Anna May Wong and her laundry roots

The story of Anna May Wong, the talented pioneering Chinese American actress, is one of overcoming many obstacles and disappointments.  She achieved superstar status despite being relegated to roles that were stereotypical of Hollywood’s  image of  Chinese women as either sex kittens or as sinister Orientals.

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Unknown to most, Anna May Wong grew up in her father’s Sam Kee Laundry in Los Angeles, and she dreamed of escaping to become an actress.

“We were always thrilled when a motion picture company came down into Chinatown to film scenes for a picture,” she recalled in 1926. “I would worm my way through the crowd and get as close to the cameras as I dared. I’d stare and stare at these glamorous individuals, directors, cameramen, assistants, and actors in greasepaint…” Continuing her flashback in another magazine, she said: “And then I would rush home and do the scenes I had witnessed before a mirror. I would register contempt, shame, reproach, joy, and anger. I would be the pure girl repulsing the evil suitor, the young mother pleading for her baby, the vamp luring her victim.”

She found work as an extra in Hollywood, and eventually got parts in movies while still in her teens before becoming a star.  Even when cast in leading roles, she never got to kiss the romantic lead as she played ‘second fiddle’ to a white actress in such movies.  She was passed over for a white actress in the starring role in The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck’s epic story of the struggles of Chinese peasants.

Anna may Wong and Sam Kee laundry

She broke barriers in becoming an actors, not only those imposed by Hollywood, but also the cultural norms and expectations for women among the Chinese community.  As noted in the newspaper, her father was ‘disgusted’ with his daughter’s career as an actress.

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A Chinese Laundry…in China

Chinese laundries could be found any where that Chinese immigrant men went in the diaspora of the late 19th and early 20th century. It became a stereotypical occupation for Chinese, which was somewhat surprising because in China, it was women, not men, who washed the family laundry, as shown in an archival photograph from from the University of Bristol from Nanking in the 1930s.

chinese laundry in China

Further indication that men in China did not do the washing of clothing is an observation published in a white laundry trade journal by a white man who had spent many years in China.  He noted that there were no “regular” or commercial laundries in China but yet “nine out of every ten Chinamen who come to this country open laundries” despite their lack of experience doing laundry in China.

no china laundries

Chinese immigrants were not laundrymen in China

This paradox occurred because Chinese immigrants were denied opportunities to work in many occupations for which they were qualified due to anti-Chinese sentiment. By default, they became laundrymen because whites gave  little or no initial opposition to the Chinese operating hand laundries to wash and iron clothes.

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Chinese Laundries and Advertising “Humor”

Chinese laundries have been used in many advertisements, usually in a way that pokes fun.  One old print ad for a home washing machine shows several Chinese men, presumably laundrymen, standing around it with a puzzled look.

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A television commercial in the 1970s for a laundry product suggests that the Chinese laundry used it for getting washed clothes to be white. Playing on the idea of China being an ancient civilization, the laundryman tells his customer that he uses an “ancient Chinese secret.”

The Chinese laundry serves again as the stage for a 2014 commercial for a bluetooth headset in an audacious scenario replete with racist taunts from a white customer who berates all the Chinese in the laundry. It is definitely not your bland 1950s commercial, but ends with a bold but violent resolution.

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Chinese laundries, horoscopes, and Donald Trump!

set of sam lee laundries

I suppose you can take several ideas or topics at random and find some way to show that they are more or less “connected” but I was somewhat startled to find someone had posted a comment entitled “21-22 Degree Sagittarius: A Chinese Laundry (and Donald Trump’s Moon) to one of my blog posts that connected Chinese laundries with Donald Trump via the horoscope

21 to 22 degree Sagittarius locates in the Leo decadent (10-degree divisions within a sign) and the Leo duad (2.5 degree sections within a sign). It is the 21st degree of Sagittarius and 1st degree of the decadent, therefore carries the energy of numbers 3, 7, (3×7=21), and 1.

People and matters contacting this degree identify themselves passionately with –or against – an individual, a ethnic or social minority group that’s underprivileged or prosecuted. The social climate that supports such discrimination and injustice is often prejudiced, hypocritical, unreasonable, and going against the universal value of fairness and equality.

Due to Leo’s influence, there is also a strong dramatic element associated with these unjust events. Spreading of falsehood, or some sort of a “creative” effort, is often involved.

On the opposite side of same coin, this symbol speaks of the bitterly oppressed and those who take on the thankless job of cleaning up the aftermath of epic misdeeds. At its higher expression, this degree allows profound understanding of the deep rooted injustice and societal wrongs, and take courageous action to counter such atrocities.

Some famous people with 21-22 Sagittarius degree in their chart are:

  • Donald Trump (moon), whose hard-line and controversial stance of deportation of illegal immigrants marks the flagship issue of his presidential campaign.

 

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A Bargain Buy of A Chinese Laundry

When the Chinese in Seattle, as in many other west coast cities, were literally driven out of town in the late 19th century, they were lucky to escape with their lives and had to abandon their businesses and belongings.  So what happened to the property of the fleeing Chinese?

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Documentation of one case from Seattle might not be applicable to every instance, but is suggestive of what may have happened in many cases.

An interview in 1938 of Mrs. H. Scoville, born in England in 1863, captured her memories of the riots against the Chinese in Seattle in 1886 and her description of the lucrative windfall her husband and she received when they bought a Chinese laundry at a bargain price.

A CHINESE LAUNDRY AT A BARGAIN SALE “What I remember best about the early days in Seattle in the Chinese riots in 1886.
“My husband came home one Sunday morning and told me an officer from the Home Guards had come into the church and commanded all the men to report for duty at once.
“There were a number of Chinese in Seattle then, some running laundries, others having cigar stores, and so on. The people of the town had become incensed at the idea of Orientals being allowed to carry on business when Americans needed work

“The Committee of Fifteen had told the Chinese that they must go, get out of town, by a certain date. A steamer from San Francisco would be in the harbor on that date, and they must go aboard.
“The Chinese began selling off their goods and equipment. My husband and I decided to buy a laundry. We knew nothing about the laundry business but we thought we could learn.
“We bought the laundry and all the equipment for almost nothing, and opened for business. We prospered, the business grew fast, and we never regretted buying a laundry at a bargain sale.”

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Chinese Laundrymen Were Targets of Derision in 1930s Animated Films

One popular 1930 animated film by Terrytoons portrays workers in a Chinese laundry but is given the misleading title, Chop Suey, probably because of the popularity of that Chinese restaurant dish.  The association of Chinese with opium smoking is depicted by showing two mice going to a Chinese laundry where they buy opium.

The cartoon depicts the laundry operation as an assembly line of robotic ironing. best Mangle shot chop sueyThe cartoon animation shows a a Rube Goldberg-like mangler squeezing out excess water after washing items.

Another film, one of a series of  animated films starting in the 1930s by a Disney animator, Ub Iwerks, featuring Flip the Frog (who looks more like a mouse) titled Chinaman’s Chance shows Flip and his dog tracking an escaped criminal, Chow Mein, who disguises himself as a laundryman.  His dog follows the scent of Chow Mein to the “Ob Long” Chinese Laundry.  Flip confronts Chow Mein with a WANTED poster containing his likeness. Chow Mein pretends to be a laundryman by ironing clothes but the dog exposes him.

chinaman chance flip frog at laundry doorchinaman chance frog confronts laundryman

For a while, Chow Mein gets the upper hand, and for a moment is able to stab Flip who is lying on the ironing board, but eventually Flip and his dog prevail and Chow Mein is placed back in jail.

china m chance laundryman stabbing frogflip captures Chow mein in Chin Chance

Aesop’s Fables Laundry Blues (1930) is yet another animated view of Chinese laundrymen that mocks and insults them for laughs.

Aesop Fable Laundry blues 1930,jpg

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Two Women, Possibly White, Buy A Chinese Laundry

white women buy CHinese laundry 1962

  When Chinese laundries change owners, the typical situation involves new or younger Chinese buying the business of a retiring Chinese laundryman.  In 1962, however, the Decatur, Illinois newspaper reported that Mrs. June Lafferty and Mrs. Shirley J. Mann, who don’t seem to be Chinese, bought the Sam Lee Laundry that allegedly dated back to 1865 at 152 S. Main Street and renamed it, June and Shirley’s Hand Laundry.

However, according to a 1903 newspaper article, there were no Chinese listed in the first City Directory of 1871, with the first listing of a Chinese laundry occurring in 1883-4 for Joe Hop Hing who had a laundry at 152 S. Main Street.  Note that this is the same address of the Sam Lee Laundry the two women bought in 1962.  However, in 1883-4, the City Directory shows that Sam Lee Laundry was at 145 E. Prairie Street and a few years later at 149 E. Eldorado St.

Another inconsistency in the information is that the 1900 census records indicated that Joe Hop Hing did not immigrate to the U. S. until 1890, so if that is correct, he could not have operated a laundry in Decatur as early as 1883.

1900 chin laundrymen decatur IL

Interestingly, when I further researched the earlier history of the Sam Lee Laundry that was sold in 1962, I discovered there had been several other Chinese laundries in Decatur at the turn of the last century. However, they soon disappeared, possibly due to competition with white-owned steam laundries.  The 1903 news article reported that there was already a large decline in the local Chinese population:

chinese in decatur gone

The Hop Hing Joe laundry was reportedly part of a “trust” or part of a set of laundries in different cities that was operated by Chinese who had some financial and or family ties. This trust was alleged to be run by Hop Hing, and headquartered in St. Louis, but I could not verify this claim. Historian Huping Ling, author of Chinese St. Louis does mention a Chinese named Hop Hing in connection with his arrest in 1914 for manufacturing opium, and again in 1915. It does not seem likely that he is the head of the trust mentioned in the Decatur newspaper.

hop hing trustThe local newspaper noted in 1944 that business was ‘booming’ for the three Chinese laundries still operating.  It acknowledged Sam Lee as the “Dean of Chinese Laundry Men.”

decatur IL 1944 2 Ch laundries

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