.

America looked different than she expected.

When Jackie comes home from Washington, D.C., where he lives and works, the family gathers together to play mahjong. "We can play mahjong only when Jackie comes back home," Liang says, "because we need four people for this game."
/ Shuran Huang
When Jackie comes home from Washington, D.C., where he lives and works, the family gathers together to play mahjong. "We can play mahjong only when Jackie comes back home," Liang says, "because we need four people for this game."

The family had to start over again. She began to study English at a language school in Boston.

Three months later, she picked up a job at a pen factory outside Boston. She worked 10 hours a day, only making 9 dollars an hour. Every morning, she woke up at 4 a.m. and would commute for two hours to work, never missing a day.

She developed breathing problems after inhaling chemicals at the factory every day over 11 years.

After work, Liang usually spends time making food with her husband for the family.
/ Shuran Huang
After work, Liang usually spends time making food with her husband for the family.

Liang's declining health forced her to quit the job at the pen factory in 2018. She began work as a caretaker, looking after children in different families. Now she takes care of 3-year-old Charlie and a 5-year-old Oscar. Most mornings and afternoons, they play basketball and watch subway trains passing by.

Charlie calls Liang "grandma." They sing songs together as they walk. She'll peel peanuts and cook for him.

Liang works as a caretaker of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. Most mornings and afternoons, they play basketball and watch trains passing by.
/ Shuran Huang
Liang works as a caretaker of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. Most mornings and afternoons, they play basketball and watch trains passing by.

Jackie says his mother has a natural ability with children. "She speaks with them with incredible patience," he says. "Beyond the material things like feeding the child or playing with them, I think the more important thing is that she allows herself to be honest with them and to share who she is."

Liang never stops working. After a long day, she takes care of her 17 by 15 foot garden, where she grows various vegetables. From a young age, she learned from her mother how to plant and sell vegetables. "It makes me happy to see the products I produce," she says.

Liang likes to plant vegetables at home. She transformed a chocolate tray into an onion growing base.
/ Shuran Huang
Liang likes to plant vegetables at home. She transformed a chocolate tray into an onion growing base.

Then she spends most of the night cooking with her husband. Making food together has been her way to communicate and build a close relationship with her family.

Alex says he has "the best and most friendly mom."

"When I was in high school, my parents always cooked for more than four people, or stored food in the fridge, because she knew my friends would often come over to eat after school," he says. "We don't close our door at home."

On weekends, Liang goes to Quincy where most of her friends live. They usually have Cantonese dim sum together at a local restaurant. After dim sum, she shops in the nearby supermarket, preparing for the week's meals. Here, she has dim sum with her friends at East Ocean in Quincy after not seeing them since the start of the pandemic.
/ Shuran Huang
On weekends, Liang goes to Quincy where most of her friends live. They usually have Cantonese dim sum together at a local restaurant. After dim sum, she shops in the nearby supermarket, preparing for the week's meals. Here, she has dim sum with her friends at East Ocean in Quincy after not seeing them since the start of the pandemic.

On weekends, Liang would commute an hour to Quincy, where most of her friends live. They would have Cantonese dim sum together at a local restaurant, chatting about things at home. After dim sum, she would shop for groceries in the nearby supermarket, preparing for the meals in the following week.

She stopped going to Quincy during the pandemic, but since she and her friends got vaccinated, she's started to see them more often.

When Monday comes, Liang once again gets up early and goes to work. "If the horse dies, you step down and walk," she says. "This is how I deal with challenges in life."

Lisa Lai 黎麗莎

At Dia Boutique in Philadelphia's Chinatown, you can hear an old Cantonese song, 念親恩, by a Hong Kong singer, Danny Chan (陳百強). The owner, Lisa Lai, sits at her sewing machine, carefully altering clothes with scissors and needles.

Born in Guangzhou in 1956 to a businessman father and a housewife mother, Lai grew up with six younger sisters. She found the role of big sister empowering.

From a young age, she dreamed of running her own business.

Lai adjusts her hair during breaks.
/ Shuran Huang
Lai adjusts her hair during breaks.

After high school in Guangzhou, she worked at a clothing manufacturing company as an apprentice for three years, learning to sew and alter clothes and making 20 yuan (around $3) per month. After years as a full-time seamstress, she saved up enough money to run her first clothing manufacturing business.

After work, the couple make dumplings together. Here, Lai fills a dumpling with pork and shapes the remaining rounds, as Chan drinks wine and makes jokes.
/ Shuran Huang
After work, the couple make dumplings together. Here, Lai fills a dumpling with pork and shapes the remaining rounds, as Chan drinks wine and makes jokes.

When her parents moved to Hong Kong in 1981, she followed them, though she found there weren't many job opportunities.

Lai's faith in Buddhism manifests in her daily life and gives her strength during tough times. "I have been praying with my mother since I was a girl," Lai says. "I still carry the same Buddha statue with me I had in Guangzhou."
/ Shuran Huang
Lai's faith in Buddhism manifests in her daily life and gives her strength during tough times. "I have been praying with my mother since I was a girl," Lai says. "I still carry the same Buddha statue with me I had in Guangzhou."

After she met her husband, Raymond Chan, they set their sights on the U.S. to find better work, immigrating to New York City together in 1987. She worked as a supervisor at different clothing manufacturing companies.

America wasn't the country she thought it would be. She could barely afford the rent.

In 2000, when Lai saw better housing options in Philadelphia, she decided to move there, founding Dia Boutique, a shop in Chinatown that sells cheongsams and provides alteration services. Here, the couple arrange the cheongsams in the shop.
/ Shuran Huang
In 2000, when Lai saw better housing options in Philadelphia, she decided to move there, founding Dia Boutique, a shop in Chinatown that sells cheongsams and provides alteration services. Here, the couple arrange the cheongsams in the shop.

In 1992, after saving up, Lai started her own clothing manufacturing company. She worked from 10 in the morning until 8 at night every day. At times, to finish the orders, she wasn't able to have lunch until late afternoon and sometimes had to work overnight. The long and intensive work schedule contributed to her having an untreatable chronic gastric ulcer.

Lisa Lai founded Dia Boutique, a shop in Philadelphia's Chinatown that sells cheongsams and provides alteration services. Left: Lai twists a button on the cheongsam for a customer. Right: Lai sews a dress by hand. "My wrist hurts at times after having worked for a whole day," she says.
/ Shuran Huang
Lisa Lai founded Dia Boutique, a shop in Philadelphia's Chinatown that sells cheongsams and provides alteration services. Left: Lai twists a button on the cheongsam for a customer. Right: Lai sews a dress by hand. "My wrist hurts at times after having worked for a whole day," she says.

"Lisa has so much perseverance in her that I have never seen in others," Chan says. "Once she sets her mind on doing anything, she will make it."

In 2000, when she saw better housing options in Philadelphia, she and Chan decided to move. Lai founded Dia Boutique, a shop in Chinatown that sells cheongsams and provides alteration services. At the time, Chan worked long hours at hotels, and Lai managed to fill the roles of mother to their son and businesswoman.

As protests broke out across the nation in 2020, many smaller businesses were looted and robbed. Here, Lai boarded up her shop, Dia Boutique.
/ Shuran Huang
As protests broke out across the nation in 2020, many smaller businesses were looted and robbed. Here, Lai boarded up her shop, Dia Boutique.

"We tried different businesses and failed so many times during our first year in Philadelphia," Chan says. "Yet Lisa was so determined, she encouraged herself and me, so we get to wherever we are right now."

Lai has been running Dia Boutique for 20 years. At work, she meets people from diverse backgrounds. "Language was never a barrier for me to communicate with the customers even though I don't speak much English," Lai says. "I met many of my friends through this shop."

Left: Lai works in the kitchen Right: Lai gets a sore throat easily as a result of throat surgery decades ago. Here, she makes pear stew with rock sugar, which helps to heal her throat at times.
/ Shuran Huang
Left: Lai works in the kitchen Right: Lai gets a sore throat easily as a result of throat surgery decades ago. Here, she makes pear stew with rock sugar, which helps to heal her throat at times.

The pandemic brought most of the businesses in Philadelphia's Chinatown to a halt. Lai says the shop was seeing only 10% of its regular business. "I have never experienced such a loss in the past 20 years," she says.

But she's still holding on. She relaxes by doing two hours of yoga each day. Her Buddhist faith gives her strength. Besides work, she and Chan spend time with friends, make dumplings, go for walks, plant flowers and vegetables in the garden, and play tennis.

The couple have a small garden in their backyard where they have planted their favorite flowers. Here, as Lai fertilizes the plants, Chan sings a love song for her.
/ Shuran Huang
The couple have a small garden in their backyard where they have planted their favorite flowers. Here, as Lai fertilizes the plants, Chan sings a love song for her.

In Lai's words, her fate is "tied to clothes" and she is "meant to be a seamstress."

"You just need to figure out a way to make customers happy," Lai says. "It makes me happy when I do my best."

"I am a businesswoman so my dream has come true," Lai says, adding her biggest wish is to have grandchildren. At times, you can hear songs playing in the shop. Lisa holds Chan's hands and together, they dance and laugh.

Shuran Huang is a photographer based in Washington, D.C. Her work focuses on immigration, culture, human rights and interactions seen through moments of intimacy. Follow her on Instagram @shuranhuang

Photo editing by Xueying Chang and Michele Abercrombie.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.