Trials and Tribulations of A Chinese Laundryman in Wellington, Ohio

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.

wah-sing-laundry

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.

Chinese Bachelor Laundrymen on Their “Day Off”

            I was lucky to find the fascinating  photograph below, although I am frustrated in not knowing where it was taken or by whom.  It seems to be lunchtime for middle aged and older Chinese men who probably worked in either a laundry or restaurant in a  city with a sizable Chinese population.  Laundries were generally smaller operations and could involve only two or three men at most whereas a large restaurant  in a city like New York or San Francisco would need more workers to operate.  Seeing the photograph, which is beautifully composed either by design or accident,  heightened my awareness of what an invaluable opportunity these work breaks provided for these “bachelors” who had little time to enjoy the company of fellow countrymen. The virtual absence of Chinese women in the first waves of immigrants  ensured that  most of the men were bachelors and many of those who were married had left their wives and in many cases, children, behind in China.

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          Hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese immigrants worked in laundries  and restaurants from the late 19th century well into the middle of the next century.  Virtually every small town in every state had at least one Chinese laundry, often operated by only one or two men, often relatives such as father and son, uncle and nephew, brothers, cousins or men from the same villages in Guangdong.  Initially, Chinese restaurants served only Chinese as non-Chinese generally did not find Chinese food appetizing. However, once Chinese food gained acceptance, small family restaurants serving Americanized Chinese dishes sprang up all over the country.

Work hours were long, and their days were lonely.  They would have only day off each week, and for laundrymen, that day would be Sunday.  To stem their loneliness, Chinese who lived far from Chinese communities in towns where they were the only or one of the few Chinese would congregate with other bachelor laundrymen from other nearby towns if they were “fortunate” enough to live within short travel distances  from a central site like Atlanta for those in the Southeast, Denver in the Rocky mountains, Chicago in the midwest, Dallas in the Southwest.  They might gamble, indulge in opium smoking, or just enjoy a meal and the company of  other lonely laundrymen.

I posted the photograph on Facebook to see if any of my Chinese contacts knew more about source of the image.  So far, no one has offered any information, but a friend, Raymond Douglas Chong in Houston, sent me a photograph that on the surface, is very similar, except for one important difference.    These 11 Chinese are also gathered for a meal, although it is interrupted to have a group photograph taken by a 12th person, who I assume was another Chinese man.  However, these men do not look like they were taking a rushed lunch break as in the first photograph especially since at least two are wearing neckties and the others do not appear to be wearing work clothes as the men in the first photograph do.

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              This photograph was taken in the Sun Tong Laundry in Santa Barbara, California sometime in the 1930s.  It would be unlikely that all of the men worked at this one laundry.   It is more plausible that they lived in other parts of the city and in nearby towns where all of them had their own laundry.  On Sundays when their laundries were closed, they would have welcomed the chance to gather at a central location for socializing and enjoying a meal before they had to resume their labors for the following week.

According to Raymond Chong who kindly gave me the photograph with permission to post it, these men all worked in laundries. They were kinsmen who all came from the same village in China.  The photograph captures a Sunday gathering for a meal and companionship at the Sun Tong Laundry owned by Sun Yoke Tong, Raymond’s maternal grandfather.

“The Yee Clansmen worked long hours during the week. They faced racial discrimination with little opportunities for upward mobility. They were separated from their wives and children in China, especially during the Civil War in China and World War II. It was an insular society of bachelors in Chinatown. As a result, the men socialized together and closely bonded during their free times, usually on Sunday’s afternoons and evenings at Sun Tong Laundry on 30 Cota Street . They ate communal meals, shared stories, played games, and gambled. They wrote letters to their loved ones in China.”

Sun Tong Laundry, Santa Barbara 20

              Similar gatherings of lonely Chinese bachelor laundrymen occurred on Sundays across the country in towns, large and small. In larger cities Chinese might congregate at a family association hall or a  headquarters for  a chapter of  the Hip Sing Association or the  On Leong Merchants Association  whereas in small towns, laundrymen working would periodically journey from as far as 100 miles away to these gatherings at a  centrally located town.  Gambling at these meetings was a favorite pastime for some of them, and possibly, opium smoking.  Police would make raids and Chinese would be arrested and fined as shown below in a Philadelphia raid in 1944.

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 11.28.35 AM           Source of Gambling Raid Photograph: Balch Museum

 Many other raids on Chinese gambling occurred as described below when Atlanta police arrested 25  Chinese laundrymen in 1902 and when 9 laundrymen, most from out-of-town, were fined for Sunday gambling in a Trenton, New Jersey, laundry.

1902 atl gambling raid

1917 Trenton 9 Sunday gamblers at ldy fined

Attempt to Deport the “Wilmington 3” Chinese Laundrymen in 1914

(This is an update to a post made on June 26, 2013 since a photograph has been found of the Sam Lee Laundry in Wilmington, N. C. where the three Chinese men were working when proceedings to deport them were started in 1914).
Sam Lee Laundry wilmington NC closeup
A brief review of the case: In 1914, a deportation case was heard in the Eastern District Court of North Carolina involving three young Chinese men, Lim Yuen, his brother Lam Gong, and another Chinese, Chan See Jock. They had come from China in 1908 and 1909 legally as sons of a merchant and a teacher.  All three were working at the Sam Lee Laundry in Wilmington, North Carolina.  As laundry workers, they were classified as laborers, and because they lacked certificates, the United States government acted to deport them.
 The District judge ruled in favor of the Chinese laundrymen, maintaining that just because they were laborers was insufficient grounds for deportation. Insofar as they had not entered illegally, which based on the 1882 Chinese Exclusion law was the only  basis for deporting them, he denied the deportation order.

When Laundrymen Returned to Visit Home Villages

When Chinese laundrymen made visits back to their home villages, there was the expectation that they had made small fortunes on Gold  Mountain when in fact most of them had lives of daily hardship with meagre income.  As noted by Leong Gor Yun in a 1936 book, Chinatown Inside Out, to save face, they would often describe their work as operating “garment stores” instead of washing dirty clothes.  “To make a good impression they collect trunks and trunks of old rags, worn-out shoes, hardware and junk.  The more trunks they take the wealthier they look.”  They would bring gifts for relatives, which they could barely afford, to fit this image.

ct inside red cover

However, Hong Kong Chinese considered them as simpletons from the Golden Mountain and victimized them with extravagant prices. “Their poor relatives, close and distant, live off them for a few months until the “wealthy” air cools off.” They were expected to provide a grand feast for the entire village and relatives from other villages. “This marks them as the local boys who made good across the ocean.” As they departed to return to their dreary lives on Gold Mountain, some left money for villagers or for building a house for relatives.

In a separate commentary I made about Chinatown Inside Out and its author Leong Gor Yun, I noted that there is some question as to who Leong Gor Yun is or if the name might be fictitious.

All I Really Needed To Know, I Learned in A Chinese Laundry

Who’s Who Among Asian American Communities in Georgia Gala, Keynote Address,  John Jung,  Omni Hotel, Atlanta, GA. April 29, 2006

whoswhomontage67

 Distinguished honorees, ladies and gentlemen:

I am honored to have the privilege to speak to you on this wonderful occasion.  I am most impressed with what a vibrant and energetic sense of community there is among the members of Atlanta’s Asian Americans.

In contrast, when I was living in Macon, we had a much smaller community…As our family members were the only Chinese in town, when we finally left in the mid-1950s, the entire Chinese community was gone! The local paper noted it was the first time in 100 years that there were no Chinese in town… it was not clear from the article whether the writer was relieved or saddened (just kidding)!

A few years ago, in reflecting on my family’s life in Macon__ our cultural isolation for over 25 years, being the solitary Chinese, or Asian, for that matter, family in town during an era of a highly segregated society before the civil rights movement, I was inspired to write a memoir, Southern Fried Rice, to document our family’s life in Macon and in a small way help preserve and share a bit of Chinese American history that few people outside of the South know about.

There isn’t time enough tonight to go into any detail about our family story so I want to say a few things about growing up in a Chinese laundry.

Let me BEGIN with what might seem to be a digression: I’ll bet none of you knew that this past Thursday was:  “TAKE YOUR CHILD TO WORK WITH YOU” Day …The premise being: it’s good for kids to learn what their parents do at work, even if they go for only 1 day.

Note that  this doesn’t always have the desired result: For example, when my son was a youngster, I’d occasionally take him with me to my college campus. He soon reached the (false) conclusion that work was just fun because all I seemingly did was:

Drink coffee,  chat with students,  and occasionally scribble on the blackboard, and illegibly at that.

I, too, had the chance to watch my parents work when I was growing up. I worked with my parents in the laundry… not just 1 day a year, but EVERYDAY so that I often hated having to work in the laundry, but I now must admit it did teach me some valuable lessons.

What “lessons” did I ‘learn’ from watching my parents work?

The Nature of Work

1. Work is hard. Ben Franklin, as we all know said, “Early to bed, early to rise … well, he never talked to a Chinese laundryman because even though my parents went to bed early and got up early… six days a week, 52 wks a year, it did not exactly make them any healthier, or wealthier, … but perhaps wiser.

2.  Murphy’s Law (If it can go wrong, it will) also applies in the Laundry.  When the hired help doesn’t come in, the work must still be done. When machinery breaks down, the work must still be done… And as with President Harry Truman, the buck stops here… with my parents who still had to get the work done on time.

How to Deal with People

3. The customer always thinks he is right… even when he is wrong.

For example, some customers thought we had lost their clothing articles but they later admitted they had never brought them in to the laundry… but had misplaced or left at home.

4. Golden Rule: Treat customers the way you wanted to be treated.  This approach did not always work, but it was a good starting point and usually worked.

5. Learn how to ‘read’ or size up customers. I learned to pick easy to serve customers to wait on … and let my father deal with the obnoxious ones.

Use Your Intellect or Brain

6. Dealing with many illiterate customers, white and black, quickly taught me the value of being able to read and write and why education is so important.

 Learn Problem Solving skills:

7. For example: Lost tickets were the bane of our existence… by the way, just how the mocking expression, “No tick-ee, no wash-ee,” arose is a mystery to me. No Chinese laundryman said that because we always found the customer’s laundry, even without a ticket. But we had to open, and rewrap, many bundles to find the right clothes. This taught me to develop strategies for finding a customer’s clothes efficiently.

 Develop Organization and Memory Skills because “Time is money:”

8. In a laundry, you have to do more than just wash and iron clothes; after that you must sort and reassemble finished items for each customer and to do this efficiently you need to be organized and have a good memory.

Money Does Not Grow On Trees, (although it sometimes fell out of clothes).

9. Our parents did not indulge us, or themselves, with material items, but they always found the way to provide for essential needs especially if it had to do with our schoolwork.

Family Involvement

10. Family cooperation is essential for survival… we all had to pitch in and work together in order to make a living.

 These lessons were invaluable in helping me succeed throughout life.

Now I will  conclude by contrasting two very different conceptions of laundry life

The first, I will call the Customer’s “Romantic” Philosophy of The Chinese Laundry

There was an OLD soap commercial in which: 

A white customer asks the Chinese laundryman: How do you get the shirts so white?  The Laundryman’s proud but sly Answer: ANCIENT CHINESE SECRET!  (imagine a background song “Laundryman, My Laundryman”… to the tune of ‘Chinatown. My Chinatown”)

 In other words: We, Chinese were IMBUED by the white ad writer with magic-like power to transform dirty, smelly clothes into clean fragrant clothes. This stereotype shows that society saw Chinese as experts, but only in this one area of laundry work.

Versus

A “Realistic” Philosophy of the Chinese Laundry… one that might represent the view of the Chinese laundryman:

Children, you should aspire to something higher than doing laundry; control your own future with knowledge and education. Our laundry will provide the financial support for you to get this valuable education.

In conclusion…we must recognize that successful though we may be, we did NOT do italone. We stood on the shoulders of our parents and families, a strength of our Asian cultures.

Tonight, in honoring these 67 outstanding members of the Who’s Who in Asian American communities, I think I can safely say that we are at the same time honoring their parents and families who supported them in pursing their dreams.

The “Sam Lee Laundry” in Goldsboro, NC (ca. 1910-1960)

As noted in a prior post, Sam Lee was a common name for a Chinese laundry.  A small sample of Sam Lee Laundries is shown in the photograph below.  You could find one in virtually every state, but the Chinese men who operated them were not necessarily named “Sam Lee.”

set of sam lee laundriesSAM LeeHAND LAUNDRY list

An examination of the history of one Sam Lee Laundry located for many decades in the heart of Goldsboro, North Carolina, illustrates some reasons why the name was so prevalent even though misleading with respect to the names of the owners. This Sam Lee Laundry was operated by a Chinese  known in this town as Sam Lee.  Born in Canton, China,  sometime in the 1870s,  he immigrated to the U. S. hoping to earn more here than he could in China.  Like many Chinese immigrants during this era, he first worked in elsewhere, two years in New York, before coming to Goldsboro and settled down with his laundry for around 60 years, according to him. However, there is no record of the exact year he came to Goldsboro but he did stay there until he closed his laundry in 1960.

Although the 1911-12 Goldsboro City Directory listed a “Sam Lee Laundry” at 138 East Center South, the U. S. census did not list a “Sam Lee” living in Goldsboro in either the 1910 or 1920 Census. This absence does not prove that he was not there, only that he was not available when the census enumerator came to his address. The 1910 U. S. Census did list a different Chinese, 28-year old Sing Lee, operating a laundry with a 17 year old cousin Joseph Lee at 218 East Center South, an address  very close to the 1911-12 location for the aforementioned Sam Lee Laundry.  Although it might seem that  these were two different Chinese, each operating his own laundry, it is possible that there was only a single laundry and it was operated by the same Chinese man.  Census enumerators may have made an error in recording the address. Another possibility is that the two different  numbers of the two laundries on the same street reflected renumbering of street address numbers that occurred in some towns as they grew.  Another conjecture is that the 28- year old Sing Lee might actually have been the same man known as Sam Lee who was the same approximate age. Perhaps when the Chinese man spoke his name, with imperfect English pronunciation, for the census enumerator in 1910, it might have been that “Sam Lee” was heard as “Sing Lee.” 

In Chinese,  “Sam Lee” is not a person’s name but a concept that translates to mean “three (triple) profits,” 三利, a name that might be chosen for a laundry business in hopes that the name would magically bestow good fortune.  However, many people assumed that a Chinese operating a “Sam Lee Laundry” must be someone named Sam Lee.  For such reasons, it is conceivable  that his real name was not Sam Lee. The Chinese character for Lee as a surname is  李 , which differs from the Chinese character for profit, 利, even though they have a similar pronunciation.

Many years later, when  Sam Lee was asked to write his name in Chinese for a newspaper article, he did not use the character for the surname Lee 李 but instead he wrote the  characters for triple profits,  三利, although the newspaper, unfamiliar with Chinese, printed his name upside down.

Sam_Lee char

The first City Directory for Goldsboro, published for 1916-17, followed the fashion at that time and used the heading “Chinese Laundries,” to distinguish them from the white-owned steam laundries. It  listed two Chinese laundries, one run by Charles Lee at 130 south Center East and another one run by Sam Lee at 137 south Center West. The street number differed by a single digit from the location, 138, given for Sam Lee Laundry in the 1911-12 Directory, so it is reasonable to assume it might actually be the same laundry.

golds

Sam Lee, finally turned up in the U. S. Census lists for Goldsboro for both 1930 and 1940. The 1930 Census recorded Sam Lee as 51 years old and married.  However, there was no listing of a wife or children for Sam Lee in either the 1930 or 1940 Census.  It is likely that, like many other Chinese, he was unable to bring any family members because the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 did not permit laborers like him to do so. Although this law was repealed in 1943,  difficulties persisted for many years for Chinese trying to bring family members over.  On Nov. 26, 1951 a Greensboro Daily News article about Sam Lee when he was 71 years old is consistent with this conjecture. It cites his inability to bring his family to the United States, a situation that was aggravated by the rise of the Chinese Communist government around the early 1950s. Even though he had already sent his family $500, the most he could raise, he was still unsuccessful. He received a letter from his wife that pleaded, “Send for me. I don’t pay fine. I put to death.”

According to the 1930 Census, Sam Lee had a Chinese roomer, Lee Joe, age 37.  The Census enumerator probably reversed his name, because as noted previously, in 1910, a 17-year old cousin, Joseph Lee, was listed with Sing Lee at his laundry.  Lee Joe and Joseph Lee were probably the same person. This evidence fits the conjecture that Sing Lee and Sam Lee might have been the same person since it is highly unlikely that two different Chinese laundrymen of about the same age would each have a roomer named Lee Joe (Joseph Lee).  Interestingly, Joe Lee or Lee Joe, worked for a different laundry in between his time in 1910 with Sing Lee and in 1930 with Sam Lee for in the 1920 Census he was listed as a 28-year old servant for a laundryman, Kai Hong,  at 127 James St.  His moves may have reflected the ups and downs of the laundry business for by 1930 Sam Lee Laundry moved to 205 N. Center St. which was also its address  in the 1940 census.

Almost 20 years later, on June 1, 1969, the Goldsboro News-Argus newspaper published a heart-wrenching story about Sam Lee (then 89 years old, but described incorrectly as 98 years old). He had operated his laundry for over 50 years until he closed it in 1960, unable to compete against large steam laundries.  Without work, he struggled to survive on social security and welfare, unable to even afford glasses or a hearing aid for his declining vision and hearing.  Fortunately, a former laundry employee of about 46 years provided him with housing by taking him into her home.

The story involved a little white girl who received a pair of small chopsticks from her father serving in the American Air Force in Vietnam who had sought Sam Lee to teach her how to use them. Sam Lee made a gift to her of a larger pair of chopsticks, ones  he had brought with him when he first came from China.  As news of this kind gesture  spread, people in the community reached out to provide Sam Lee with glasses, a hearing aid, food, and even money.

Sam Lee’s life was similar in many respects to that of hundreds of other Chinese laundrymen, especially those who lived and worked in isolation from other Chinese, often separated from their wives, children, parents, and other family. The more fortunate ones may have had brothers, cousins, and even sons who managed to circumvent the immigration barriers to join them in operating their laundries.

Sam Lee died in Goldsboro in 1978. Death records for North Carolina reported Sam Lee as born in 1877 and dying in Goldsboro at age 100 in 1978, although a local newspaper obituary reported his age as 107.

“North Carolina, Deaths, 1931-1994,” index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FGRS-WJY : accessed 08 Apr 2013), Sam Lee, 23 Mar 1978.

The Index of North Carolina Deaths, 1931-1994, indicated he is buried in Willow Dale Cemetery, Goldsboro, N. C., but a check of that Cemetery’s records does not confirm this claim.

Health Issues and Chinese Laundries

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Chinese laundrymen did not employ the most hygienic procedures resulting in unsanitary conditions that prompted legal actions against them.  To cite one example, in 1913, New Orleans health officials launched a campaign to fine Chinese laundries that did not clean up their practices as reported in the Times-Picayune.Image

Several laundrymen were identified as violating sanitary laws in addition to not having separate dressing rooms and toilets for persons of different colors (black and white) and sexes.  Plans were announced to arraign operators of 17 of the 24 inspected Chinese laundries.

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Early laundries did not have adequate plumbing to dispose of water, which would be left outside in the gutter, and served as breeding grounds for mosquitoes, especially in New Orleans.

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Chinese laundrymen typically lived on the premises of their laundry to save money and for physical safety.  Consequently, they prepared and ate their meals as well as slept in areas close to the laundered clothes. These risks were attributed to the “natural carelessness of the Celestial’ (a common term for Chinese at that time) and regarded as unsanitary threats to public health.

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ImageAnother health concern was that the laundry of ‘diseased and healthy’ customers was not washed separately.  Chinese laundries were also criticized for failing to segregate laundry of whites and blacks, called “Colored” in that era, by washing them in the same tubs.

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While many of the actions taken against the Chinese were directed toward public health concerns such as the dangers of malaria spread by mosquitoes breeding in stagnant disposed water, it is apparent that other actions were prompted to maintain racial segregation. There was no known evidence that washing the clothes of different races was a threat to physical health.  Assuming the wash water was sufficiently hot, strong soap was used, and hot irons were employed, it is also unlikely that threats to health existed from the mingling of clothes from healthy and diseased persons or cooking and eating near the laundering of clothes.