One of the most prevalent names for Chinese laundries has been “Sam Lee Laundry.” On a personal note, I grew up in one in Macon, Georgia, and I was surprised to later discover similarly named Chinese laundries all across North America. “Sam Lee” was not usually the name of the proprietor of such laundries, even though in U. S. Census records you can find a few “Sam Lees” listed as the operator of a Chinese laundry. Actually “Sam Lee” is the transliteration of the Chinese for “triple profits,” an example of wishful thinking on the part of the laundryman who chose such a name. But many customers, as well as some census enumerators, just assumed that the owner’s name was indeed, “Sam Lee.”
Today, there are very few Chinese laundries left, Sam Lee or otherwise named, for many reasons. Recently I discovered via the web that a Sam Lee Laundry was still in business in Lambertville, a small New Jersey town near Philadelphia. The 1910 census records show that a laundry at 12 Church Street was run by a Chinese “named” Sam Lee, although as noted above, that may not have been his actual name. In the old photograph below of Church Street from I guess around the 1950s, you can’t see the laundry, looking toward the historic Presbyterian church at the end of the street, but the second photograph shows the laundry as it currently stands at 21 Church Street on the opposite side of its earlier location at No. 12.
Eventually, immigrants from China, Mon Wai Louie and his wife, Chun Nui, became its owners around 1950 and retained its name as Sam Lee Laundry. A Trenton, New Jersey, newspaper article featured the Louie family in a 1974 story about how their family celebrates Chinese New Year.
That was 40 years ago. Mon Wai Louie and his wife certainly would have retired by now. I was amazed it was still in business as Chinese laundries faced a serious threat from the widespread availability of home washing equipment, as noted in a 1987 newspaper article in which Mon Wai Louie was interviewed about the future of Chinese laundry businesses.
Somehow, the Sam Lee Laundry in Lambertville managed to stay in business. But I wondered if it was still run by Chinese. Perhaps a non-Chinese had acquired the laundry and simply retained its original Chinese name. My curiosity led me to phone the laundry to find out. I discovered that Chinese still ran the Sam Lee Laundry. John Louie, one of the six Louie children, was its fourth generation owner and continuing the family laundry business, which had been operating for over a century! I don’t know if there are any other Sam Lee Laundries operating today, but this one is, and it could well be the very last one in existence.