Editor’s Note: This article is part of an oral-history series where Aaron Reiss interviewed the young-adult sons and daughters of Chinatown shopkeepers about how they are helping to keep their families’ businesses alive.
Kevin Huang, a 22-year-old college student, recounts how short staffing at his family’s bakery found him unexpectedly spending his evenings after school helping to make buns and pastries with his father. “I’d have to think of ways to keep him in conversation, you know, to keep him up. So I would ask him about growing up in China, about serving in the Army. Little things like that. It’s not that our relationship was bad in the past; we just didn’t have time.”
I spoke with Huang in the spring of 2018. Below is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
It can be hard to communicate with my father, because my Cantonese is limited and he doesn’t really speak English. My mother is definitely the translator in the family, because she is fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. With my dad, sometimes when we are talking, I won’t get a point, and he’ll dumb it down until I’m like, “Oh, I know exactly what you mean.”
In China, I think my dad did something with engineering. But he couldn’t really do that here because getting a license is hard without the language. When my dad came to the States, he started working at Fei Da Bakery, back when Fei Da was just one shop. He took a class and got certified in baking, and he worked there for several years.
By the time I was born, he had started his own bakery. My mother had me and my little brother. Back then, my mom had a full-time office job in Midtown, was raising three kids, and also helping out at the bakery with administrative stuff. And I wouldn’t really see my dad that much because he was up at 4:30 a.m. to start the bakery every day, and by the time he got home, my light was already off.
Me and my brothers, we were never really truly involved with the bakery growing up. My dad never wanted us to be. Because my dad knows how strenuous it is, he didn’t want us to have to bust our ass in the bakery. He didn’t want us to bake, to be working here and try to juggle that and school—he wanted us to focus fully on school and our social life and all that.
So for him, it was about money and about sustaining a family of three boys, not about a family business. And we were comfortable; we had enough money. They said, “Don’t worry about anything,” and we truly didn’t. Not that we were rich, but we were comfortable.
The way I saw the business really changed when I did study abroad last year. I went to Europe for one month, and it was really the first time I was away from home for that long. We all live together in the same apartment, so when I got back, I would be staying up, you know, waiting for my parents to come home from the bakery every day, thinking: I lived the time of my life on this trip, and I can’t wait to tell my parents and show them pictures, but they never come back. It’s, like, midnight, and I’m thinking, Where the fuck are they?
I start asking them, and they are telling me everything is good. They kind of lied. You know, they smile, but there are, like, bags under their eyes. And I’m like, “Y’all look different.” I start to hear them arguing about how they were losing workers all the time. The bakery workers were dropping like flies.
I start asking my younger brother, Alex, “Who’s manning the jyucheung fan station? Who’s doing the cake station? And he’s like, “Dad. Dad. Dad.” He’s like LeBron James: He’s doing everything for his damn team. He’s, like, all five positions and also the coach. But one guy making a whole bakery worth of baos, everyday—that’s insane. He can’t eat when he comes home because he has to be back up at 4:30 a.m. to make more cakes at dawn.
I have to give the credit to Alex; he started going to help out at the bakery at night, helping Dad. At first, I thought he was just helping out a little bit, but I start to realize it’s, like, every day. I go down to the bakery, and it turns out there are only five people working here, and they’re all family. I’m like, “Auntie, what are you doing here? And my other auntie! What are you doing here?” And they’re like, “Oh, we’re just helping out.” It was just a realization for me: They were carrying this whole load, especially my dad, because he knows how to make all the baos. So I was like, “Okay, I gotta step in.” I started coming in every day after school, at like 5 or 6 p.m., and working with my dad in the back until closing, at midnight or 1 a.m.
I made it work with school; I would be making dan ta while listening to lectures for my courses. At the same time, I’m spending more time with my dad than I ever had. And we end up talking a lot more than we ever have. Sometimes I see him rolling out dough and falling asleep. So I’d be like, “Yo, wake up!” and I’d have to think of ways to keep him in conversation, you know, to keep him up. So I would ask him about growing up in China, about serving in the Army. Little things like that. It’s not that our relationship was bad in the past; we just didn’t have time. We are really talking for the first time.
We just never saw each other before. You know, like only for holidays, when he would come home a few hours earlier. Other than that, I hardly saw his face. Now, the more I get to know him, I’m, like, Shit, I didn’t know you were that woke—you know, about things in the news and about minor family issues. He goes on WeChat, and he listens to Chinese radio—so he knows about international news and American news. Like, if I bring up news of a school shooting, he has his own ideas of why these things are happening, and the issues in America. I’m like, Oh, you know about this stuff?
I’ll also be sharing what I’m doing in my life. I like to go to the gym, so I might tell him, “Today I deadlifted so-and-so pounds.” He’s funny—he’ll tell me about how, when he was a kid, he could, like, pick up a car engine. We just never really talked before, so it’s just all these random things that come to mind. It’s 20 years of catching up, all at once.