Did Chinese “Create” the Laundry Business

Before the last half of the 19th century, most people throughout the world washed and ironed their own laundry, or had that chore done by domestic servants who also cooked meals and took care of young children.  Chinese immigrants in the U.S., and many other countries, may have “created” the laundry business. This occupation was not one that Chinese immigrant men practiced back in China where, as throughout the world, laundry was relegated to women.  Despite the unfamiliar, and probably humbling and humiliating, nature of this occupation, Chinese men turned to it out of necessity because racial discrimination closed them out of other occupations.

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Chinese came to dominate the hand laundry business for decades in the last half of the 19th century before the rise of steam laundries operated by whites. However, opposition to Chinese laundrymen came from two groups that were involved as domestics doing laundry for households, Irish and black washerwomen.

Irish washerwomen Versus Chinese laundrymen

In many eastern cities, Irish washerwomen supported their families by taking in household laundry, often because their husbands were unemployed. The growth of Chinese laundries was a threat, as illustrated by an 1879 play by Josh Hart.

 

The play, Ching Wing and His Laundry, described as a comedy, highlights the threat  posed by Chinese laundries to the livelihoods of Irish washerwomen.  In the opening scene of the short play, Mrs. H, an Irish washer woman, laments the loss of washing customers who gave their washing to the heathen Chinese like Ching Wing, who charged lower prices.

In the opening scene, Ching Wing is carrying a large bundle of clothing to be washed in his laundry, so he does not see the Irish washerwoman and accidentally bumps into her, knocking her down. Chin Wing attempts a lame apology which Mrs. H rejects,  “…ye are a disgrace to human nature.”

The next scene is in an Irish laundry where two Irish women complain about the loss of washing to the Chinese. “Oh it was a sad day when the monkeys left their native country and settled here.”

In the closing scene a woman customer of the Chinese laundry has summoned a policeman because the dog she brought with her to the laundry has disappeared.  She claimed that she found her dog’s skin here and “these nasty chinamen eating my dog.”

The policeman and the woman leave to get a warrant. Immediately, “All the Chinamen eat from bowls very quick…. Ching goes up and blows water over clothes and begins to iron…

The Irish return in numbers and a brawl breaks out between them and the Chinese laundrymen.

Black washerwomen Versus Chinese laundrymen

 Conflict developed between black washerwomen and the growing  number of Chinese laundrymen by the 1870s.  In Galveston, Texas, black washerwomen protested against the Chinese saying they had “no business coming here taking work away from us.” One woman threatened, “Mr. Slam Sling Chinaman you better sling your shirt short because we mean what we say…”

blk washerw.jpg

In Lapeer, Michigan, a Chinese laundryman was given three days by black washerwomen to leave town.  They threatened to cut off his queue unless he complied.  When a Chinese laundryman showed up in Albany, Georgia, in 1899 he received death threats from black washerwomen unless he left town. Eventually these conflicts died down, in part because the Chinese laundries focused on men’s work clothes while black washerwomen dealt with washing family and household items.

White steam laundries Versus Chinese laundries

As the nation moved from an agrarian to an urban society in the last half of the 19th century, demand for laundry services increased and gave rise to more commercial laundries.

Chinese hand laundries relied on manual labor to wash and iron clothes.  Irons were heavy, 8 1/2 pounds of iron, that had to be heated periodically over hot coals to a temperature that was not too hot to avoid scorching the clothes.  As the temperature dropped, the irons had to be reheated after a short period before they could be effective.

Compared to the volume of work that could be accomplished with modern steam-driven pressing machines, the Chinese laundries were at a decided disadvantage. Yet, some customers still preferred the Chinese hand laundry because they felt that their clothes were more likely to be damaged by the machinery of the large white-owned laundries or they did not like the idea that their clothes would be co-mingled with those of other customers in large washing machinery.

Eventually many Chinese laundries upgraded their equipment and acquired steam driven pressing machines.  Apparently, some manufacturers of steam laundry equipment were reluctant to sell to Chinese laundrymen who would be taking business away from white-owned laundries.  In a 1892 article that appeared in papers around the country,  an effort was made to prevent Chinese from acquiring steam driven equipment with the admonition by one manufacturer that purchasers of steam machines must promise never to allow them to “fall into the hands of the Chinese competitor.”

By the end of the 19th century, white steam laundry operators intensified their efforts to destroy all Chinese laundries. This goal is illustrated in several examples of the use of advertising that directly attacked the Chinese laundries. The above 1907 advertisement for Jet White Steam Laundry in Charleston, South Carolina, simply urges the avoidance of Chinese laundry in favor of  the Jet White laundry which claims to be “the Best.”

A 1915 Dothan, Alabama, white laundry went even further to oppose Chinese laundries. It used a no holds barred advertising campaign with images depicting Chinese laundrymen smoking opium and sleeping and eating in the laundry. The text of the ad below poses questions about whether customers want to have their laundry done in a Chinese laundry where eating and sleeping occurs in the same room as the clothes washing is done.  A concern is also raised over the fact that  the Chinese send most of the money they earn back to China rather than spending it locally.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

 

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