Chinese Remigrate: Laundrymen Example

Chinese immigrants entered the United States at major ports from the mid 19th to mid 20th century and many found work nearby.  However, it must be recognized that they were often “transient” and moved one or more times to other regions of the country, sometimes to join a family member or friend who offered them work. In other instances, the work they were doing ended and they had to migrate in search of new work opportunities. Some fled racism and violent threats to their lives as in Tacoma, Washington, Eureka, California, Truckee, California, and Rock Springs, Wyoming, to cite a few of the more extreme large-scale instances in the late 1880s.

One example is described in an 1880 newspaper account of the arrival of C. P. Canton and C. Jack, described oddly as “two veritable Chinese” visiting Knoxville, Tennessee, where they might have been the first Chinese ever seen in this town.

1880 2 veritable chinese arrive knoxville1

Coming from Columbus, Ohio, these Chinese came to assess the prospect of opening a laundry in Knoxville. They probably wanted to assess the size of the population and how many laundries they would have to compete with for business.

A check of the City Directory for the 1880s, however,  does not show they opened a laundry in Knoxville. Perhaps they found a more promising town, or simply returned to Columbus where they might have already been running a laundry although it was not listed in the Columbus City Directory.

There is evidence that a few years later other Chinese came to open laundries in Knoxville. It is not known when Hong Lee opened his laundry on Gay Street but it was not a success as it was put up for auction in 1884.

1884 auction hong lee's laundry on gay st..jpg

Chung Wo who ran a laundry on Clinch Street had a dispute with Lee Shoo in 1891 that got out of control.  A violent exchange between what the reporter called “two almond-eyed celestials,” occurred in which Chung Wo wielded a hatchet and Lee Shoo countered with a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other. Shoo fired at but missed Wo. Both men were apprehended and arrested after the fracas.

1891 2 laundryman shoot out knoxville

Two Chinese laundrymen, described as “two celestial pigtails,” were targets of some local boys looking to make life miserable for them. The newspaper reported that some “bad boys” tossed a big firecracker into a  laundry on Clinch Street, where Chung Wo’s laundry was located. This incident was probably not the first nor the last of its kind or worse that Chinese had to suffer in Knoxville and many other communities.

Another Chinese, Wah Lee opened a laundry in Knoxville. in 1890 on Gay Street. There is no evide4nce but it might have been at the site of Hong Lee’s Gay Street laundry that was auctioned off in 1884.

1890 wah lee ldy ad att241 gay st knoxville.png

Wah Lee proved to be a better Knoxville citizen than Lee Shoo and Chung Wo, the combatants cited earlier. The local paper applauded his flag flying patriotism in 1889.

1889 wah lee of gay st knox very patriotic flying flag.png

Hop Sing in 1895 opened the only other Chinese laundry in Knoxville during the 1890s.1895 hop sing 201 vine knoxville.png

Other nearby towns such as Athens, Tennessee, began to have Chinese laundries as a newspaper report in 1899 indicated.

1899 athens to have laubdry 60 miles from knoxv.jpg



Laundry for Sale, Includes Wife

Chinese all over the country would sell and buy laundries from other Chinese for many different reasons, but a most unusual offer of a laundry offered for sale stipulated that the buyer would also acquirer the wife of the seller!

1907 3.8 divorce chin woman at britt divor from hus In 1907, Fong Tin, a laundryman in Britt, Iowa, put his laundry for sale and made the rather unusual inclusion of his wife, May Pond, as part of the deal. His wife thought otherwise and objected strenuously.  The townspeople took her side and berated the hapless Fong Tin who fled the town.

Mrs. Tin Fong t sued for divorce, which was granted. Then she became possibly the first Chinese “laundrywoman” in the country/

may pond fong stem laundru opens

Thanks to Professor Emeritus Dan Kaiser of Grinnell College for calling my attention to this unusual story.

Chinese Begin Move From Laundry to Restaurant Business

Operating hand laundries were one of the few occupations available to Chinese immigrants in the mid to late 19th century. They came to dominate the laundry business, as described in a 1907 news article, until the early 20th century when white-owned steam laundries began to operate.

1907 newspaper describes the widespread presence of Chinese laundries in Brooklyn.


In the 1920s demand for Chinese hand laundry services began to decline with increased competition from white steam laundries. Although some Chinese hand laundries competed by adding steam-driven equipment,  there was growing recognition that there were better opportunities in the restaurant business. Up until the end of the 1890s, Chinese food was unfamiliar to whites. Furthermore, food critics, as well as racists, disparaged the food served in Chinese restaurants. Chinese restaurants were not popular with whites because they did not create “Americanized” dishes initially but served authentic foods popular with Chinese immigrants.

That situation was to change at the end of the 19th century. In 1896 Li Hung Chang, Viceroy from China, was on a diplomatic visit to the U.S. On one occasion he ate at a Chinese restaurant and ate a Chinese dish that was unfamiliar to the news reporters who were covering the Viceroy’s visit. The national press coverage of his positive comments about this ‘new’ dish, chop suey, generated widespread curiosity and interest among the urban “foodies” of the day and they went “slumming” in groups to try it in Chinatowns in New York and other urban areas.

This 1921 drawing in the New York Times depicts the transition from laundries to restaurants starting in the 1920s, but Chinese laundries took several decades before they became virtually nonexistent.

Life in A Chinese Laundry in Tong Wars Era

During the 1920s, battles between rival Chinese tongs often led to attacks with guns, hatchets, and other weapons in major Chinatowns and nearby small towns where Chinese tong members worked as merchants, restaurant workers, and laundrymen.

One day the Hartford, Connecticut newspaper in 1924 devoted the entire front page to reporting on this situation, focusing on the negative impact tong wars had on the lives of one local  Chinese laundryman and his family. It was sympathetic to their plight and tried to present the Chinese family as similar in its concerns and goals as those of a white family.

The laundryman, worried that he might be a victim of a tong hit man, is afraid so he arranges his store to allow customers to leave and pick up their laundry in an antroom to afford him more protection.

Arrangement in laundry designed to protect the laundryman from attack by a tong man.
The young daughters of this laundryman in his store were shy but warmed up to the photographer, but their father would not let his face be photographed.

Our Chinese laundry in Macon, Georgia started around 1885!

My parents came from Hoiping in Guangdong in 1928 to operate the Sam Lee Laundry from until 1956. I never knew or wondered if this laundry where I grew up and helped work had been run by Chinese before my parents came. I am guessing my parents must have met the Chinese who sold the laundry to them in 1928 but do not know if they knew it had a much longer history of Chinese laundrymen.

Many years later, I found an archival picture postcard dated 1906 showing the laundry (right hand edge of the top image below) in the same building where our family worked and lived above the Sam Lee Laundry on Mulberry Street.

Our laundry was the only Chinese laundry in town, and there was no Chinese restaurant, so as you might guess, we were the only Chinese in town, with the nearest other Chinese I knew about being in Atlanta, about 100 miles away. Sam Lee Laundry had a great location in the center of the business district, as shown in about 1952 in the above middle image. Further research of city directories revealed that Chinese operated this laundry at this address as early as 1885. Eventually the laundry building, and the entire block including the historic Lanier Hotel where Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was held for a while after his capture when the Civil War ended, was replaced with a parking structure adjoining a multi-story office building shown in the bottom image.

Although it might have been expecting too much to find an 1885 photo of the laundry, yesterday, I was excited to find an ad with a price list for the laundry in an 1885 issue of the Macon Telegraph.

One surprise from the ad was the list of women’s clothing and family washing because I don’t recall that we ever had a Lady’s List of items for washing. There was an Army camp nearby at Camp Wheeler and we had a lot of business from soldiers stationed there during the early 1940s due to WWII. But most of our customers were males, ranging from businessmen or white collar clothes or working class men or blue collar work.

Chinese Laundries Across New Zealand

The United States and Canada were not alone in having Chinese laundries in virtually every city and town during the last third of the 19th century and continuing well into the twentieth century until there was wide availability of home washers and dryers, new clothing materials that were easier to wash and often not requiring ironing.

A similar situation existed for Chinese immigrants during this period in other countries such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Joanna Boileau, an historian studying the work activities of Chinese in New Zealand published a book, Starch Work By Experts, covering her extensive research on New Zealand Chinese laundries. The somewhat ‘stiff’ sounding title was chosen to focuas on the central role that starch had on laundry work for many types of garments whether for business, leisure, or casual wear.

Her findings are highly consistent with findings about laundries in North America. Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, almost all males left impoverished Guangdong villages to earn a living abroad and send remittances home to support relatives. Most were single, or if married, journeyed without them and planned to return eventually or to bring their families later to join them. Racial prejudices and their threat to white labor by their ‘willingness’ to work for lower wages blocked them access to most forms of work with the exception of laundry work, and in some areas, mining and farming.

As in laundries in North America, the Chinese laundrymen worked in low rent building near the town centers which they also used as their residences. They had long hours working under physically demanding conditions and had limited contact outside of the laundry with townspeople, especially due to poor English speaking skills.

Dr. Boileau speaks about her book in a podcast.

To see images from this talk go to our YouTube page:

Boileau has also researched market gardening, one of the other major occupations among early New Zealand Chinese immigrants. She published Chinese Market Gardening in Australia and New Zealand: Gardens of Prosperity, Palgrave McMillan (2017).

Starch Work by Experts: Chinese Laundries in Aotearoa New Zealand 
For copies @ $49.95, please email

Mocking the Chinese Laundryman

The Chinese laundryman came to be the stereotype of the Chinese in America even though they worked in many other fields. He was an easy target for racist humor that mocked his broken English, different clothing, strange foods, and hair tied in a “pigtail” or queue until 1911 when the Chinese revolution freed them from having to wear queues as a sign of allegiance to the Emperor.

Animation provided an effective means of ridiculing the laundryman. Paul Terry, the creator of Mighty Mouse and inspiration for Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse started with a series of short animated films under a series called Aesop’s Sound Fables in the 1920s as the silent movies were about to yield to the “talkies.”  Most of these films, as best I can tell, were entertaining and not offensive except for  Laundry Blues created in 1930 using a Chinese laundry and its occupants as its target, complete with fake Chinese utterances. The laundrymen are portrayed comically as somewhat clumsy and incompetent klutzes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A second film by Terry is called Chop Suey even though it is also about Chinese laundrymen  (the title screen is in French and the subtitles of the version shown here is in German).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Continue reading “Mocking the Chinese Laundryman”

Lives of Chinese in Grinnell, Iowa, c. 1900 Similar to Other Small Towns Across the U.S.

Until the last quarter of the 19th century, there were few Chinese in the middle of the United States.  This situation began to change after 1869 with the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah. Suddenly out of work, thousands of Chinese laborers had to find their way back to the west coast or find work in small towns in the regions bordering Utah.

Hand laundries were the new primary occupation for Chinese because it required little capital, little training, and at least initially little opposition from white-owned laundries. Once a Chinese opened a laundry, he would need at least one helper, usually a male relative or other Chinese. He might recruit brothers, cousins, fathers, or sons from other parts of the U.S. or from China. If business was not good, he might move to another town.

Chinese laundrymen led lonely and difficult lives of long hours of physical labor. They often were mocked or worse, assaulted, robbed, and even killed. They were mainly bachelors, or had wives who remained in China. Since sexual relationships between Chinese men and white women violated the norms and social values, the Chinese remained unmarried and without children or became involved secretly with white or black women.

An excellent illustration of the process of Chinese laundries originating and growing in small-town America is a historical study of Chinese laundries in Grinnell, Iowa, conducted by Dan Kaiser, a retired history professor at Grinnell College.


1898 Sanborn Map of Grinnell, west side of Main Street, showing 915 and 927 where Grinnell’s first Chinese laundries operated (the former street numbers appear above)

Kaiser gives interesting details about Kim Fong, the third Chinese to open a laundry in Grinnell.

“Kim Fong (1865?- ), the third Chinese to conduct business in Grinnell, was not yet living in Grinnell in 1910, because that year’s census does not include him. By late 1912 Fong was living in Toledo where he had opened a laundry in the basement of the “Infirmary.” At that time Toledo could boast fewer than 2000 residents, whereas Grinnell had a population of more than 5000, which probably explains why in summer 1913 Fong moved to Grinnell.

Toledo Chronicle, August 7, 1913

Said to be 50 years old in 1915, Fong reported having been born in China around 1865. Described as “yellow” by census officials, Fong claimed the ability to both read and write, although he probably meant that he was literate in his native language rather than English—a 1917 newspaper article remarked that Fong had to communicate mainly by signs as he did not speak English (Grinnell Register, August 27, 1917). Like many of his countrymen who operated laundries in Iowa, Fong was married, but lived alone, his wife presumably left behind in China.

Fong did develop some connections in Grinnell, as a 1917 newspaper report indicates. According to the Grinnell Register, in late August 1917 Fong hosted “several friends at a magnificent dinner” at “his home and place of business…under the Annex hotel” (August 27, 1917). The occasion was the arrival in town of Fong Soon, a nephew who, Fong said, would soon begin school in Grinnell. It seems unlikely that Fong Soon did begin school here, however, for I found no other evidence of this young man’s sojourn in Grinnell.

Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, February 3, 1915

One unique or unusual aspect of Kim Fong’s relationship with the community is his invitation to several influential whites to a banquet dinner, described below in superlative terms.  However, one wonders who knew how to prepare birds’ nest soup and whether Grinnell guests might be willing to taste it!

Headline to article in Grinnell Register, August 27, 1917

The evening’s menu included, the newspaper announced, birds’ nest soup, chicken chop suey, “and other Chinese meat dishes foreign to the English language.” Rice, “cooked only as the Chinaman can prepare it,” was also on order, as were “fruits and nuts from far away China, tea of the richest flavor,” all topped off with American cakes.  How the guests learned this much is a mystery, because “Although in this country for seventeen years, Mr. Fong speaks little English and it was necessary that he make himself understood…wholly through the sign language.” Fong’s newly-arrived nephew was no help: he “speaks no English.”

Advertisement in Scarlet and Black, October 15, 1913

Like most of his fellow Chinese laundrymen, Fong resided within his business quarters. No photograph of his premises survives, but it is likely that his laundry was organized in a way that mimicked his fellow Chinese laundry operators. A counter close to the door provided entrance for customers and a place to receive and dispense the laundry, and behind that the workspaces necessary for washing and pressing the laundry. A modest bunk and kitchen would have occupied the rear of the space, and might—or might not—have been made private with a curtain (Jung, Chinese Laundries, p. 132; Paul C. P. Siu, The Chinese Laundryman [NY: New York University Press, 1987], pp. 56-68).

Fong seems to have left no other footprint in the town’s records until early 1920 when owners of the Monroe Hotel Annex announced that they would undertake a serious remodeling, obliging Kim Fong either to move or close his laundry. In a boxed advertisement in the Grinnell Herald, Fong reported that he was closing his business “forever,” and advised customers to hasten to collect their laundry.
He added that he was going to open a chop suey restaurant after he closed his laundry and that he was selling his stock of soap chips from his laundry.
grinnell iow laundry into cafel kim fong .jpggrinnell to get chop suery rest in pl of ldy kim fong

 After the development of steam laundry machines around 1900, the hand-laundry business in America came under increasing pressure. Able to deal with larger quantities of laundry and turn it around faster, the steam laundries could under-price the hand laundries, even if their service was harder on garments. Moreover, associations of power laundry operators attempted to drive their Chinese competitors out of business, arguing for special taxes, restrictions on working hours, and by publicly accusing the Chinese laundries of unhygienic conditions (Jung, Chinese Laundries, pp. 75-89).

Des Moines Register, March 24, 1920

I found nothing quite so boldly racist in Grinnell, but the belittling of Chinese was certainly present. For example, when the Scarlet and Black (March 20, 1920) published Fong’s announcement about quitting his business, the newspaper could not resist adding an aside that made fun of Chinese pronunciation: “Ketchee allee same China-In-Grinnell Leview of Leviews, eh Kim?” Elsewhere Chinese laundrymen encountered assaults, robberies, and other violence that depended upon racist values. Fong Lee, who operated a laundry in Williamsburg, had to fight off a customer who tried to retrieve his laundry without paying, threatening Lee with the lead end of his cane. When Lee pointed a pistol at the man, “the intruder left without his linen” (Ottumwa Weekly Courier, May 27, 1902). In 1923 Nevada, Jim Fong and his family endured firecrackers thrown into their laundry (Nevada Evening Journal, June 20, 1923, p.3). Worse things happened elsewhere.

English-Chinese Phrases for Chinese Laundrymen

Chinese immigrants from the last quarter of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century operated laundries throughout the U.S. and Canada. The popularity of this business among early Chinese was due to several factors. Racial discrimination prevented Chinese from entering many occupations and businesses. The small amount of capital required to start, the low operating expenses, and the ability to function with minimal English language fluency also contributed to the growth of Chinese laundries. On this last issue, several English-Chinese phrasebooks were available as early as the 1880s that covered practical topics of everyday communication including phrases use in obtaining or transferring a store lease.

Other phrases were included for situations where laundrymen had to communicate with customers about their laundry procedures, operation, and ordering laundry supplies.

Perhaps the bane of every laundryman’s existence was the “lost ticket'” which was such a common event that it popularized the mocking, “No tickee, no shirtee.” expression. To locate a customer’s laundry without a ticket was like searching for the proverbial “needle in a haystack,” requiring time lost from work in unwrapping and rewrapping parcels until the customer’s clothes were located. Furthermore, the laundryman had to trust the customer because he was liable if the claimed clothes really belonged to a different customer.