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.

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