Creating Negative Images of The Chinese Laundryman

A Chicago newspaper, Daily Inter Ocean, published an article in 1876,  “The Heathen Chinee as an Element of Chicago’s Population,”     that depicted Chinese laundrymen in unflattering terms. These views were typical of how Chinese laundrymen were portrayed across the country then and they persisted for many decades.

“They come here, live on the cheapest of food in the most penurious style, the least expensive lodgings, and the most cheerless way. John’s habits are not perhaps inclined to be extravagant…. He brings no money with him, when he returns to China he takes whatever he has accumulated. It is not as though he came here to live, or, as we say to settle.”

A description of the manner of dress of the Chinese laundryman included the following:

“There is first the inevitable blouse… John can get into this habit easier than he can get out. Then he wears the everlasting round hat…usually black. He has to carry it on his head so as to conceal his back hair… Now he has the wooden-soled shoes, that make the cobblers swear a civilized oath at John’s cupidity and bookmaker. And the pantaloons have been shaped nicely by the former owner who was on the pawn. If it is a warm day John will have on his heaviest muffler. He always looks cold.”

Chinese laundryman

From Samuel Adams Drake, The Making of the Great West (1887)

The article recognized the low income and difficult living and work conditions:

“A laundry can in brisk times will earn $8 to $12 and even $15 per week. … the average is close to $6 and $7….And so their $6 or $8 a week goes a long way and stay when they got there. … They still feast, rice that is the chief article. The Chinese laundryman always has his downtown apartments in the basement. Why this is cannot be explained except that basements are cleaner, less convenient, more unpleasant, and a good place for rats. It is a basement, and a more illy lit, worse ventilated, dank, and unhealthy place could scarcely be found. in fact, one is apt to think that John rents such a place because it is cheap. Not a picture adorns the walls.”

“Only the slips of paper with hen tracks on them are to be seen. This is Sam Lee’s bookkeeping according to Confucius. On one side of this nameless apartment are arranged “bunks” in seafaring style. The pallets are hard, the clothes rude, and the Chinaman loses what little of veneration we entertained when we entered the doorway . The kitchen is also the dining room, and the dining room, to economize is united with the drying room. The entire outfit is less comprised of a pair of rooms, the rent which is cheap, and the condition of which makes them uninhabitable by any but Chinamen.”

The method Chinese laundrymen used to moisten clothes for ironing was a frequent source of condemnation.

“The Celestial takes the water in his mouth and diffuses a gentle spray over the linen, while he puffs and fizzes and blows like a porpoise…With his pucked up mouth and the effervesing sound escaping from his lips, he reminds one of the Parisian cook in the French restaurants squirting grease over the top of a pot of hot water to give it a rich look and palatable to the throat of the lunch-room epicure.”


The Chinese laundryman was a strong stereotype that led to ridicule by whites. Laced with humor and hostility, images of an emasculated male were portrayed in the media. Savage political cartoons evoked violence toward Chinese laundrymen


wing wing starch box image

In 1922, the children’s section of the Los Angeles Times newspaper printed a cut-out toy of a “Chinese laundryman,” Lee Ling, that had moveable arms that could be attached to a broom and a wash tub lever.

Lee Ling C

Many similar mocking representations of the Chinese laundryman were pervasive in popular culture through pop songs, advertising images, and movies. These negative stereotypes fostered long lasting public attitudes that were detrimental to Chinese throughout the U. S. and Canada.

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