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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Chinese Laundries in Charleston, S. C.

Charleston was a thriving city of the Deep South during the middle 19th century. Like other southern cities, there never were more than a few Chinese in Charleston where almost everyone was either black or white. In 1888, Charleston had 22,699 whites and 27, 285 coloreds, which included only nine Chinese.

Among the first Chinese listed in the 1880 census for Charleston was William Ah Sang, recruited for his knowledge of Chinese tea to work in a prosperous teashop. The aristocratic members of Charleston during the 19th century held Chinese decorative art and home furnishings in high regard and promoted the growing “China Trade.” A few missionaries brought Chinese boys to their homes as domestic servants. However, most early Chinese in Charleston owned or worked in laundries. The City Directory showed that from 1870 to 1973, there were as many as 17 laundries between 1900 and 1909 when they peaked. In the 1920s the number began to dwindle, leaving only 2 in the 1960s. The first Chinese restaurant opened in the 1920s but there were never more than 3 at any time before 1973.   One Chinese grocery store existed as early as the 1870s but there was never more than one during any decade before the 1970s. By 1899, strong hostility toward Chinese laundrymen had developed in Charleston as illustrated by a newspaper article, “Too Many Chinese,” that called for increased license fees for Chinese laundries, which were dominating that business. The article quoted the reaction of one laundryman protesting the unfairness of the increased fee by arguing that Chinese did not make trouble like the blacks or Mexicans who also paid no license fees at all.

Although the Charleston writer of the following passage describing Chinese laundrymen in a letter printed in 1886 was referring to his observations in New York City, it reflects prevalent negative attitudes about the Chinese in many regions of the country.

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Anti-Chinese laundry Views

A white-owned Charleston steam laundry published an ad in 1915 attacking the Chinese hand laundries because it felt they were taking work away from Americans,

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The ad criticized the Chinese for sending money back to China and not spending locally to help the American economy. Finally, the charge was made that Chinese laundries were unsanitary.

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A Chinese Counterattack

One Chinese laundryman, J. S. Wah did not passively tolerate this attack on Chinese laundries. He fired back with an ad of his own entitled, Perfectly Sanitary in which he implied that the charges in the Greenwood Steam Laundry ad was an instance of ‘sour grapes.’

1915  JS WAH rejoinder agst white ad

Wah cleverly deflected the charge of the steam laundry ad, “We are glad to know that the Greenwood Steam Laundry keenly feels our competition…We live here too, and spend our money in Greenwood.” He diplomatically closed his ad by thanking customers for their business and promising the “same good service that we have always given.” Clearly, J. S. Wah was no dummy with respect to public relations! Moreover, he was not only adept at defense, but expert in taking the offensive as shown in his ad promoting his laundry.

4 busin good

Attitudes toward Chinese laundries were not hostile everywhere in South Carolina in 1915. In the small town of Edgefield, a newspaper article expressed pleasure in welcoming its first Chinese laundry. It reported the plans of John Wing, who operated a laundry in Savannah for 17 years, to open a first-class Chinese laundry in Edgefield. The article proclaimed, “…we believe it (a Chinese laundry) is an innovation that will be cordially welcomed.”

fEdgefield welcome

Robbery and Physical Harm of Laundrymen

Although most communities accepted Chinese laundrymen, but not as enthusiastically as in Edgefield, the Chinese were often at risk for robbery and violence.  In 1928, Charley Loy, a laundryman was robbed and murdered. Four black men were arrested and sentenced to die in the electric chair for his murder. This was not an unusual case. Chinese laundrymen, working late and often alone, were often prime targets for robbery, assault, and homicide. In the same year, two Chinese laundrymen suffered were attacked and robbed in their laundry in Spartansburg, S. C.

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Were Chinese Treated As Black or White?

Few Chinese men in Charleston or elsewhere in the South had Chinese wives with them due to immigration exclusion laws prohibiting laborers from bringing their wives and children from China. In Charleston there were five known instances of Chinese men marrying non-Chinese women, 2 white and 3 of mixed race. Whereas children of Chinese married to white women were treated as white, and allowed to attend white schools, those of Chinese married to mixed race women were considered as black and restricted to black school.

Around 1947, one Chinese, Chung Lum, married to a light-skinned colored woman, devised a strategy for getting their children admitted to a white school by changing his racial identity to distance himself and his children from his mother and siblings. They associated only with whites, attended a white church, and he worked as a Chinese interpreter for the Chinese embassy. This strategy worked for a while in getting the children into a white school but the following year they were prohibited when someone anonymously revealed that other members of Lem’s family attended a black school.

In contrast to the second class status of working-class Chinese and their children in Charleston until the middle of the twentieth century, students coming from China to attend college were warmly accepted, Six Chinese from well-to-do families were cadets at The Citadel from 1926 to 1932.

For a detailed study of Chinese in Charleston: Li, Jian. A History of the Chinese in Charleston. The South Carolina Historical Magazine, (1998) 99, 1, 34-65.

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Life in a laundry is long and lonely

chin ldy lady Bud Glick CT gallery

Photographer Bud Glick included several excellent photos from inside a Chinese laundry (#14-#17) in his online photo gallery of New York Chinatown taken about 30 years ago. This photo of a woman, possibly the laundryman’s wife, says more than words can tell about her long and tiring days in the laundry. An excellent interview of Bud Glick discloses how he approaches the people in his photographs and shows his sensitivity to their feelings.  He shares a remarkable anecdote in which a Chinese man, moved after viewing some of Glick’s photos, decided to send Glick a photo of himself when he was a young boy, not knowing that it had been taken by Bud Glick some 30 years earlier.  The original negative had been destroyed in a fire, so Glick no longer had this photo until this providential contact occurred.

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