On The Relationship of Chinese Laundry Names and Their Owners’ Names

In my book, Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain, I speculated about the origins of Chinese laundry names.  I noted that while some laundries bore the name of the owner, many laundries had names such as Sing Lee or Sam Lee that were often mistakenly assumed to be the names of  the owners.   One of the most common Chinese surnames,李, is Lee in English. Sing Lee and Sam Lee being two of the most common Chinese male names in the U. S. from around 1900 to 1920.   Most men named Sing Lee and Sam Lee ran laundries. In a sample of 50 Chinese named Sing Lee and 50, Sam Lee, in the 1910 census, 73 percent were listed as laundry heads. Many Chinese did not speak English well so census takers may have sometimes inferred their names from examining their laundry names, thus inflating the number of laundrymen named Sing Lee and Sam Lee.

In Chinese,  the ideograph for the common Chinese surname, Lee, sounds like “li,”the Chinese character 利 that means ‘profit.’  Thus,  a laundry might be named Sing Lee because “Sing” which refers to “victory,” when  combined with “Lee,” translates  to “victorious profit.”   The Chinese  ideograph, 三,  for the number three is pronounced “Sam” and when combined with “Lee” 利 connotes making a three-fold  or triple profit.  Thus, the owner of a “Sam Lee Laundry” is not necessarily someone named “Sam Lee,” but customers might readily make the assumption that it was.   Thus, many laundries used names that represented a form of wishful or magical thinking, a belief that its name might contribute to financial success.

For example, my father owned a Sam Lee Laundry and even though his Chinese name was Lau Kwok Fui and he adopted Frank Jung as his American name, he was commonly known as “Sam Lee” by townspeople, an error that  he felt no need to correct.  A similar disparity probably exists for many Chinese laundries, but proof would have to come from interviews with owners as it can not be confirmed from official records.  Thus, examination of City Directories can help identify the names and addresses of Chinese laundries, but the name of the owner is not specified.  In contrast, U. S. Census records can help identify the names of Chinese who ran laundries but they do not specify the names of their laundries, only their addresses.  And, to make matters more difficult, sometimes Chineses names are misspelled, misheard, or illegibly recorded. Census data is sometimes incomplete because the enumerators could not locate some Chinese residents who may have been absent or in hiding, fearing deportation if they lacked proper papers.  Discrepancies between owner names and names of their laundries might also occur when there is a new owner.  The existing name of an established business might be retained instead of using the new owner’s name for continuity, and to save the expense of a new sign.

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