Driven out of many occupations and blocked from entering many other lines of work in the late 19th century, many Chinese immigrants began to open small hand laundries all across the country starting in the 1880s. As they proliferated, white steam laundries (as well as black washerwomen in the South) found the Chinese were stiff competition with their low prices and long working hours. Laws and license fees that were biased against the Chinese laundries were passed.
Chinese laundrymen, because they had poor command of English, dressed differently, and adhered to Chinese customs were targets of mockery, ridicule, vandalism, and pranks. Moreover, they were easy targets for robbery because they worked late into the night, generally in isolated parts of town, with only one or two men in the shop. In many instances, they might suffer physical harm and wounds. Indeed some even died from beatings and shootings.
Instead of listing some of the numerous instances of such victimization reported in newspapers, I will use the story of one Chinese who opened a laundry in a small town, Wellington, Ohio in 1884. He worked alone, or possibly sometimes had one helper. The details of his laundry life come from the extensive research of a blogger who has been a long time resident and local historian in Wellington.
Robert Walden, a local historian of Wellington had a slight acquaintance with Wah Sing probably in the 1890s. In 1954, some of his memories which may not be entirely accurate after probably about 50 years, were printed in the local paper. His anecdotes can’t be verified but they provide examples of how Wah Sing was likely mistreated in Wellington and how these abuses were viewed with amusement by Walden.
“Walden related one incident of a man connecting an electric battery to the wire clothesline, for the express purpose of giving Wah Sing a mild shock. For reasons he didn’t explain, Walden and his wife were in “an upstairs window” watching as the laundryman touched the line and received jolt after jolt. “What he said probably was unprintable, but being in Chinese we had no translation, excepting through the intensiveness of his antics. Someone upstairs laughed. Waugh looked up and probably grinned, for then he understood that his friends up there were having fun with him” (#A117).
Walden immediately followed with a story of a woman offering Wah Sing a hot green pepper to eat at Bowlby & Hall’s grocery store. His physical distress is presented for comic effect: “Mis Doty, get a doctor! Get a doctor quick. Belly burny like a helly!” Walden later poked fun at the laundryman’s supposed ignorance by relating an anecdote about Wah Sing attending the Methodist Church–after repeated pleas from a local woman who wanted “to save him from the burning”–and asking after the collection, “What’s the matter with that Jesus Christ? Him always broke” (#A118).
The most obvious act of exploitation that Walden related was one he claimed to witness personally. While leaving his own laundry, he observed a woman entering with a bundle of clothing. “‘Waugh,’ she said without any preliminary, ‘I want them tomorrow without fail. Understand?’ The Chinaman made no response nor indicated that he had heard. The young woman walked out of the room. In the doorway she turned and again demanded, ‘Understand?’” After she left, Wah Sing explained to Walden that the woman carried over washing from American House clients two to three times each week, and never paid him a cent for any of his work (#A118).”
Wah Sing, according to the local paper, on one occasion was approached by several boys who wanted to sell him some dead rats. Clearly negative stereotypes of Chinese are learned at an early age. Another misfortune he suffered was being swindled out of $300 that he loaned to another Chinese man. Wah Sing also was robbed and beaten on one occasion in his laundry.
Late one spring night, William Gulde and Clinton Wadsworth… beat and robbed the proprietor of the Chinese Laundry. The article describing the assault was oddly titled, “Celestial,” a term used in connection with Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century, because China was traditionally known as the Celestial Empire. “Chinsing [i.e. Wah Sing] has the reputation of being a very quiet man and would do nothing to harm anyone and their unceremonious departure at that hour of the night from the business room of an inoffensive foreigner and the condition of his person and room will be a hard matter for the boys to explain away satisfactorily to an intelligent public” (3-18-1891, pg. 5).
Walden wrote that Wah Sing left behind a son in China, who wrote to him in English and had been planning to come to America to attend school. “Waugh, we understood, was saving every penny he could for this boy and to return to China himself” (#A118).
Wah Sing grew old and lonely, and as a consequence began to drink and gamble. The timing of his decline is unclear, but according to Walden’s recollections he was still alive until at least 1915. “For years of toil and saving, the mystic cord of love had bound him to his old home and son in China. Once he had returned there for a visit, but it was obvious now that it was broken or too attenuated to draw him back again. Because of the Chinese exclusion [sic] Act, he could not bring any member of his family to America had he so desired and he chose not to go back there himself” (#A119). Walden claimed that Wah Sing died in an opium den in Cincinnati. I have no way of checking the truth of this, at least at present, and do not know what year he died or how old he was.
One of the thorniest problems in studying Chinese immigrants is the inconsistent recorded spelling and variants of the same name. The Wellington blogger realized this problem but initially assumed that the several different names found in newspaper accounts referred to the same Chinese, and so, for ease of communication, he was always referred to as “Wah Sing.” However, upon finding additional newspaper articles from the 1890s and beyond, the blogger came to suspect that these names referred to different Chinese laundrymen and that Robert Walden had possibly combined memories about different Chinese into one laundryman. The latter newspaper articles suggest that Wellington had as many as possibly 9 different Chinese laundrymen, though not all at the same time. One Chinese might have sold the laundry to another when he failed to turn a profit, retired, or moved to some other town. Thus, the man who came to be called “Wah Sing” was a “composite” based on events that happened to the collected 9 laundrymen. An extended discussion of these later findings appear on the Wellington blog.
The blogger added findings about Chinese laundries in other parts of Ohio, and the stories validate the impression that the story of “Wah Sing” tells.
I found mentions of other Chinese laundries operating in nearby Oberlin and also in Newark, Ohio, about ninety miles south of Wellington (near the state capital, Columbus). The article about Newark was denouncing a series of attacks against “a couple of respectable Chinese laundrymen” in that town, in which white patrons were actually hiding explosives in their own laundry.