In the last part of the 19th century, the Kendall Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island, produced a successful soap with the unimaginative name, “Soapine.”
Trade cards were popular promotional and marketing tools for many businesses during that era and Kendall Company was no exception. In fact, their cards were quite prolific and generally attractive in design. Perhaps the most popular one used humor to show soapine to be effective in changing the dark color of a whale to white (clean).
Nonetheless, Kendall could not resist the social hostility of the times toward Chinese and incorporated a Chinese laundryman with endorsing soapine with a mocking sing song approval in the trade card.
A New York City blogger, Jeremiah Moss, who laments the vanishing landscape of long standing sites of New York City has described the closing of several Chinese laundries. Moss noted that the Greenwich village Chinese laundry of Harry Chong that operated for 60 years no longer exists.
Similarly, Lee’s Laundry in Greenwich Village closed in 2009 after 30 years of operation.
Another New York store, Chin’s Laundry and Dry Cleaning store was slated for sale in 2008.
These are just examples of the disappearance of a business that one was ubiquitous but no longer easily found anymore.
If you look hard enough, however, you can still find a few Chinese laundries still in business as of 2014 such as the four below, but their days may be numbered so patronize them while you still can.
According to one source, the first laundromat opened in Texas in 1934, and it was not operated by Chinese, contrary to the tendency of many to confuse laundromats with Chinese laundries.
Even curators at the Sun Yat Sen Museum in Vancouver make this mistake, as shown in one of their labels on an exhibit.
Usually one thinks of Chinese laundrymen having to do battle with organizations of white owners of steam laundries, labor unions, and discriminatory laws such as the San Francisco prohibition against laundries in wooden buildings (Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 1886). In their communities, they suffered pranks, assaults, robberies, and homicides. Add to that, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the inability to bring wives and children from China, they definitely had a difficult existence.
As if these circumstances were not dire enough, competition among Chinese laundrymen was sometimes fierce. Cut rate pricing offered a way to increase patronage, but at the expense of other laundries. For example, in 1896, Sam Sing, a laundryman in Alexandria, Virginia, accused a nearby competitor, Ah Moy, of sending anonymous obscene letters to Sing’s wife. It was suspected that Moy may have been motivated to send these letters because Sing had cut his laundry prices to gain more business at Moy’s expense. Moy, being single, may have been also motivated by jealousy of Sing who seemed happily married with two children.
Two years later, another bitter battle developed among some laundrymen in Washington that also involved conflict over cut rate laundry prices. Moy Gee You, aka Hop Sing as well as Ah Sing, was the only laundryman offering cut rate prices, which the Chinese laundry union opposed. They retaliated by accusing him of mailing obscene literature. The plaintiffs admit they paid off Moy Gee You to hold the line on higher laundry prices. They charge he did not live up to their price fixing contract, and should be required to refund the money he had received to fix prices.
It is interesting that in both cases, the way chosen to get back at someone was to accuse them of sending obscene mail. You could get your opponent in trouble with the authorities and he would have to spend time and money defending himself.