Monthly Archives: June 2013

Inside A Chinese Laundry

CBC  (Canada) Radio Visits The Sam Sing Laundry

I met producer Yvonne Gall of Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) Radio when I spoke in Vancouver at a fundraiser for Foo’s Ho Ho Restaurant  in 2010.  She was intrigued by the descriptions I included of what it was like to grow up in a Chinese laundry, which led her  to decide to make a documentary about the experiences of children in Chinese laundries.

Sam Sing window

In 2011 Yvonne came from Vancouver to interview me at my home in southern California. Afterwards, I took her to visit to one of the few remaining Chinese laundries in the area, the Sam Sing Laundry.  Present owner Albert Wong, a third generation descendant of the original owner, showed us the interior of the laundry.

cbc radio

The interior space of Sam Sing Laundry, as the photographs below attest, is cluttered and cramped from wall to wall, a condition that  was fairly typical of Chinese laundries.  Laundrymen, like other Chinese immigrants, were frugal and pragmatic as they struggled to survive.  Nothing was discarded if it might possibly be eventually useful.

clutter

Albert also spoke briefly about the history of Sam Sing Laundry, which is included in the hour long CBC audio documentary, Chinese Laundry Kids. 

 Scenes from CBC Radio Visit to Sam Sing Laundry

RTHK-TV Hong Kong Visits Sam Sing Laundry

rthk vid

In 2012,  RTHK Hong Kong Television made a 5-hour documentary on Chinese in North America.  I served as a consultant for producer Annie Yau who created episode 4, which dealt with Chinese laundries and restaurants.    The Sam Sing Laundry again proved to be a valuable resource as it is a living “museum” or laboratory for examining the work and living space that Chinese laundries served for hundreds of Chinese immigrants over many decades.

I took Annie and her film crew to the Sam Sing Laundry where they filmed my conversation with Albert Wong’s father, Jon Wong, who operated the Sam Sing Laundry for many decades.  He spoke about the history of this business that was started by his grandfather in 1900, which is a small part of the hour-long 2012 RTHK video documentary.

gfather

Early History of Sam Sing Laundry

The building that housed the Sam Sing Laundry, as was true for many other Chinese laundries, was also where owners and their families lived in other sections of the building.  Not only did this arrangement reduce expenses, but it also enabled owners to guard the premises against theft, vandalism, and fire. Living in the laundry also provided safety from physical assaults Chinese might encounter if they had to travel from the laundry after they closed to reach their residences.

The photographs  of the living quarters of the Sam Sing Laundry in the linked collection below show the kitchen and eating areas as well as the family room.  The walls are lined with family photographs including grandparents and parents in China as well as children and grandchildren. Framed diplomas of the academic achievements of the descendants are proudly displayed.

living

side room

Other Scenes from: Sam Sing Laundry Living Quarters

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Before There were Chinese laundries

Doing laundry is a chore, and something no one looked forward to doing.  Before Chinese came to enter the laundry business, domestic servants, typically poor immigrants, or in the South, black washerwomen were the ones who did the laundry.  In the late 1800s there were a few reported ‘clashes’ between Chinese and blacks over the threat of competition.  In actuality, Chinese did laundry for working men whereas black washerwomen were doing family clothing and household linens so the conflict was short-lived. The bigger threat to black washerwomen was white steam laundries, which often raised fears that having laundry done by black, as well as Chinese, was a health risk.

A dance performance that recognizes the lives of black washerwomen, The Clothesline Muse, is being planned for next year by jazz singer, Nneena Frelon, with a documentary produced by Lana Garland.  To gain perspective on the role of laundry work of Chinese, I was interviewed in my home recently by them: Getting ‘Shot’ In My Home.

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Chinese Laundry Kids

chinese-laundry-poem.gif

Chinese hand laundries once were a fixture in every town and city throughout North America. They were so common place that the occupation of “laundryman” became the stereotypical Chinese occupation. Laundrymen were socially isolated, often living in remote areas where there were few other Chinese. They endured a life of drudgery and faced continual racial hostility and prejudice.

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Why did so many Chinese immigrants turn to operating laundries?

They were first attracted to North America by the gold rush of the mid 1800’s and were later hired to build the railways in both Canada and the United States. But when the gold rush ended and railroad construction finished, the Chinese immigrants were no longer wanted.

They gravitated to jobs shunned by the white community, jobs like washing clothes. But hostility and racism persisted and was often expressed in violence and sanctioned by law. They were socially isolated and struggled to deal with a growing tide of racism. Despite these obstacles, the Chinese laundryman persevered and they endured so that their children would have a better life.

In this hour-long broadcast by Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) Radio, producer Yvonne Gall explores the legacy of these Chinese pioneers through the stories related by four children who grew up in their parents’ laundries.

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