Perhaps the most celebrated legal victory of Chinese laundrymen was the ruling in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886) in which the U. S. Supreme Court overruled the 1880 San Francisco ordinance requiring laundries in wooden buildings to pay for a permit. The Court ruled that this ordinance violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution because almost all San Francisco laundries were in wood structures, and mostly operated by Chinese. Whereas all white laundry operators, except one, received permits, not a single one was allowed to a Chinese laundryman.
A much less known U. S. Supreme Court case involving Chinese laundryman in 1900 dealt with whether tapioca imported into this country was entitled to free entry or subject to duty under the Tariff Act of 1890. 26 Stat. 567 which stipulated, “Starch, including all preparations, from whatever substance produced, fit for use as starch, two cents per pound.” Chinese laundrymen circumvented paying this duty by using tapioca flour as a starch and it was even commonly known as “Chinese starch.” In fact, even a generation later, “Chinese Starch” for home use was marketed in Canada in 1929 in boxes bearing an illustration depicting a Chinese laundryman ironing a shirt. Although Chinese men stopped wearing queues around the time of the revolution in 1911, the laundryman is still shown with one.
When the Customs Collector in San Francisco imposed a duty of two cents per pound on a shipment of tapioca imported in November, 1893, the Chinese importers claimed that the tapioca was entitled to free entry. The board of general appraisers ruled in their favor and decided that the imported tapioca was free of duty. In turn, the collector unsuccessfully appealed the ruling to the Circuit Court of the United States in the Ninth Circuit, Northern District of California, which affirmed the decision of the board, 77 F. 734.
The collector next appealed, with success, to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where the judgment of the circuit court was reversed, 83 F. 162. However, his victory was short-lived because the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Chinese, Chew Hing Lung v. Wise, 176 U.S. 156 (1900).
This bit of history seems rather quaint today, over a century later, as only a few Chinese laundries exist and those remaining find little demand for starch since detachable collars for men’s shirts requiring starch are no longer in vogue. However, Chinese found a new profitable use for tapioca in the 1980s in Taiwan with the creation of boba for tea beverages that are popular today in many parts of the world.