Times change, but locksmiths are still in demand 鎖匠的故事 [Updated]

We have updated a Chinese version of this story. You may sroll down to read this story in Chinese. 已更新此文的中文版本,请滑动至页面下部浏览阅读。

I'd almost never paid attention to the lock on my door until I lost my keys on New Year's Eve. I spent that night on a friend’s couch and obsessively Googled “how to open your door without keys.” In the morning, I gave up and called a locksmith that I found on Yelp and asked him to come and open the lock immediately, because my dogs were starving and whining behind the door. I never thought before how the lock on my door was such a vital thing.

This is when I met Dazhou Van, the owner of B & B Lock and Security on Valley Blvd in Alhambra and a former refugee from Vietnam, and learned about his locksmith business that has been thriving in Alhambra for 32 years.

Van works with a machineVan grew up in a Chinese family in Nha Trang in South Vietnam. He left his hometown and went to high school in Saigon in 1970, and enrolled as a biology major at Saigon Technology University in 1973. Unfortunately, he dropped out of college during his senior year due to the fall of Saigon. “I fled to China in 1977 when the anti Chinese movement broke out in Vietnam,” he told me.

In the spring of 1979, Van went back to school again. He passed the entrance exam in China and enrolled in Huaqiao University in Fujian province. However, luck was a fickle thing to Van. He dropped out again due to the frayed diplomatic relationship between Vietnam and China. “I had to go,” he said. “The government of China and Vietnam disrupted communication. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to contact my parents in Vietnam anymore.”

Like many other Vietnamese refugees, Van took a small boat from the city of Beihai in Guangxi province to Hong Kong, where he resided in a refugee camp. He met his wife at the camp and married her. He also worked for a doctor from the Red Cross. “I worked hard with the doctor who wrote a referral letter for me. Thanks to this letter, I got the opportunity to come to America directly without having to transfer to the Philippines,” said Van.

Different locks displayed at Van's storeHe arrived in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day in 1980. “My sister, who came to America prior to me, picked me up at airport and brought me and my wife to Alhambra. We have stayed here since then.” After he settled down, he decided to complete his education and studied at Pasadena City College. “Meantime, I had to work two part-time jobs to support my family,” said Van. He attended school from 7am to 12pm, and then toiled from 1 p.m. till midnight. The herculean shifts and onerous studies depleted him. “I had to quit college for the third time,” Van sighed. He went to three colleges in three countries, but never got lucky enough to complete them.

And when it rains it pours. His house burnt down in a fire in 1984. “I lost many things in the fire including my car key. I went to a locksmith booth on the intersection of Garfield and Valley Blvd to find someone to open my car door and copy my keys, which changed my life and career permanently.” He saw a poster in the booth that said it was for sale. He asked the owner why he wanted to sell the business. “He said more and more Asian immigrants are coming to the city. Many of them speak Chinese, which he doesn’t know. It became too hard for him to do business with them. And he wanted to retire too.”

After discussing it with his wife, Van finally decided to buy it from the White American owner. “I didn’t graduate from college and had no skills. I needed to learn something,” said Van. So he started learning the locksmith's trade with the previous owner for three months. When he became the new owner of the key booth, “It was very small, five feet long by 14 feet wide.” He only made a few dollars everyday in the beginning. But as he became more experienced, and as more Chinese and Vietnamese speaking immigrants moved to Alhambra, his business took off within three years.

One of Van's employees on the phoneHe expanded his business from locks and keys to safes and security gates. In 1997, he bought a store on Valley Blvd and named it B & B Lock and Security. Now Van has seven full-time employees, one part-time employee, six vehicles for mobile services and another factory to make the security gates he installs.

“I was told by the previous owner of the booth, I could make $20,000 in a good year,” Van said. “I never thought that there was such potential for a locksmith business.” But few residents know about Van until they lose their keys or have to change their locks. “I run into people time to time, who ask me, ‘How did you survive?’ Because they thought that there are no locksmiths anymore.”

Van's locksmith business on Valley BlvdIn fact, it is harder for Van to hire new staff, because fewer young people want to learn this craft and work such a labor intensive job, excerpt for new immigrants who need a skill to survive as the same as Van did. “Young people want to work for big companies and things concerning computers and digital stuff,” Van said. “But when it comes to hiring, it is also tricky for us.” To hire people to learn and practice opening locks and safes, Van not only checks the propective worker's background and certificate, but also tests that the person is reliable and trustworthy.

One of the reasons that led to Van’s success is that he focused his business on the Asian community in Alhambra. “70 percent of my clientele is from the Asian community,” said Van. Because of the language barrier, many Asian clients tend to hire a locksmith who can explain what is a cylinder and can bargain with them in their first language. “For ten years, from 1984 to 1995, I went the national annual locksmith show every year. I was the only Asian locksmith at that show,” Van said. He adds that, in the last 15 years, he has seen more diversity. 

Van talks with a client on the phone“The cost of living in Alhambra is not as high as in other areas in L.A., so we don’t charge too much, and our pay can’t compete with big companies either, I try to be fair to all my customers, apprentices and employees. But this is a skill that doesn’t rely on heavy equipments, you can work into your 80s as long as you can squat down and open locks,” said Van, laughing at the thought. So far, he doesn’t want to retire, but he does want to do more management tasks at his store. This job is an “iron rice bowl," which means it is very stable and secure, because everyone needs to deal with locks someday in their life, just like me.

The interview was translated from Chinese, edited and condensed.

      幾個星期前,我參加完新年派對準備回家時赫然發現:“完蛋,鑰匙丟了”。無奈之下,只得寄宿朋友家一晚。心急如焚地在網上查了一晚“如何開鎖”,無果。只得在新年的第一天清晨趕緊在Yelp上找了一個鎖匠幫忙開鎖。因為家裏的狗還被鎖在屋裏。估計是餓慘了,躲在門後嗚嗚的哼唧著。直到那一刻我才意識到,我從來沒留意過的門鎖竟如此關鍵。

      也因這樣的機緣巧合,我認識了雲大洲。一個在阿罕布拉做了32年鎖匠的前越南難民。也得知了他如何從一個生物系大學生成為一名鎖匠的故事。

      雲大洲出生於越南南部的芽莊市。1970年他離開家鄉前往西貢上高中,隨後考入西貢科技大學生物系。可惜蕓蕓眾生總逃不過時代的變遷。1975年西貢淪陷。念了兩年生物的雲大洲被迫退學。並在越南國內輾轉兩年後逃往中國。“因為越南國內‘排華’,我就決定逃走了,”他說。
 
      去到中國後,雲大洲在福建省一個農場的學校做了快兩年的老師。教難民的孩子學中文。並於1979年春天通過考試,被華僑大學錄取。可惜雲大洲和大學的緣分總是那麽淺。上了不到一年的學,他又一次被迫退學。他略帶惋惜告訴我:“中越政府沖突升級,切斷了正常的通訊渠道。我擔心我再也不能聯絡上還在越南的父母。我必須走。”
 
      之後,雲大洲跟許多越南難民一樣在廣西省北海市的碼頭,擠上了逃往香港的船。在香港的難民營裏,他遇見了在越南時青梅竹馬的鄰居。同是天涯淪落人,兩人一見如故。交往一段時間後,就在難民營裏結了婚。因為雲大洲有英文基礎。他婚後就開始在香港的醫院裏幫一些國際紅十會參與救援難民的醫生做翻譯。一名李姓醫生成了他一生的恩人,他說:“因為我工作很賣力。這名醫生得知我在申請前往美國的時候,特地為我寫了封保薦信。全靠這封信,我順利通過了大使館面試並直接來到美國。否則還得在菲律賓待一年”。
 
      1980年的感恩節,雲大洲和妻子來到了洛杉磯。他說:“我妹妹比我們先到美國。我們一來,她就把我們接到了阿罕布拉。這一待就待到了現在。”在安頓好後,為了一園大學夢。雲大洲申請到帕薩迪納城市學院讀書。“與此同時,我還要打兩份工養家。每天早上7點到12點上課。下午1點開始打工直到淩晨。”繁重的工作負擔和學業壓力讓雲大洲精疲力竭。“實在累得受不了,只好又退學了。”雲大洲感嘆到。他走了三個國家,上了三次大學,最終也沒能圓了這個大學夢。
 
      屋漏偏逢連夜雨。1984年雲家遭遇了一場火災。東西都燒沒了。放在家裏的車鑰匙自然也毀了。“我找到在Valley和Garfield Blvd路口的一個鎖匠鋪幫忙配鑰匙。就在現在的世海酒家旁邊,”雲大洲說。一進鋪裏他就看見一張“旺鋪出售”的告示。出於好奇,他問店家為何要轉讓鋪子。店主是一個白人老頭,告訴他說越來越多亞裔移民搬到了阿罕布拉。很多人都說中文,而他根本不會。做買賣溝通起來太麻煩,他也想退休了。這才決定要轉讓商鋪。
 
      雲大洲回家跟妻子商量一通,決定盤下這個店鋪。“我當時想,自己既沒學歷,又沒技術,總得學門手藝吧。”雲大洲說,他跟著店主學了三個月手藝後,正式接管店鋪做起了鎖匠。“那時候就是一個小鋪子,5尺深,14尺寬,”他說。一開始邊做邊學,生意也不好。一天就能賺個幾塊錢。但隨著手藝越來越熟練,加上越來越多華裔和越南裔的移民搬來阿罕布拉。只花了三年時間,鎖鋪的生意便有了很大的起色。
 
      隨後,他更將生意從開鎖,配鑰匙一路發展到賣鎖和修防盜鐵門。並且,將鋪子越建越大。1997年,他買下了位於Valley Blvd上一家店鋪,命名其為“精美”(B & B Lock and Security)。如今,他店裏有七個全職雇員,一個兼職雇員,六部工作用車輛和一個制作、安裝防盜鐵門的工廠。“之前的店主告訴我,運氣好,一年能賺個$20,000美金吧,”他說,“我從來沒想到能把鎖鋪生意做到現在這樣的規模。”但許多當地市民不管是路過還是開車經過,都會忽略這間鎖店。除非是他們丟了鑰匙。“時不時會遇到有人問我,‘居然還有鎖匠?’他們都覺得已經沒有這一行了,”他說。
 
      事實上,雲大洲雇人也越來越難了。年輕人不想來學這門手藝,許多亞裔父母也不想自己小孩去學做鎖匠。除非是新移民,跟雲大洲當年一樣,生活所迫要有一技傍身。“年輕人都想幹和電腦有關的工作,”他說,“但我們做鎖的也不是隨便就聘人。除了要看他的資質,更要看人品。所以雇人就更難了。”
 
      雲大洲總結他生意成功的一大要素是,專精於做亞裔群體的生意。“我百分之七十的客戶都來自於亞裔群體,”他說。因為語言障礙,很多亞裔更願意跟一個能夠用他們的母語解釋怎麽開鎖和討價還價的店家打交道。“1984年到1995年的十年間,我每年都參加全美鎖匠的周年展會。連續十年,我都是展會裏唯一的亞裔。大多數參展的都是白人”雲大洲說。直到近15年來,他才看到越來越多不同族裔的人加入到這個行業。
 
      他暫時還沒有退休的打算,但已退居二線做起了店鋪運營和管理的工作。“這是門可以做到80歲的手藝,提個小箱子就能開工了。只要那時候我還能蹲下來開鎖。”雲大洲笑著跟我說。開鎖這行當在他看來就是個鐵飯碗,因為每個人都總會有需要鎖匠的一天,就跟新年頭一天丟了鑰匙,有家不能回的我一樣。

5 thoughts on “Times change, but locksmiths are still in demand 鎖匠的故事 [Updated]”

  1. I am very pleased with his work ethics. Not only does he makes keys, he guarantee his work. If the key doesn’t work, he gladly does it again so that it will work. If you want a garage door that makes no noise when it opens or closes, then this is the place to purchase one. My garage door is now more than 10 years old and it is still working without any problems, it is very sturdy and still very quiet. Prices are very reasonable.

  2. “Van pays $2,000 to $3,000”

    might want to add: “per month” to the end of the above.

    1. Thank you for your suggestion. Will do.

  3. Great Info love the article been in the business for over 30 years good to here about Vietnamese refugee living the America Dream

  4. I’ve had his workers come to my house two times for lock problems, they did a good job on both visits, prices are reasonable.

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