Chinese employment agencies

Steve Wang, left, speaks with Genxing Qin at Xing Xing Employment Agency in Monterey Park. Xing Xing is one of at least a dozen employment agencies near Garfield and Garvey avenues. (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times / March 7, 2014)

Wedged between a travel agency and a hair salon off one of Monterey Park's busiest streets, Honesty Employment Agency has no English sign.

There one recent afternoon, three young men lounged on black leather couches, chatting in Mandarin about jobs in distant states.

"Dallas is very good, if you know a little English," said the owner, Mimi Chen.

"I'm afraid it won't work out, and I'll end up going for nothing," replied one man with spiky hair and a shy manner.

The phone rang, and soon Chen was niftily managing two conversations at once, a cellphone pressed to one ear, a landline to the other. She scrawled job listings in one of the notebooks stacked on her desk. Everyone calls her "Sister Chen."

"I have a stir-fry cook right here. He can do any job," Chen said before handing the phone to the cook for a quick interview with a restaurant owner.

Here in this bare room, where a map of the U.S. is one of the only decorations on the walls, a young man newly arrived from northeast China can find work washing dishes in Minnesota or Utah for 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Honesty — official name: Xin Xin Service — is one of at least a dozen employment agencies near the intersection of Garvey and Garfield avenues that are gateways to a hidden economy, supplying Chinese-run businesses around the country with cheap labor.

In an afternoon or two at the agencies, stories emerge of immigrant dreams that have dead-ended in short-term gigs as fry cooks, busboys, masseuses or nannies. It is a world that rarely intersects with mainstream America except through bargain foot massages or the General Tso's chicken served at small-town restaurants.

Some employers insist on a work permit or green card, while others will hire immigrants without legal status. In the lingo of at least one agency, "He has everything" means he has papers. "He doesn't have anything" means the job will be under the table.

While they wait, job seekers vent about unscrupulous bosses and exchange updates on their immigration cases, many of them involving asylum. The agencies deal in possibility but also its flip side.

Qiang Chen, 58, a veteran of the restaurant circuit who was waiting for a job in front of the Xing Xing Employment Agency on Garfield, shook his head and scoffed when asked if he ever received overtime pay.

"The bosses are bad. They should treat other Chinese well," said Chen, who has a green card. "Instead, it's Chinese taking advantage of Chinese. There's no job where you don't work at least 12 hours, from 10 in the morning until 11 at night."

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Everything a Chinese immigrant needs can be found on this corner — an $8 haircut, the bread and noodle dishes of northeast China, dried sea cucumber to treat high blood pressure. A two-minute phone conversation at one of the employment agencies can be enough to secure a job.

A few years ago, Monterey Park cracked down on the agencies for occupying prime storefronts reserved for retail establishments. Job seekers spilled onto the sidewalks, chain-smoking as they waited, said Monterey Park City Manager Paul Talbot.

Now, most agencies are located upstairs or deep within shopping plazas, in compliance with zoning laws. About 20 are registered with the city.

At Xing Xing, handwritten signs advertised for a driver in Tennessee — paying $3,000 a month — and a fast-food cook in Texas, for $3,300. Another agency listed jobs in New Mexico, Utah, Nebraska, Colorado and Wisconsin. Out-of-state jobs pay more than local ones and often include room and board.

Workers foot the referral fee — typically, $40 for restaurant or massage jobs, $80 for domestics. Transportation costs are also the worker's responsibility, unless the job lasts at least six months.

"You can call from any part of the country to get a nanny or a restaurant worker sent to you," said Xiaojian Zhao, a professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara who has studied the employment agencies. "They are like labor distribution centers for the ethnic economy."