Chinese are hiring Salvadorans Immigrants toil in restaurant kitchens

November 08, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Call it the Chinese-Salvadoran connection.

An ethnic marriage of convenience is flourishing in the Baltimore area's Chinese restaurants. Chinese restaurateurs are hiring Salvadorans as busboys, dishwashers and sometimes waiters and cooks.

Miguel Angel Rivera, 39, was among the first Salvadorans to make the connection. In 1986, he came to a Chinese restaurant in Randallstown as a busboy.

"The first six months here I didn't see another Hispanic," Mr. Rivera says.

"I worked amid 10 Chinese guys. I got to know a lot of Chinese people, and I began to bring friends here to work in their restaurants."

Now a cluster of Central American restaurant workers -- nearly all single Salvadoran men -- gather just before midnight every other Sunday to worship at a Pikesville church. It is one of the only times all week when none of them is working.

By the next morning the immigrants have fanned out again to Chinese restaurants from Glen Burnie to Cockeysville and Catonsville to Bel Air.

Employers, workers and immigration experts offer several reasons for the growing Salvadoran presence in Chinese kitchens:

* The number of Chinese restaurants in the Baltimore area has more than doubled in the last decade, increasing the demand for unskilled workers who need not know English.

The metropolitan Yellow Pages alone list about 170 Chinese restaurants and carryouts.

* More Salvadorans have come to Maryland in recent years -- both legally and illegally -- than immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the traditional sources of Chinese restaurant workers.

Chinese immigrants gravitate to the thriving Chinatowns of San Francisco and New York, says Bill Tamayo of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.

* Young Chinese immigrants are more educated, more likely to know English and increasingly less willing to toil 12 hours or more a day, six days a week in restaurant kitchens.

Take Juley Tsang, 22, who emigrated from Hong Kong to the United States. Since coming here in 1984, she has polished her English, earned a high school diploma from Poly, become a U.S. citizen and begun studying business administration at Anne Arundel Community College.

Ms. Tsang works part-time in a Chinese carryout to make spending money. But she wouldn't consider a full-time restaurant job.

David Tam, the Chinese-born owner of the Grand Palace restaurant in Glen Burnie, says none of his three children wants to follow him into the restaurant business.

"The hours are too long. The work seems endless," Mr. Tam said. "They are educated here and they speak English well so they can look for other kinds of jobs.

"They say, 'This is the United States, not China.' "

The shortage of Chinese laborers has opened the kitchen door to immigrants from El Salvador, where there are only a few Chinese restaurants in the entire country. The Salvadorans entered American society on the bottom rung, often illegally,fleeing civil war and economic chaos at home, often speaking no English, sometimes reading no Spanish.

Ching M. Lau, an officer of the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association of Baltimore, said Chinese restaurants have turned to Salvadoran workers because "they're loyal, they don't mind long hours and they don't hop from job to job."

Driven here by war

Many Salvadorans -- about 11,000 in Maryland -- also have legal ** work permits. The United States has granted them "deferred enforced departure" status through mid-1993 while they apply for political asylum in this country.

Even though the war in El Salvador has ended, Salvadorans here say armed bandits roam the countryside and jobs are scarce. Few are ready to go home.

Mr. Rivera, a native of rural San Miguel province, came to the United States after his hometown became a no-man's land caught between Army and guerrilla forces.

Unlike most Salvadorans here, Mr. Rivera is a permanent U.S. resident. He and his wife, Esteli, have an American-born daughter and another child on the way.

"I plan to settle here," Mr. Rivera says. "Everybody comes here intending to return home. But being realistic, I have to stay here for my children's sake. My body is in the United States; my heart is in El Salvador."

As a Salvadoran pioneer in Baltimore, Mr. Rivera often finds jobs in Chinese restaurants for his compatriots. The Chinese-Salvadoran connection works by word of mouth.

The terms of employment in Chinese restaurants are almost always the same, he says. You work at least 70 hours a week in exchange for a fixed monthly salary, meals at the restaurant and a mattress in an apartment usually shared with Chinese and Salvadoran employees.

"No Chinese will ever say, 'I'm going to pay you so much an hour,' " he says.

The going rate for dishwashers in the Baltimore area, according to employers and workers, ranges from $800 to $1,200 a month plus room and board.

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