Chinese Laundrymen in New York United in the 1930s To Fight Racism

Chinese laundrymen faced racial discrimination all over the United States, but individual laundrymen lacked the ability, time,  and resources to mount any meaningful opposition. A notable exception was in New York City where several thousand Chinese laundrymen formed the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance in  1933 to fight efforts led by white laundries to require citizenship as well as a hefty license fee for Chinese to operate a laundry. The dominant existing Chinese community organization, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association was ineffective in countering these moves so laundrymen formed this grassroots organization to fight for the survival of Chinese laundries in New York City . It  also rallied financial and political support of China in its struggle against Japanese invasion of China in the early 1930s that led eventually to World War II.  When Communist China rose to power in 1949, the organization, with its leftist leanings, was suspected to be  subversive, leading to FBI investigation, harassment, and accusation of many Chinese in the organization.

A contemporary social activist in New York, Betty Yu, created a documentary, Discovering My Grandfather Through Mao, that describes how the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance came into existence to fight the social injustices Chinese laundrymen in New York City faced during the Great Depression. The film skillfully and artistically blends Yu’s personal quest to discover details of the life of her grandfather who was active in the organization with a depiction of the social and historical context  that limited most early Chinese immigrants in the United States and Canada to work in the laundry business.

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2012 RTHK Documentary Segment on Chinese Laundries

RTHK, Hong Kong’s television company, filmed a 5-episode documentary in 2012 on Overseas Chinese.  The segment from the 7 minute mark up to the 11 min. 45 sec. mark  is especially powerful because RTHK used advanced graphics technology to “animate” the violence depicted in old cartoons from the late 19th century that used Chinese laundrymen as a stereotype to represent all Chinese immigrants.

American Media Use of Racist Imagery of Chinese Laundrymen

An animated cartoon by Max Fleisher in 1929 used stereotypical and derogatory imagery of Chinese laundrymen set to the lyrics of the iconic song “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” which depicted the Chinese with “almond eyes of brown” as opium smokers “driftin to and from in dreamy, dreamy Chinatown.”