When Laundrymen Returned to Visit Home Villages

When Chinese laundrymen made visits back to their home villages, there was the expectation that they had made small fortunes on Gold  Mountain when in fact most of them had lives of daily hardship with meagre income.  As noted by Leong Gor Yun in a 1936 book, Chinatown Inside Out, to save face, they would often describe their work as operating “garment stores” instead of washing dirty clothes.  “To make a good impression they collect trunks and trunks of old rags, worn-out shoes, hardware and junk.  The more trunks they take the wealthier they look.”  They would bring gifts for relatives, which they could barely afford, to fit this image.

ct inside red cover

However, Hong Kong Chinese considered them as simpletons from the Golden Mountain and victimized them with extravagant prices. “Their poor relatives, close and distant, live off them for a few months until the “wealthy” air cools off.” They were expected to provide a grand feast for the entire village and relatives from other villages. “This marks them as the local boys who made good across the ocean.” As they departed to return to their dreary lives on Gold Mountain, some left money for villagers or for building a house for relatives.

In a separate commentary I made about Chinatown Inside Out and its author Leong Gor Yun, I noted that there is some question as to who Leong Gor Yun is or if the name might be fictitious.

Why Chinese Laundries Use No Machinery (1892)

An 1892 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch explained the reason why Chinese laundries, save one, did not use machinery. It rejected the view of many people that Chinese did not believe in machinery and preferred to do laundry by hand.

The real reason, according to the article, is that “Chinese laundrymen cannot get laundry machinery for either love or money. Each piece sold is with the solemn promise that it shall never fall into the hands of the Chinese competitor.” Thus, white laundry equipment makers and white laundry owners conspired to keep machinery out of the hands of Chinese laundrymen. The article did acknowledge that at least one Chinese somehow obtained laundry equipment for his Birmingham, Alabama laundry.

ImageThis revelation, even if perhaps exaggerated, is of personal interest and pride! The parents of Young Quan, a distant relative of mine, owned a laundry in the 1930s in Birmingham near the cited cross streets that very well could have been the one mentioned in the article!


A White Southerner’s 1886 Impressions of New York’s “Heathen Chinee”

                  A white man from Charleston, South Carolina, made a visit to New York City in 1886 and his impressions of many aspects of his trip were published in the Charleston newspaper, including his unflattering comments about Chinese laundrymen. Excerpts of what he wrote are presented here.     

The Heathen Chinese

The almond-eyed Celestial who does the washing and dry starching for New York and the neighboring cities, is to me a constant study. You will see his sign, a modest red sign with white letters over a basement shop in almost every street. Every sign is exactly like every other sign, just as every Chinaman, (to the average American eye) is like every other Chinaman.  They’re very thick in certain parts of the city, but if you will observe things closely you will see that they never crowd each other.  I think they parcel out the territory and allow no competition or encroachment.

A study of the names of the Chinese laundry signs will develop some curious results. I took down in my memorandum book several hundred names from laundry signs and have attempted to classify them… the Lee family seems to be the most numerous, Sing Lee, Sam Lee (very common), Chin Lee, Dewey Lee, Heng Lee, Wing Lee, Hop Lee, (numerous) Wah Lee, (suggestive of the nursery rhyme of the Sierras, “Wah Lee, Chinaman eat dead rats”), On Lee, Shuen Lee, Charlie Lee, ( evidently Americanized), and numberless other Lees…..

One Chinese laundry is as much like another as one pea is like the other pea in the same pod. You go down the stone steps leading into the basement and you see the same almond-eyed pig-tailed monstrosity arrayed in a loose sack, bag breeches, and wooden-soled sandals, handling the flat-iron. The washing is done in the back room, where, as suspected other things not as innocent as washing, are also done. The price is the same in every shop, two cents for collars, four cents for cuffs, eight cents shirts. As a general thing the Celestial does not concern himself with washing female linen…I am told that the laundryman (Chinese) of New York are well-to-do, few being without a bank book, and I am not at all surprised to hear it for the name of the heathen Chinee is synonymous with thrift.