Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Immigrant spirit at work in Chinatown repair shop

If you wear it - and wear it out - Lin Tian Fu can fix it. Zipper stubbornly stuck? Favorite shoes need soles?

Lin Tian Fu, a legal permanent resident who emigrated from China, works in his modest repair shop near 11th and Race Streets.

If you wear it - and wear it out - Lin Tian Fu can fix it.

Zipper stubbornly stuck? Favorite shoes need soles?

OK, have a seat, if you can find one amid the ankle-deep clutter of Lin's nook.

Pants too long? Leather bag missing stitches?

"You leave, come next days," says Lin, 71, more or less maxing out his English.

A legal permanent resident who emigrated 12 years ago from Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China, Lin is a jack-of-all-needle-trades, working in a space no bigger than a walk-in closet. The business he calls "Repair" has no sign and is nearly invisible to passersby - hidden by the stairwell of a shabby building at 11th and Race Streets in Philadelphia's Chinatown. Its nearest neighbor: Asia Supermarket, a basement grocery store.

In China, Lin was a farmer, construction worker, woodworker, shoemaker, and tailor, anything to make a living. In 2004, sponsored by his wife's brother, Lin and his wife came to the United States seeking opportunity.

Hardworking and independent, he personifies research often cited by the nonprofit Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians: Despite language and cultural barriers, immigrants such as Lin are 30 percent more likely to start a business than nonimmigrants. They are natural entrepreneurs, by inclination and often necessity.

"New immigrants are reinvigorating Chinatown, a 150-year-old community still fighting off repeated threats to its existence," the national advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice wrote in a 2013 study of the neighborhood. Over time, those threats have included an expressway that has limited the community's growth, and a plan, since abandoned, to build a sports stadium at 12th and Vine Streets.

In 2000, 18,000 people born in China lived in Philadelphia, according to census data. By 2010, their number had grown to 33,000, and Chinese (not including Taiwanese) made up the city's largest Asian American ethnic group. They still do.

As a green-card holder, Lin is not eligible to vote, and he expressed no immediate plan to seek citizenship. But he is aware of President-elect Donald Trump's views on immigrants, and the inhospitable cultural climate that often confronts them. Lin said he wants everyone to know that immigrants contribute to society.

"Hopefully, they will understand that we are self-reliant," he said, speaking through a Cantonese interpreter.

With recorded Chinese classical music and an occasional opera on DVD as his only diversions, Lin spends his days alone on a low-slung chair amid glue pots, squeeze tubes, lubricants, scissors, hammers, pliers, three sewing machines, a made-in-China cobbler's contraption, a Ryobi grinding wheel, and scraps of fabric and rubber, for which he invariably finds a use. Nothing goes to waste.

Word of mouth and a bilingual business card are his only forms of advertising. The basement grocery brings foot traffic. He estimates that 40 percent of customers bring shoes; 60 percent, various sewing projects.

John Chin, executive director of Philadelphia's Chinatown Development Corp., which promotes the district as a residential and business community, recently took his 19-year-old daughter Sydney's boots to Lin for new heel caps.

"He was very detailed," said Chin. "The way the boots were manufactured, they needed thicker replacement caps than Lin had. So he took two or three thinner pieces and bonded them.

"I said, 'That's fine, whatever you decide works,' " said Chin, whose daughter, a student at Emerson College, will soon put Lin's craftsmanship to the test of a Boston winter.

Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking customers sometimes stay to chat. English-only customers are left to pantomime, holding up fingers to confirm a price, or pointing to a wall calendar to know when to come back.

Divorced now, Lin lives alone in senior housing near 22nd and Market Streets. By charging less than fancier shops, he makes a modest living. As a green-card holder with more than 10 years of employment in the U.S., Lin is eligible for food stamps but doesn't take them, he said, because he is healthy and able to work for his sustenance.

Sweeping a hand through his jet black pompadour, he said he plans to fully retire in three to five years.

Until then, if you need to know his hours, consult the sign taped to the inside of his glass door.

Written in Chinese and English, in the good-luck colors of yellow and red, it reads, "Business operation: 8 days a week, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Close on 32nd each month. Except in exceptional circumstances."