White and Chinese laundry kids learn from each other

Not many people, aside from Chinese friends and relatives, get to go beyond the front counter of a Chinese laundry into the work space or crowded living quarters usually found in the back or upstairs above the laundry. If they did, they might be surprised, as was true for a white school boy who many decades later wrote on his blog about his memories of his invitation by a Chinese girl, Mae, to join her family for dinner one evening. It was a valuable experience as he learned to appreciate or understand how people different from himself live.

In his 2010 blog post, David Farside wrote about the Chinese laundry down the street from where he lived, noting that:

“As kids we always joked about how they slaughtered the English language, how they dressed, their diet and how many of them lived huddled together in back of the sweat shop.”

He had invited a daughter of the Chinese family with whom he enjoyed a friendship to his 8th birthday party. Mae did not bring a present as all the other kids did, which he assumed was because her family was poor, but instead she gave David a written note at the end of the party inviting him to dinner with her family that evening in the laundry.

His mother was unsure whether it was safe for him to go, but David insisted on going. At the laundry he was greeted and led “through the maze of hanging clothes, ironing mangles and washboards to the back of the shop.”

In the back yard, he saw a shack that was “Covered entirely with sheets of corrugated metal, it appeared to be an old garage for auto repairs.”  Upon entering the shack he found: “The whole family was seated on the floor around a huge teak circular lazy susan covered with food. They all sang a Chinese happy birthday song and I sat at the seat of honor for the feast. I couldn’t tell what I was eating, except for the rice. But after 65 years I can still taste the delicacies I shared that day.”

After the meal, David recalled enjoying cultural activities and entertainment that were unfamiliar but captivated him.  He recalled going home and telling his  father he would never have guessed the Chinese possessed so much wealth, education, skills and kindness. His father listened for awhile and said, “David, things are never what they appear and I hope you always remember what you learned tonight at the Chinese laundry.”

Farside concluded: I learned about art, aesthetics, mysticism and the true meaning of life.  So dad, wherever you are, I always remembered my best birthday gift of all. I remember what you taught me and what I learned that night at the Chinese laundry.

David’s reminiscence was touching and illustrates how close personal interactions can correct misconceptions we might have about people from other backgrounds.

Here is a link to David Farside’s 2010 blog if you want to read the entire post.                https://davidfarside.wordpress.com/tag/chinese-laundry/

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to see what Mae learned about white people from her interactions with David as there surely must have been some surprises for her as well.

As an example of what a Chinese laundry kid could learn from personal contact with a white classmate, I can share my own experience with Richard, a Jewish schoolmate who was my best friend in grammar school.  Richard and I often walked home together as we both lived toward the business district of Macon, Georgia, whereas all the other kids in our class lived in the opposite direction. Richard and I would sometimes go inside his family’s apartment, which was the first, and only, white residence I ever visited while growing up.  His parents were both business people and their apartment was very nicely furnished, unlike the living space above our family laundry which was just two storage rooms with a sink with only cold running water but no toilet. We had dilapidated beds, several wood chairs, one table, to double as a dining table and a place to do homework, and sevral apple crates repurposed to serve as nightstands, storage spaces, and bookcases. As Richard’s parents were well-to-do, Richard had many nice toys, especially his Lionel electric trains, which I envied as I could only afford inexpensive wind-up trains by Marx.

Richard also had a black “nanny” who cooked meals, cleaned the apartment, and supervised Richard until his parents came home. Even though it was only about two blocks from Richard’s apartment to our laundry, his parents would often insist on giving me a ride home if they were headed in that direction.  Since we never had a car, it was a real treat to ride in a nice car even if only for two blocks!

Had it not been for my friendship with Richard, I would have never seen the inside of the home of any white classmate.   I had no real idea of the furnishings and arrangements inside a home other than from looking at furniture store window displays of dining, living room, and bedroom furniture although  I had a vague idea from some movies that had some scenes inside homes.

So, just as David Farside made discoveries of how Chinese laundry families lived from his visit to Mae’s laundry, I learned much about the American living space from my visits to Richard’s apartment.

 

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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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