If Tired Hands Could Talk: Stories of Asian Garment Workers
Wing Luke Asian Museum, 623-5124. Through February 2002.

Here's a question holiday shoppers would rather not think about: Who makes all those trendy handbags, those American flag shirts, those shoes? The Wing Luke Museum seems to have anticipated such a question with If Tired Hands Could Talk, an exhibition documenting the stories of Asian women garment workers in Seattle. Until the mid-1980s, this area was a center for the production of sportswear and ski clothes, until NAFTA made it cheaper to send that work to Mexico and the Caribbean.

Wing Luke is well known for its permanent exhibit commemorating the atrocities committed against American citizens of Japanese descent at Camp Harmony D-4-44, the transfer point in Puyallup for internees on their way to camps in Idaho and elsewhere. And indeed, If Tired Hands Could Talk has the aura of the atrocity exhibition, at least at first. You enter the installation through a storefront that looks as white-bread and ethnically clean as anything Westlake Center has to offer, with pictures of smiling towheaded brats home alone with their Gap pullovers. But entering the exhibit, you enter a world of labor, of lowered expectations and material hardship. You hear the latchkey children of garment workers talking about their mothers' total exhaustion, coming home from work late at night with no energy for anything but sleep. What you see is a simulated shop floor. At several workstations the visitor is invited to sit and listen to the testimony of the women who did some of the most exhausting work ever devised, sewing sportswear for companies like Eddie Bauer and REI between 1960 and the late '80s. The cramped installation makes you feel the claustrophobic close quarters in which these women had to work.

What's central to the exhibit, however, isn't the collection of artifacts but the stories of the women, for which the material artifacts act as a sort of frame. We are meant to listen to them amid the constant noise and the tools of their trade--the industrial sewing machines, the measuring tapes, the canvas bins in which finished product is carried away for inspection.

Video images are projected onto the sheets that form the walls of the exhibit, and a constant mechanical droning competes with the sound of the women talking about breathing the poisonous dust generated by synthetic fabrics, the "no talking or singing" rules, the frequent bloody injuries caused by industrial sewing needles. They also talk about the lasting friendships and the sense of pride and accomplishment they acquired. The exhibit is not a straightforward documentary installation of the kind you would encounter at the Nordic Heritage Museum or the Museum of History and Industry. It is an archive of voices that takes quite a lot of time to sift through. The very thoroughness that makes this exhibition valuable also seems to be its weakness; I observed many visitors step gingerly around the scraps of simulated waste on the floor and avoid sitting down at the sewing machines to watch the interviews.

So rather than being an atrocity exhibition on the excesses of globalization, it is a work of homage. Connie So, American Ethnic Studies professor at the University of Washington, invokes the sacrifices of mothers, aunts, and sisters who worked as seamstresses in the Puget Sound region and "helped clothe America." These are stories full of nostalgia, at times pungent sentimentality, and they are from another era.

But the stations toward the end of the exhibit do hint at some of the issues around global trade liberalization. For instance, in 1995, 72 illegal Thai immigrants were found imprisoned behind barbed wire in a secret labor camp in El Monte, California. The El Monte 72 made less than 60¢ an hour, and in this pocket of unregulated industry the employers tried to create the very conditions the Seattle manufacturers sought when they took their business elsewhere: cheap, docile labor and geographical proximity to U.S. clothing distributors. The pre-NAFTA stories of the Seattle garment workers also seem very much from another era.

We work very hard not to know these things; it behooves us to pay attention.