Two years after the record $4 million settlement between San Francisco's Yank Sing dim sum restaurant and nearly 300 workers who organized for better pay and working conditions, pianist and composer Jon Jang premiered a new composition to tell their story, "Yank Sing Work Song."
Commissioned by the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, the world premiere was performed by the Jon Jangtet — Jang's music group — at the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco.
"Because the Yank Sing Restaurant workers represent a part of the invisible economic architecture of San Francisco, it was inspiring to witness these Chinese immigrant workers fight for their human dignity by recovering their stolen wages through winning a $4 million settlement with a broad base of community support from the Chinese Progressive Association, Local 2, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice," Jang told NBC News. "'Yank Sing Work Song' by the Jon Jangtet pays tribute to the soulful courage of the Chinese immigrant workers of the Yank Sing Restaurant and sends a powerful message of resistance to Trump's anti-immigrant stance and manic xenophobia."
Performed by tenor saxophones, the melody is based on the popular plaintive Cantonese piece, "Shuangsheng hen" (Double Voicing of Bitterness), according to Jang, and uses a Cantonese musical scale with bass that is a hybrid of Cantonese melodies and funk — which Jang calls "James Brown in Chinatown" — in order to transform the melody's feeling of sorrow to a feeling of perseverance.
The Yank Sing restaurant specializes in traditional and contemporary dim sum. It won a James Beard Award in 2009 and is routinely included in the Michelin Guide.
Without a union, and with the support of Asian-American activists and state and local labor regulators, restaurant workers organized and staged walk outs to win back pay, health care, and other benefits, and an increased base pay of $11.25 an hour.
Jang is an award-winning pianist and composer who writes music to honor Chinese-American history, including the Chinese laborers who built the transcontinental railroad, the Chinese immigrants who came through Angel Island Immigration Station, and Chinese American Vincent Chin, who was killed in 1982 by two autoworkers who blamed Japan's car industry for putting them out of work.