A Chinese Laundryman’s Fantasy of Revenge?

          Chinese laundrymen not only suffered from unfair laws and taxes and physical violence to the point of death, but even children often tormented them with mischievous acts such as throwing mud at washed clothing that a laundryman had hung outside  to dry before ironing.  Social commentators were sometimes sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese with satirical cartoons in magazines and newspapers such as the one below by Frederic Opper.

           Although many would find that the laundryman’s actions in the cartoon would probably be warranted as ‘sweet revenge,’  any such actual retaliation by a Chinese would have been like jumping out of the frying pan, or wok, into the fire. Offer’s scenario could only be but a fantasy.A Chinese Laundryman s Revenge Fantasy

The Hard Life of A Laundryman, Yee Jock Leong (1884-1936)

An in-depth look at the difficult life of an individual Chinese laundryman can be more revealing than generalizations about Chinese laundrymen.  Even though the details will vary with individual laundrymen, there were many common challenges and obstacles that most of them shared from the immigration process, operating a laundry, being separated from family in many cases, and struggling to earn a living in the face of racial prejudices.   The detailed look below at the life of Yee Jock Leong serves as  a good example.  A great grandson, David M. Lawrence,  created a website,  (accessed December 11, 2012), that provides  a detailed chronology of his life and a description about many aspects of his difficult life. Copies of his immigration file documents and other photographs are included on the website. As a “bonus,”  Lawrence, a journalist-writer-geographer-scholar of considerable talent, created a valuable webpage that provides a Chinese genealogical resource .

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Yee, 1905

Yee was born in San Francisco in 1884 but his father took him back to China when he was still a child.  At age 19, he returned to the U.S. for two years but in 1905 he went back to China to marry.  Yee then returned alone to the U. S. in 1908, leaving his wife and son behind.


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Yee, 1914

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   Yee’s Certificate of Identity, 1915

By 1914, he opened his own hand laundry in Irwin, PA., and in 1915 he married an American of Chinese and Mexican descent.   They moved and opened a laundry in 1920 in Dayton, Ohio, but struggled financially during the Depression.  He went to Chicago seeking work without much success for a few years while his wife stayed in Dayton to manage the laundry.  He finally returned to Dayton to run the laundry until he died in 1936 at age 52 of tuberculosis.

A remarkable legacy of Yee Jock Leong is the set of three address books containing over 100 names. Other Chinese immigrants may have also had such documents, but no one has collected or published them and many were probably discarded or lost.  In the case of Yee Jock Leong, thanks to his great grandson, all of the entries were scanned individually and listed in a searchable database that includes an index to facilitate the examination of the names and addressed entered in English and accompanied sometimes with Chinese characters.  The entries included many Chinese names of people who lived in or near Ohio, which is not surprising since that is where he spent many years.  Some of the entries were business contacts including laundry supply houses, button sellers, plumbers, etc.

addr book index

Many of the entries were names of individual Chinese names representing Chinese in stores such as restaurants, laundries, merchandise, and groceries located all over the U. S. and Canada and a few in other countries.  In addition, there were entries for Chinese associations such as On Leong in several cities.

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We do not know, and probably will never learn, what the relationship was between Yee Jock Leong and the many individual Chinese listed in his address books.  How often did they correspond, and what did they say?  How often did they meet in person?  How many were relatives, friends, and casual acquaintances?  Despite the lack of such information, the address books are rare evidence that shows that even though he was isolated from a Chinese community in Irwin, PA. and Dayton, Ohio, he managed to build a sizeable and widely dispersed network of Chinese contacts.

“Laundromat” is NOT a synonym for “Laundry”

Sometime around the 1950s, laundry service became available for people who wanted to save some money and time washing and drying their clothes in small individual washing machines in  “laundromats.” Initially, laundromats were entirely self-service but  eventually some laundromats provided the option of having an attendant wash, dry, and fold the laundry for the customer.

Before the laundromat was ‘coined,’ so to speak, people either did their laundry at home or took it to a ‘full service’ laundry where you could have your laundry washed and ironed in a few days. For a while in the early 1900s, it was the primary self employment business for Chinese immigrants.

In the last half of the past century, laundries gradually disappeared as most homeowners own home washing machines and dryers. Laundromats still exist to serve apartment dwellers or others without their own machines.  As a result, today,  many people think that  “laundry” and  “laundromat” are interchangeable or equivalent terms.  But that would be like thinking a meal prepared from scratch was the same as a frozen t. v. dinner.  Nothing could be further from the truth!

It is interesting to add, however, that a specific laundry business might be converted into  a laundromat over time.  Thus, as demand for full service laundry diminished, one might convert a laundry into a less labor intensive laundromat.  In the photograph below, Tom’s Laundromat in Washington, D. C. appears to be such an example (although I have no documentation).  Notice that even though the primary, and hand painted, signage indicates it is a “laundromat,” a place which does washing and drying but no ironing, the faded signage at the top of the store window indicates it was once a full service “laundry.”    Image