Category Archives: Laundry Operations

Two Women, Possibly White, Buy A Chinese Laundry

white women buy CHinese laundry 1962

  When Chinese laundries change owners, the typical situation involves new or younger Chinese buying the business of a retiring Chinese laundryman.  In 1962, however, the Decatur, Illinois newspaper reported that Mrs. June Lafferty and Mrs. Shirley J. Mann, who don’t seem to be Chinese, bought the Sam Lee Laundry that allegedly dated back to 1865 at 152 S. Main Street and renamed it, June and Shirley’s Hand Laundry.

However, according to a 1903 newspaper article, there were no Chinese listed in the first City Directory of 1871, with the first listing of a Chinese laundry occurring in 1883-4 for Joe Hop Hing who had a laundry at 152 S. Main Street.  Note that this is the same address of the Sam Lee Laundry the two women bought in 1962.  However, in 1883-4, the City Directory shows that Sam Lee Laundry was at 145 E. Prairie Street and a few years later at 149 E. Eldorado St.

Another inconsistency in the information is that the 1900 census records indicated that Joe Hop Hing did not immigrate to the U. S. until 1890, so if that is correct, he could not have operated a laundry in Decatur as early as 1883.

1900 chin laundrymen decatur IL

Interestingly, when I further researched the earlier history of the Sam Lee Laundry that was sold in 1962, I discovered there had been several other Chinese laundries in Decatur at the turn of the last century. However, they soon disappeared, possibly due to competition with white-owned steam laundries.  The 1903 news article reported that there was already a large decline in the local Chinese population:

chinese in decatur gone

The Hop Hing Joe laundry was reportedly part of a “trust” or part of a set of laundries in different cities that was operated by Chinese who had some financial and or family ties. This trust was alleged to be run by Hop Hing, and headquartered in St. Louis, but I could not verify this claim. Historian Huping Ling, author of Chinese St. Louis does mention a Chinese named Hop Hing in connection with his arrest in 1914 for manufacturing opium, and again in 1915. It does not seem likely that he is the head of the trust mentioned in the Decatur newspaper.

hop hing trustThe local newspaper noted in 1944 that business was ‘booming’ for the three Chinese laundries still operating.  It acknowledged Sam Lee as the “Dean of Chinese Laundry Men.”

decatur IL 1944 2 Ch laundries

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One of the Last Remaining Chinese Laundries Today

at sam sing laundryExcerpt from 2012 RTHK (Hong Kong) documentary on Chinese laundries.  After showing some media examples depicting extremely hostile attitudes toward Chinese laundrymen, I make  a visit to the Sam Sing laundry in West Los Angeles, one of the few remaining full service Chinese laundries still remaining to interview retired owner Jon Wong. Sam Sing Laundry was also featured in a CBC (Canadian) radio documentary on Chinese laundries in 2011.

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Fast Disappearing Chinese Laundries of New York City

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.

harry chong nyc

Similarly, Lee’s Laundry in Greenwich Village closed in 2009 after 30 years of operation.

Lee's laundry greenwich village

Another New York store, Chin’s Laundry and Dry Cleaning store was slated for sale in 2008.

Chin's 2008 nyc W 13th St]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.

1503 white plains NY 2014 benny louie 2014 laundry  13th st nycchin laundry 199 nassau 110 Montague NYC 2014 chin hand laun

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Early Chinese Laundries in North Carolina

NC laundry rev map

Chinese laundries across the state of North Carolina in the late 19th and early 20th century sometimes received newspaper coverage. Some stories simply reported the opening or relocation of a laundry, while others dealt with human interest accounts of  some of the laundrymen and their lives. Some laundries paid for small advertisements of their services and prices in some towns. Other articles covered grim topics such as a suicide, homicide, assault, or robbery as well as gambling or drug and narcotics use and sales.  These articles provide evidence of the extent of Chinese laundry presence in this part of the country that is greater than what census records might suggest.  For example, in 1900, 37 Chinese were listed in the census, almost all were in laundry work, but usually 4 or 5 men (often listed as sons, cousins, brothers, nephews) worked at a given laundry.  Thus, one might expect  no more than 10 laundries using this staffing estimate. A 1913 International Business Directory of Chinese businesses listed only two Chinese laundries in North Carolina but that is misleading because a fee was probably required for listings.

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07/30/2014 · 5:09 pm

Images of Violence Against Laundrymen And A Visit To A Laundry Still Here Today

rthk laundry

Around the end of the 19th century, graphic images of physical violence toward Chinese were common.  Using laundrymen to represent all Chinese, there were numerous newspaper and magazine drawings depicting physical attacks on them. I describe and show several of these images and read a short children’s song mocking the laundryman. Such images both reflected and generated such harmful acts.  A 2012 RTHK documentary used computer animation to dramatically illustrate these actions against laundrymen.

The end of this excerpt of the hour long documentary on Chinese laundries and restaurants shows a visit to the Sam Sing Laundry where retired owner Jon Wong talks about the operation of this business in Los Angeles started by his father a generation earlier and now continued into a third generation by his son Albert.

 

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Sam Lee Laundry, Champaign, IL (from 1920 or earlier until 1970s)

Sam Lee Ldy, Champaign

Sam Lee Laundry was one of the two most common names, the other being Sing Lee,  for Chinese laundries judging from business directories.  “Sam Lee” actually refers to a concept that can be loosely translated as “threefold profits” and not as the name of the proprietor of the business.  However, many customers would assume it was his name and the Chinese laundryman would get ‘stuck’ with that name and use it instead of his real Chinese name which, being unfamiliar to non-Chinese, was harder for customers to remember.

The Sam Lee Laundry in the above photograph taken in around 1975 in Champaign, Illinois, may have already gone out of business as did many Chinese laundries due to competition with large white steam laundries and the widespread availability of home washing equipment.  A For Sale sign is visible  in the window, and the store ‘looks’ to be empty, notwithstanding the “OPEN” sign on the front door. In any case, by 2008, this building at 213 S. Neil Street definitely was no longer a laundry even though the building  still stood, even if barely, as evidenced by this comparative ‘then and now’ photograph posted on Flickr.com.

Out of curiosity, I checked census records identifying Chinese living in Champaign, IL.  in 1920, there was a Chinese named “Sam Lee” at 109 S. Neil Street (the building in the photos was identified as being at 213 S. Neil, but it is conceivable that the city renumbered buildings at some time and that the two addresses could have been the same building) who had a Chinese partner and 3 Chinese lodgers.  All were listed as laundrymen (not shown in the truncated census record sheet).  Unfortunately I could not access the 1930 census and in the most recent 1940  census (records are sealed for 70 or maybe 73?) years), the laundry had changed hands with different owners.

1920 cens Sam Lee ldy Neil St CHampaign

Sam Lee had an interesting claim in his 1920 ad in a University of Illinois Chinese student publication, Young China, for his laundry, “Cheapest and Best in Town,” that suggests he quickly assimilated to American promotional hype!

Cheapest AND Best

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03/11/2014 · 1:14 pm

White Steam Laundries versus Chinese Hand Laundries

hand-ironThe early domination of Chinese laundries relied on hand irons, which was very laborious and time consuming.  At the end of the 19th century, steam powered laundry pressing equipment was changing the business. A Chicago Tribune article in 1901 praised the growth of the steam laundry and concluded that “in Chicago it is driving the Chinaman out of his favorite occupation.”

blotter

“Steam laundries are everywhere taking the white man’s washing out of the hand of the Celestials, and is rapidly forcing them out of the washing business. In 1850 there were about 276 laundrys in Chicago and of these but 66 or run by Chinamen… in the new directory, there are shown 459 laundries conducted by white people, most of which are steam, of a total of 707, but 249 are conducted by Chinese, … greatly less than that of half a decade ago.

LOC 1870s anti chin washer

Steam machinery displayed at the world’s fair made a great impression on Chicagoans… “In no branch was this more marked than in the laundry machinery and after the fair steam laundries began to be started. Popular prejudice was against them for a time. They steam machines were said to tear the garments, to do rough work, to wear things out fast, and to rub the buttons off.  They were even said to be used with chemicals, which injured the fibre, and the public was slow to patronize them.

However, the steam laundries reduced the price for washing a white shirt to 4 cents, and that brought flocks of people …”One by one the Celestial laundries disappeared.   The shop of the mysterious yellow man will be only a tradition.  And a strange tradition it will be, for even now, when everybody goes past a Chinese laundry…there is much that is unknown… When does John Chinaman sleep?…Go by his shop at any time of day or night and you will see him busy over tub or washing board, or seated on the front steps gazing at the same stars he used to gaze at in his home 10,000 miles away.”

“What do the marks on a Chinese laundry ticket mean?  It is doubtful if John himself can answer that….Meaning is unnecessary.  But it may be that John has a way of describing in his own language the peculiarities of each of his customers in this way, and knows when a man presents a check just what sort of a man he is and whether there is already a grudge against him outstanding.”

“And are all of the workers in the Chinese laundries John, or are some of them Mrs. Johns?  And this will never be answered unless some law be devised to require that John wear a label which will enable the Caucasian to distinguish between the two when they are clad in the same style of suits of loose blue stuff.”

“With all the questions, however, John is doomed.  Already the bulk of the business is handled by the big steam machines, and soon they will have it all.  And then Chicago may have a run of Chinese cooks, or may take to patronizing Chinese restaurants or may lose her Chinese population altogether.”

While it is true that many laundrymen turned to the restaurant business after 1900, and overall there was a decline in the number of Chinese laundries, many adapted and joined the modern age of steam machinery and abandoned the coal heated hand iron and Chinese laundries continued to exist for at least another 50 to 75 years.

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