Art and the Chinese Laundry

Chinese Laundry by Dong Kingman

Chinese American artist, Dong Kingman (1911-2000) was born in Oakland, Ca. where his father operated a laundry. He became a leading watercolor master and was on the forefront of the California Style School of painting with his urban and landscape paintings as well as his graphic design work in the Hollywood film industry. In the 1950s, Kingman served as a United States cultural ambassador and international lecturer for the Department of State.

dong kingman of Oakland laundry

Sam Lee and his daughter (1961)

American artist Andre Joseph Grill (1916-1985) would use a semi-rigid cardboard that the Sam Lee Laundry in downtown Racine, Wisconsin used as backing for folded pressed shirts as  a ‘canvas’ for some of his small oil paintings.   Out of financial necessity the artist used any available and suitable surface for his paintings. One of these paintings done in 1961 was of Sam Lee holding his young daughter in front of his laundry. The laundry card paintings were done in the late 1950s through the early 1970’s.

Sam Lee ands daughter 1961 Andre Grill painting

I was fortunate to stumble upon the painting on a website gallery of Andre Grill’s paintings created by his daughter, Penelope, who generously granted permission to post it here.  She told me:

” I remember as a child riding along in  the car while my father dropped off and picked up freshly laundered shirts. It was a weekly ritual. My father re-purposed the cardboard  inserts that the shirts were folded around as painting surfaces. He  must have bought a large number of these cards directly from the  laundry because he produced many delightful paintings on these  surfaces. I was excited when I found the Sam Lee Laundry painting  among many other artworks as I was preparing selections to ad to the  Andre Grill web site. I suddenly became aware that the laundry was the  source of all the card stock he had painted on.”

“Our town Racine, Wisconsin, had a population of about 80,000 in the 1950s and had only two Chinese families. One family had the laundry  and the other family had “House of Lem” restaurant. They were very  brave to make a life in a place like Racine, so isolated from their  culture.”

 Chinese Family Laundry by Mian Situ

Born in Guangdong province, Mian Situ studied painting in China before he moved to Canada and then to the United States.  Many of Mian’s paintings are of the people of the small villages and farming communities in the countryside of his native China going about their daily lives, and some of his later work centers on the work  of early Chinese immigrants in America such as doing laundry.

mian Situ Ch fam laundry

Homage to the Heart exhibition by Brenda Joy Lem

Brenda Joy Lem  explores her family history and the threads that connect generations using fragments from the history of her family’s immigration from China and the hand-laundry business they operated in the 1930s, layered over family and archival images. As with all early Chinese immigrants, Lem’s grandparents came through the Victoria/Vancouver port when they arrived in Canada over 100 years ago, and that history provides a basic context for the gallery installation.

Brenda Lem exhib homage to heart

Beyond The Chinese Laundry: The Clothesline Muse

The Clothesline Muse is a multi-media theatrical performance that acknowledges the vital role that laundry work played throughout history to provide economic opportunities for those who were denied better opportunities in society such as black women, Irish women, and Chinese men, as acknowledged in this short excerpt from a discussion about this  Tribute to Black Washerwomen

clothesline muse talkback
To view video excerpt, CLICK on the link above the image (not on the image)

The Clothesline Muse

The Clothesline Muse is a creative project conceived by jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, choreographerKariamu Welsh and visual artist Maya Freelon Asante. each artist distinguished in her own right in her respective discipline.  The recent premier of The Clothesline Muse was at The Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia.  The artistic trio  hopes to tour their production around the world.

“The clothesline is a deep and wide metaphor for the ties that bind us, for the work of our mothers and grandmothers and what they sacrificed for us to have a better future,” says Maya Freelon Asante.  The clothesline is also a metaphor for games young girls historically would play after the washing had been done, taking down the clothesline for duty as a skip rope in the double dutch or hand-clap game.  “It also leads us to the future. If you think about saving the Earth, if you think about natural ways to save energy and ways to be green, then we’re right back where we started with the clothesline as well. So there are multiple metaphors what will be used.”

Tong Yin Yee Shung Gun, Chinese Laundry, 1899. Oil on linen  New York Historical Society.   Creator: Northcote, Stafford Mantle, 1869-1949


The Laundry Maze:   Installation Art of Shu-JuWang

The Laundry Maze in the lobby of the Portland Building in Portland, Oregon, uses the historical reference of the Chinese laundry as a starting point to explore the professional transitions many immigrants face as they find work in different fields in their new lives. As one’s profession is often the most public part of one’s identity, this transition also brings about a change in identity.

The maze is created from shirts hung on laundry lines at a height that obscures the space for most adults. On the back of each shirt, I painted mountains, oceans, rivers, deserts — the traditional boundaries between nations that were often natural obstacles. For immigrants, these boundaries are behind them. On the shirt fronts, I sewed overlapping tags that describe people’s professions before and after immigration, with the “before” tags obscuring the “after” tags. These tags function like a book — you must flip the page to read what is underneath. These “mini-stories” were collected from over a hundred immigrants either through personal contacts or through language programs around Portland.

In addition to learning about these changes in immigrants’ identities, The Laundry Maze is also a visceral experience for the viewer — walking through a maze where you can’t see beyond your immediate surrounding and can’t tell where you’re going is disorienting, not unlike the confusion and displacement often felt by new immigrants.

Martin Wong Chinese Hand Laundry

One thought on “Art and the Chinese Laundry

  1. The title of the Northcote painting “Tong Yin Yee Shung Gun” is interesting. It’s a transliteration of 唐人衣商關 which means ‘Chinese clothing shop’. The Chinese commonly referred to laundries as 衣商關 (meaning clothing shop) because they didn’t want family/friends back home to know they were washing clothes for a living.

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