Chinese laundries across the state of North Carolina in the late 19th and early 20th century sometimes received newspaper coverage. Some stories simply reported the opening or relocation of a laundry, while others dealt with human interest accounts of some of the laundrymen and their lives. Some laundries paid for small advertisements of their services and prices in some towns. Other articles covered grim topics such as a suicide, homicide, assault, or robbery as well as gambling or drug and narcotics use and sales. These articles provide evidence of the extent of Chinese laundry presence in this part of the country that is greater than what census records might suggest. For example, in 1900, 37 Chinese were listed in the census, almost all were in laundry work, but usually 4 or 5 men (often listed as sons, cousins, brothers, nephews) worked at a given laundry. Thus, one might expect no more than 10 laundries using this staffing estimate. A 1913 International Business Directory of Chinese businesses listed only two Chinese laundries in North Carolina but that is misleading because a fee was probably required for listings.
In 1879 at a time when Chinese and their laundries were generally reviled across the U. S. and Canada, there were places which welcomed them. For example, in Milan, TN., the local paper opined how welcome a Chinese laundry would be and hoped one would come to town.
After the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law passed, illegal Chinese were subject to arrest and deportation. When some smuggled Chinese laundrymen in Augusta, GA. were apprehended in 1904, people in nearby Edgefield, SC. were encouraged by the hope that some Chinese laundrymen would come to their community to replace their “very unreliable” washer-women
Edgefield soon got its wish, but didn’t need to have one of the Chinese dispatched from Augusta. The news was that John Wing, of Savannah, an experienced laundryman of 17 years had already ordered improved machinery for the opening of Edgefield’s first Chinese laundry shortly.
In 1914, Welch, West Virginia, was delighted to “at last” have Sam Kee open a Chinese laundry next to the livery stable.
In 1884, just after the Chinese Exclusion law went into effect, Winston (later, Winston-Salem) NC was eager to have a Chinese laundry so that it could show what an ethnic diversity they had, according to a newspaper report in the Weekly Raleigh Register. The article showed that Winston already had “Canadians…Jews… Indians… but lacked “the pig-tailed celestial.”
Although Chinese laundrymen were being driven out of western states at the end of the 19th century, they increasingly moved to the South and East in search of better places to set up business which welcomed them, even if for questionable motives.
From the 1880s Chinese laundries were often attacked in many ways for decades. They were condemned not only for taking jobs from Americans but for sending their profits back to China rather than spending it in the U. S. Chinese laundries were depicted as unsanitary and dangers to the health of customers. (In addition, Chinese laundrymen were robbed, assaulted, and even killed).
A white-owned steam laundry in Greenwood, South Carolina, made these points in its 1915 rant against a local Chinese laundry.
The presumed target of this screed was J. S. Wah, a Chinese who took the high ground in his measured reply, “Perfectly Sanitary,” published the following week in the local newspaper. Wah turned the tables on the Greenwood Stem Laundry by describing its complaints as the whining of a sore losing rival. He concluded by emphasizing that he contributed to the Greenwood economy and thanks his loyal customers.
When I was growing up in Macon, Georgia in the 1940s, my parents operated the only Chinese laundry in town. As a child, the thought or question never entered my mind once as to whether there had been any Chinese laundries or other businesses there before my parents came to Macon in 1928. It was not until 1956 on the eve of my father’s retirement and move to San Francisco when the local newspaper published a commentary with a headline, “Not A Chinese in Our Town for the First Time in A Century,” that I ever considered the possibility that other Chinese had been in Macon before 1928.
As I was only 15 years old then, this realization piqued by interest, but only momentarily and it was not until about 60 years later that I decided to search archival resources to learn what I could about these earlier Chinese in Macon. Much to my surprise, I found over 30 newspaper articles dealing with the dozen or so Chinese men who had all operated laundries in Macon from 1885 until 1928 when my parents came from China. There were no Chinese women or children during this period so my mother was the first Chinese woman and I and my 3 siblings were the first Chinese children born in Macon. I report my findings in this downloadable linked document, Chinese Laundrymen in the Heart of Georgia (1885-1956).
Many people seem to confuse “laundromats” with “laundries” even though there is a world of difference between them. Many early Chinese immigrants operated “laundries” from the last quarter of the 19th century well into the middle of the 20th century. At first, these were hand laundries but eventually many of them adopted steam powered presses and washing machines in place of scrub boards and heavy charcoal heated hand irons. In either case, the Chinese laundryman washed and ironed the clothing items for the customers.
Today, these full service “laundries” have been largely replaced by “laundromats” and home washing and drying equipment. Laundromats are designed for customer self-service and use coin-operated individual machines. They provide no ironing equipment or services.
Nonetheless, the tendency to use the term, “laundromat,” as an equivalent of laundry persists. I wonder if ‘cafeteria’ will come to substitute for ‘cafe’ someday!
I was excited, and also a bit envious, to discover that San Diego placed a marker on a building in the historic Gaslamp Quarter which housed the Hop Lee Chong Laundry, which was in continuous operation from the building’s construction in 1923 until 1964.
In contrast, I grew up in the Sam Lee Laundry in Macon, Georgia, which started back in 1885 and operated in the same building, (on the right edge of the photo below), until 1956 when my father sold the laundry, retired, and moved to San Francisco .
Sometime, probably in the 1970s, the historic building was demolished and converted into a parking lot, which stunned me when I saw it on a visit in 2004. I saw no historic marker at the site!
A few years later, the street level open air parking lot was “upgraded” to an enclosed parking structure, but there was still no historic marker! Maybe sometime in the future?
Driven out of many occupations and blocked from entering many other lines of work in the late 19th century, many Chinese immigrants began to open small hand laundries all across the country starting in the 1880s. As they proliferated, white steam laundries (as well as black washerwomen in the South) found the Chinese were stiff competition with their low prices and long working hours. Laws and license fees that were biased against the Chinese laundries were passed.
Chinese laundrymen, because they had poor command of English, dressed differently, and adhered to Chinese customs were targets of mockery, ridicule, vandalism, and pranks. Moreover, they were easy targets for robbery because they worked late into the night, generally in isolated parts of town, with only one or two men in the shop. In many instances, they might suffer physical harm and wounds. Indeed some even died from beatings and shootings.
Instead of listing some of the numerous instances of such victimization reported in newspapers, I will use the story of one Chinese who opened a laundry in a small town, Wellington, Ohio in 1884. He worked alone, or possibly sometimes had one helper. The details of his laundry life come from the extensive research of a blogger who has been a long time resident and local historian in Wellington.
Robert Walden, a local historian of Wellington had a slight acquaintance with Wah Sing probably in the 1890s. In 1954, some of his memories which may not be entirely accurate after probably about 50 years, were printed in the local paper. His anecdotes can’t be verified but they provide examples of how Wah Sing was likely mistreated in Wellington and how these abuses were viewed with amusement by Walden.
“Walden related one incident of a man connecting an electric battery to the wire clothesline, for the express purpose of giving Wah Sing a mild shock. For reasons he didn’t explain, Walden and his wife were in “an upstairs window” watching as the laundryman touched the line and received jolt after jolt. “What he said probably was unprintable, but being in Chinese we had no translation, excepting through the intensiveness of his antics. Someone upstairs laughed. Waugh looked up and probably grinned, for then he understood that his friends up there were having fun with him” (#A117).
Walden immediately followed with a story of a woman offering Wah Sing a hot green pepper to eat at Bowlby & Hall’s grocery store. His physical distress is presented for comic effect: “Mis Doty, get a doctor! Get a doctor quick. Belly burny like a helly!” Walden later poked fun at the laundryman’s supposed ignorance by relating an anecdote about Wah Sing attending the Methodist Church–after repeated pleas from a local woman who wanted “to save him from the burning”–and asking after the collection, “What’s the matter with that Jesus Christ? Him always broke” (#A118).
The most obvious act of exploitation that Walden related was one he claimed to witness personally. While leaving his own laundry, he observed a woman entering with a bundle of clothing. “‘Waugh,’ she said without any preliminary, ‘I want them tomorrow without fail. Understand?’ The Chinaman made no response nor indicated that he had heard. The young woman walked out of the room. In the doorway she turned and again demanded, ‘Understand?’” After she left, Wah Sing explained to Walden that the woman carried over washing from American House clients two to three times each week, and never paid him a cent for any of his work (#A118).”
Wah Sing, according to the local paper, on one occasion was approached by several boys who wanted to sell him some dead rats. Clearly negative stereotypes of Chinese are learned at an early age. Another misfortune he suffered was being swindled out of $300 that he loaned to another Chinese man. Wah Sing also was robbed and beaten on one occasion in his laundry.
Late one spring night, William Gulde and Clinton Wadsworth… beat and robbed the proprietor of the Chinese Laundry. The article describing the assault was oddly titled, “Celestial,” a term used in connection with Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century, because China was traditionally known as the Celestial Empire. “Chinsing [i.e. Wah Sing] has the reputation of being a very quiet man and would do nothing to harm anyone and their unceremonious departure at that hour of the night from the business room of an inoffensive foreigner and the condition of his person and room will be a hard matter for the boys to explain away satisfactorily to an intelligent public” (3-18-1891, pg. 5).
Walden wrote that Wah Sing left behind a son in China, who wrote to him in English and had been planning to come to America to attend school. “Waugh, we understood, was saving every penny he could for this boy and to return to China himself” (#A118).
Wah Sing grew old and lonely, and as a consequence began to drink and gamble. The timing of his decline is unclear, but according to Walden’s recollections he was still alive until at least 1915. “For years of toil and saving, the mystic cord of love had bound him to his old home and son in China. Once he had returned there for a visit, but it was obvious now that it was broken or too attenuated to draw him back again. Because of the Chinese exclusion [sic] Act, he could not bring any member of his family to America had he so desired and he chose not to go back there himself” (#A119). Walden claimed that Wah Sing died in an opium den in Cincinnati. I have no way of checking the truth of this, at least at present, and do not know what year he died or how old he was.
One of the thorniest problems in studying Chinese immigrants is the inconsistent recorded spelling and variants of the same name. The Wellington blogger realized this problem but initially assumed that the several different names found in newspaper accounts referred to the same Chinese, and so, for ease of communication, he was always referred to as “Wah Sing.” However, upon finding additional newspaper articles from the 1890s and beyond, the blogger came to suspect that these names referred to different Chinese laundrymen and that Robert Walden had possibly combined memories about different Chinese into one laundryman. The latter newspaper articles suggest that Wellington had as many as possibly 9 different Chinese laundrymen, though not all at the same time. One Chinese might have sold the laundry to another when he failed to turn a profit, retired, or moved to some other town. Thus, the man who came to be called “Wah Sing” was a “composite” based on events that happened to the collected 9 laundrymen. An extended discussion of these later findings appear on the Wellington blog.
The blogger added findings about Chinese laundries in other parts of Ohio, and the stories validate the impression that the story of “Wah Sing” tells.
I found mentions of other Chinese laundries operating in nearby Oberlin and also in Newark, Ohio, about ninety miles south of Wellington (near the state capital, Columbus). The article about Newark was denouncing a series of attacks against “a couple of respectable Chinese laundrymen” in that town, in which white patrons were actually hiding explosives in their own laundry.