The first 50 posts on this blog on Chinese laundry history are now available for your convenience in a beta version as a free downloadable epub format for ibooks. This link will download a pdf version that does not require an e-reader device.
When Chinese laundrymen made visits back to their home villages, there was the expectation that they had made small fortunes on Gold Mountain when in fact most of them had lives of daily hardship with meagre income. As noted by Leong Gor Yun in a 1936 book, Chinatown Inside Out, to save face, they would often describe their work as operating “garment stores” instead of washing dirty clothes. ”To make a good impression they collect trunks and trunks of old rags, worn-out shoes, hardware and junk. The more trunks they take the wealthier they look.” They would bring gifts for relatives, which they could barely afford, to fit this image.
However, Hong Kong Chinese considered them as simpletons from the Golden Mountain and victimized them with extravagant prices. “Their poor relatives, close and distant, live off them for a few months until the “wealthy” air cools off.” They were expected to provide a grand feast for the entire village and relatives from other villages. “This marks them as the local boys who made good across the ocean.” As they departed to return to their dreary lives on Gold Mountain, some left money for villagers or for building a house for relatives.
In a separate commentary I made about Chinatown Inside Out and its author Leong Gor Yun, I noted that there is some question as to who Leong Gor Yun is or if the name might be fictitious.
An 1892 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch explained the reason why Chinese laundries, save one, did not use machinery. It rejected the view of many people that Chinese did not believe in machinery and preferred to do laundry by hand.
The real reason, according to the article, is that “Chinese laundrymen cannot get laundry machinery for either love or money. Each piece sold is with the solemn promise that it shall never fall into the hands of the Chinese competitor.” Thus, white laundry equipment makers and white laundry owners conspired to keep machinery out of the hands of Chinese laundrymen. The article did acknowledge that at least one Chinese somehow obtained laundry equipment for his Birmingham, Alabama laundry.
This revelation, even if perhaps exaggerated, is of personal interest and pride! The parents of Young Quan, a distant relative of mine, owned a laundry in the 1930s in Birmingham near the cited cross streets that very well could have been the one mentioned in the article!
A white man from Charleston, South Carolina, made a visit to New York City in 1886 and his impressions of many aspects of his trip were published in the Charleston newspaper, including his unflattering comments about Chinese laundrymen. Excerpts of what he wrote are presented here.
The Heathen Chinese
The almond-eyed Celestial who does the washing and dry starching for New York and the neighboring cities, is to me a constant study. You will see his sign, a modest red sign with white letters over a basement shop in almost every street. Every sign is exactly like every other sign, just as every Chinaman, (to the average American eye) is like every other Chinaman. They’re very thick in certain parts of the city, but if you will observe things closely you will see that they never crowd each other. I think they parcel out the territory and allow no competition or encroachment.
A study of the names of the Chinese laundry signs will develop some curious results. I took down in my memorandum book several hundred names from laundry signs and have attempted to classify them… the Lee family seems to be the most numerous, Sing Lee, Sam Lee (very common), Chin Lee, Dewey Lee, Heng Lee, Wing Lee, Hop Lee, (numerous) Wah Lee, (suggestive of the nursery rhyme of the Sierras, “Wah Lee, Chinaman eat dead rats”), On Lee, Shuen Lee, Charlie Lee, ( evidently Americanized), and numberless other Lees…..
One Chinese laundry is as much like another as one pea is like the other pea in the same pod. You go down the stone steps leading into the basement and you see the same almond-eyed pig-tailed monstrosity arrayed in a loose sack, bag breeches, and wooden-soled sandals, handling the flat-iron. The washing is done in the back room, where, as suspected other things not as innocent as washing, are also done. The price is the same in every shop, two cents for collars, four cents for cuffs, eight cents shirts. As a general thing the Celestial does not concern himself with washing female linen…I am told that the laundryman (Chinese) of New York are well-to-do, few being without a bank book, and I am not at all surprised to hear it for the name of the heathen Chinee is synonymous with thrift.
Caricatures were popular forms of ridicule used against Chinese, especially laundrymen, at the end of the 19th century.
In 1901, the St. Louis Republic published two “Chinese Family Robinson” cartoons. The one below imagines the acrobatic rope tricks that Chinamen devised with their queues.
The second one shows a more practical application in which the clever Chinamen are shown using their queues to create a clothesline for hanging laundry to dry.
In contrast to this frivolous, yet insulting, approach, other drawings in popular publications were overtly hostile, depicting aggression and physical violence toward its target, Chinese laundrymen.
By the end of the 19th century, white steam laundry operators intensified their efforts to destroy all Chinese laundries. This goals is illustrated in two examples of the use of advertising that directly attacked the Chinese laundries. The above 1907 advertisement for Jet White Steam Laundry in Charleston, South Carolina, simply urges the avoidance of Chinese laundry in favor of the Jet White laundry which claims to be “the Best.” It was a direct appeal, but avoided the extreme negativity of a 1915 Dothan, Alabama advertisement below. This no holds barred ad used images depicting Chinese laundrymen smoking opium at the top of the ad and them sleeping and eating in the laundry in the bottom of the ad.
In between these images, the text poses questions about whether customers want to have their laundry done in a Chinese laundry where eating and sleeping occurs in the same room as the clothes washing is done. The issue changes from the physical features of the Chinese laundry to the concern that the Chinese send most of the money they earn back to China rather than spending it locally.
Finally, following up the point raised early in the ad about the Chinese never inviting customers to see the interior space of their laundries behind the front partition, the public is cordially invited to visit the Dothan Steam Laundry.
The early domination of Chinese laundries relied on hand irons, which was very laborious and time consuming. At the end of the 19th century, steam powered laundry pressing equipment was changing the business. A Chicago Tribune article in 1901 praised the growth of the steam laundry and concluded that “in Chicago it is driving the Chinaman out of his favorite occupation.”
“Steam laundries are everywhere taking the white man’s washing out of the hand of the Celestials, and is rapidly forcing them out of the washing business. In 1850 there were about 276 laundrys in Chicago and of these but 66 or run by Chinamen… in the new directory, there are shown 459 laundries conducted by white people, most of which are steam, of a total of 707, but 249 are conducted by Chinese, … greatly less than that of half a decade ago.
Steam machinery displayed at the world’s fair made a great impression on Chicagoans… “In no branch was this more marked than in the laundry machinery and after the fair steam laundries began to be started. Popular prejudice was against them for a time. They steam machines were said to tear the garments, to do rough work, to wear things out fast, and to rub the buttons off. They were even said to be used with chemicals, which injured the fibre, and the public was slow to patronize them.
However, the steam laundries reduced the price for washing a white shirt to 4 cents, and that brought flocks of people …”One by one the Celestial laundries disappeared. The shop of the mysterious yellow man will be only a tradition. And a strange tradition it will be, for even now, when everybody goes past a Chinese laundry…there is much that is unknown… When does John Chinaman sleep?…Go by his shop at any time of day or night and you will see him busy over tub or washing board, or seated on the front steps gazing at the same stars he used to gaze at in his home 10,000 miles away.”
“What do the marks on a Chinese laundry ticket mean? It is doubtful if John himself can answer that….Meaning is unnecessary. But it may be that John has a way of describing in his own language the peculiarities of each of his customers in this way, and knows when a man presents a check just what sort of a man he is and whether there is already a grudge against him outstanding.”
“And are all of the workers in the Chinese laundries John, or are some of them Mrs. Johns? And this will never be answered unless some law be devised to require that John wear a label which will enable the Caucasian to distinguish between the two when they are clad in the same style of suits of loose blue stuff.”
“With all the questions, however, John is doomed. Already the bulk of the business is handled by the big steam machines, and soon they will have it all. And then Chicago may have a run of Chinese cooks, or may take to patronizing Chinese restaurants or may lose her Chinese population altogether.”
While it is true that many laundrymen turned to the restaurant business after 1900, and overall there was a decline in the number of Chinese laundries, many adapted and joined the modern age of steam machinery and abandoned the coal heated hand iron and Chinese laundries continued to exist for at least another 50 to 75 years.