Chinese Laundries: What’s in A Name?

The highest frequency of names of Chinese laundries involved “Lee” as in Sing Lee Laundry or Same Lee Laundry.  However, the laundryman was not named “Sing Lee” or “Sam Lee” as many customers assumed.  Lee, or Li, referred to the concept of “profit” and not to a clan name of Lee.  Examination of the written Chinese character for Lee in a laundry name clearly shows the reference is to monetary rewards, and not to a clan name.  Sam Lee was not only not a “Lee” but his first name was not “Sam.”  Sam refers to the number three in Cantonese.  Thus, Sam Lee really means “triple or three-fold profit.”  One could think of it as wishful thinking that if a prosperous sounding name was used, the laundry might live up to its name.

Of course, there were thousands of Chinese laundries, and some were indeed named after the owner or perhaps the location of the store.  One of the more unusual names was the Square Deal Laundry in New York on 69th Street near 1st Avenue.  A 1931 photograph of the Square Deal Laundry was kindly sent to me by Shallesh Saigal.

Square Deal Laundry NYC 1931

Clearly, this laundryman understood marketing psychology. Everyone wants a “square deal,” a concept promoted by President Theodore Roosevelt in his presidential campaigns. The typical customer is more interested in getting a square deal than in whether the laundryman makes ‘triple profits.”

Note also that even as early as 1931, the laundry sign shows dry cleaning service was offered. In addition, the laundry offered mending and darning, services which seem to have gone out of style today.

Out of curiosity, I wondered how the 69th Street neighborhood has changed since 1931.  The google map suggests that the Square Deal Laundry gave way to become part of the site where a MacDonald’s now sits.

You might say that the “Square Deal” has become a “Happy Meal”!

69th and 1st 2015

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Chinese laundry bags? You got to be kidding!

The once ubiquitous Chinese laundries that could be found in virtually every town a century ago did not have ‘laundry bags’ but the concept captured the imagination of some nonChinese.  Although I don’t know where the hotel was located, I discovered the ‘laundry bag’ blow that at least one hotel provided to guests to place outside their room in the hallway if they wanted to have any clothing items laundered.  My guess is that it dates back to the 1930s or earlier.

hotel laundry bag from Steve DaoThe laundry bag contained the image, more or less, like a dummy wearing a bellboy cap that had a smiling Chinese face. Even though the hotel probably did not employ the services of a Chinese laundry, it used the Chinese laundryman image to make sure the hotel patrons knew what the bag was for.

Another laundry bag that was marketed for sale as late as 2005 did not bear any images of Chinese faces.  The designer was content to place the words, Laundry Bag, on it in English, and in Chinese.  The ad copy praised the Chinese for their prowess in laundry work and bragged that Chinese even “perfected the bag,” which allegedly had “a mystic, irresistible appeal.’ Appealing to another stereotypical view of Chinese, the ad noted that the bag did not come with a fortune cookie.

duluth trading co. laundry bagA contemporary attempt to mock the Chinese with stereotypes involved marketing a laundry bag that combined the Chinese laundry with the Chinese restaurant. This laundry bag that bore the image of a Chinese restaurant take-out box and the ad copy included comments such as follows:ad copy

chinese take out laundry bag Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 11.05.08 AM

So, even though the Chinese laundry has largely vanished from the American landscape, it continues to live on through feeble efforts that perpetuate stereotypical views of Chinese.

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Sex and the Bachelor Chinese Society

Historians note that early Chinese immigrants were primarily males.  Many were bachelors, or if married, left their wives and children, if any, in China while they worked in other countries to send remittances home to support their families. This situation was reinforced in the U. S. by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion laws that were extended until 1943 and in Canada by the Head Tax in 1885 that did not end until 1923 only to be replaced by a Chinese Exclusion Act that did not end until 1947.

Not much has been studied about the sex lives of these bachelor Chinese men.  The general unavailability of Chinese women, aside from prostitutes, greatly reduced their sexual relations with Chinese women, and consequently, a dearth of children. Moreover, racial prejudices against Chinese limited their prospects of forming heterosexual unions, short or long term, with white women. Prejudices of the Chinese themselves led to disapproval of Chinese men who had heterosexual liasons with black women.  Clearly, these circumstances affected the sex lives of these bachelors and may have increased their involvement in sexual activities that society disapproved.

For example, some incidents publicized in newspapers suggested that some Chinese laundrymen were pedophiles or suspected of luring children into their shops for immoral purposes. Less attention seems to have been directed toward homosexual partners among Chinese, or for the few Chinese women here, lesbian relations,  Yet, given the circumstances the Chinese faced in North America in the 19th and early 20th century, it would have been more surprising if there had not been homosexual or lesbian relationships.

A thoughtful dramatization of how societal conditions could have contributed toward homosexual relationships among Chinese immigrants is am excellent 1996 film by Richard Fung, cleverly titled, Dirty Laundry with commentary by historian Nayan Shah.  

dirty laundry richard fung title screen

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One of the Last Remaining Chinese Laundries Today

at sam sing laundryExcerpt from 2012 RTHK (Hong Kong) documentary on Chinese laundries.  After showing some media examples depicting extremely hostile attitudes toward Chinese laundrymen, I make  a visit to the Sam Sing laundry in West Los Angeles, one of the few remaining full service Chinese laundries still remaining to interview retired owner Jon Wong. Sam Sing Laundry was also featured in a CBC (Canadian) radio documentary on Chinese laundries in 2011.

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Soapine and anti-Chinese laundry trade card

In the last part of the 19th century, the Kendall Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island, produced a successful soap with the unimaginative name, “Soapine.”

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Trade cards were popular promotional and marketing tools for many businesses during that era and Kendall Company was no exception. In fact, their cards were quite prolific and generally attractive in design. Perhaps the most popular one used humor to show soapine to be effective in changing the dark color of a whale to white (clean).

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Nonetheless, Kendall could not resist the social hostility of the times toward Chinese and incorporated a Chinese laundryman with  endorsing soapine with a mocking sing song approval in the trade card.

Soapine.. Boston publ library

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Fast Disappearing Chinese Laundries of New York City

A New York City blogger, Jeremiah Moss, who laments the vanishing landscape of long standing sites of New York City has described the closing of several Chinese laundries.   Moss noted that the Greenwich village Chinese laundry of Harry Chong that operated for 60 years no longer exists.

harry chong nyc

Similarly, Lee’s Laundry in Greenwich Village closed in 2009 after 30 years of operation.

Lee's laundry greenwich village

Another New York store, Chin’s Laundry and Dry Cleaning store was slated for sale in 2008.

Chin's 2008 nyc W 13th St]These are just examples of the disappearance of a business that one was ubiquitous but no longer easily found anymore.

If you look hard enough, however, you can still find a few Chinese laundries still in business as of 2014 such as the four below, but their days may be numbered so patronize them while you still can.

1503 white plains NY 2014 benny louie 2014 laundry  13th st nycchin laundry 199 nassau 110 Montague NYC 2014 chin hand laun

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First “Laundromat” Opened in 1934 Long After Chinese “Laundries” Started

According to one source, the first laundromat opened in Texas in 1934, and it was not operated by Chinese, contrary to the tendency of many to confuse laundromats with Chinese laundries.

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Even curators at the Sun Yat Sen Museum in Vancouver make this mistake, as shown in one of their labels on an exhibit.

laundromat error label

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