Chinese Laundryman “Spies”?


Chinese dominated the laundry business in the late 19th century. White steam laundries were larger but Chinese hand laundries generally managed to compete successfully for many years. Chinese laundries succeeded despite discriminatory laws, unfair taxes, and other regulations against them.

Some white laundry organizations, in desperation, went further by filing allegations to the immigration authorities that some illegal Chinese were posing as laundrymen but were actually spies. Exactly what they were spying on and for whom is not clear.

The National Archives has a file of correspondence between Bureau of Immigration headquarters, field offices, and public parties.  The early correspondence (1918-1926) did not trigger any substantive investigation by the Bureau. However, the accusations contained in correspondence from 1927-1928 led to several investigations in New Haven, Connecticut, St. Louis, Missouri, and Butte, Montana.

The Bureau’s correspondence file stressed the difficulty of large scale raids from both logistical and legal standpoints, noting that without strong prior evidence that a particular Chinese alien was illegally present, it was difficult to initiate deportation proceedings and unintended consequences could follow.

Later correspondence (1930-1935) contained numerous letters from the Laundryowners National Association and from other laundry owners lodging complaints against Chinese competitors. However, the only detailed investigation from this period took place in Oakland, California and nearby Alameda County.

This file of correspondence illustrates the challenge faced by the Bureau in responding to public pressure from an established industry trying to compete with the Chinese and the difficulty the Bureau had in enforcing provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act and other immigration laws.

Sundry File on Investigations of Chinese Laundries Allegedly Employing Illegal Chinese Aliens, 1918 – 1935

ARC Identifier 2225898 / MLR Number A1, 323, A1, 9-A (…)

File Unit from Record Group 85: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787 – 2004