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.

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