Until the last quarter of the 19th century, there were few Chinese in the middle of the United States. This situation began to change after 1869 with the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah. Suddenly out of work, thousands of Chinese laborers had to find their way back to the west coast or find work in small towns in the regions bordering Utah.
Hand laundries were the new primary occupation for Chinese because it required little capital, little training, and at least initially little opposition from white-owned laundries. Once a Chinese opened a laundry, he would need at least one helper, usually a male relative or other Chinese. He might recruit brothers, cousins, fathers, or sons from other parts of the U.S. or from China. If business was not good, he might move to another town.
Chinese laundrymen led lonely and difficult lives of long hours of physical labor. They often were mocked or worse, assaulted, robbed, and even killed. They were mainly bachelors, or had wives who remained in China. Since sexual relationships between Chinese men and white women violated the norms and social values, the Chinese remained unmarried and without children or became involved secretly with white or black women.
An excellent illustration of the process of Chinese laundries originating and growing in small-town America is a historical study of Chinese laundries in Grinnell, Iowa, conducted by Dan Kaiser, a retired history professor at Grinnell College.
1898 Sanborn Map of Grinnell, west side of Main Street, showing 915 and 927 where Grinnell’s first Chinese laundries operated (the former street numbers appear above)
Kaiser gives interesting details about Kim Fong, the third Chinese to open a laundry in Grinnell.
“Kim Fong (1865?- ), the third Chinese to conduct business in Grinnell, was not yet living in Grinnell in 1910, because that year’s census does not include him. By late 1912 Fong was living in Toledo where he had opened a laundry in the basement of the “Infirmary.” At that time Toledo could boast fewer than 2000 residents, whereas Grinnell had a population of more than 5000, which probably explains why in summer 1913 Fong moved to Grinnell.
|Toledo Chronicle, August 7, 1913|
Said to be 50 years old in 1915, Fong reported having been born in China around 1865. Described as “yellow” by census officials, Fong claimed the ability to both read and write, although he probably meant that he was literate in his native language rather than English—a 1917 newspaper article remarked that Fong had to communicate mainly by signs as he did not speak English (Grinnell Register, August 27, 1917). Like many of his countrymen who operated laundries in Iowa, Fong was married, but lived alone, his wife presumably left behind in China.
Fong did develop some connections in Grinnell, as a 1917 newspaper report indicates. According to the Grinnell Register, in late August 1917 Fong hosted “several friends at a magnificent dinner” at “his home and place of business…under the Annex hotel” (August 27, 1917). The occasion was the arrival in town of Fong Soon, a nephew who, Fong said, would soon begin school in Grinnell. It seems unlikely that Fong Soon did begin school here, however, for I found no other evidence of this young man’s sojourn in Grinnell.
|Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, February 3, 1915|
One unique or unusual aspect of Kim Fong’s relationship with the community is his invitation to several influential whites to a banquet dinner, described below in superlative terms. However, one wonders who knew how to prepare birds’ nest soup and whether Grinnell guests might be willing to taste it!
|Headline to article in Grinnell Register, August 27, 1917|
The evening’s menu included, the newspaper announced, birds’ nest soup, chicken chop suey, “and other Chinese meat dishes foreign to the English language.” Rice, “cooked only as the Chinaman can prepare it,” was also on order, as were “fruits and nuts from far away China, tea of the richest flavor,” all topped off with American cakes. How the guests learned this much is a mystery, because “Although in this country for seventeen years, Mr. Fong speaks little English and it was necessary that he make himself understood…wholly through the sign language.” Fong’s newly-arrived nephew was no help: he “speaks no English.”
|Advertisement in Scarlet and Black, October 15, 1913|
Like most of his fellow Chinese laundrymen, Fong resided within his business quarters. No photograph of his premises survives, but it is likely that his laundry was organized in a way that mimicked his fellow Chinese laundry operators. A counter close to the door provided entrance for customers and a place to receive and dispense the laundry, and behind that the workspaces necessary for washing and pressing the laundry. A modest bunk and kitchen would have occupied the rear of the space, and might—or might not—have been made private with a curtain (Jung, Chinese Laundries, p. 132; Paul C. P. Siu, The Chinese Laundryman [NY: New York University Press, 1987], pp. 56-68).
After the development of steam laundry machines around 1900, the hand-laundry business in America came under increasing pressure. Able to deal with larger quantities of laundry and turn it around faster, the steam laundries could under-price the hand laundries, even if their service was harder on garments. Moreover, associations of power laundry operators attempted to drive their Chinese competitors out of business, arguing for special taxes, restrictions on working hours, and by publicly accusing the Chinese laundries of unhygienic conditions (Jung, Chinese Laundries, pp. 75-89).
|Des Moines Register, March 24, 1920|
I found nothing quite so boldly racist in Grinnell, but the belittling of Chinese was certainly present. For example, when the Scarlet and Black (March 20, 1920) published Fong’s announcement about quitting his business, the newspaper could not resist adding an aside that made fun of Chinese pronunciation: “Ketchee allee same China-In-Grinnell Leview of Leviews, eh Kim?” Elsewhere Chinese laundrymen encountered assaults, robberies, and other violence that depended upon racist values. Fong Lee, who operated a laundry in Williamsburg, had to fight off a customer who tried to retrieve his laundry without paying, threatening Lee with the lead end of his cane. When Lee pointed a pistol at the man, “the intruder left without his linen” (Ottumwa Weekly Courier, May 27, 1902). In 1923 Nevada, Jim Fong and his family endured firecrackers thrown into their laundry (Nevada Evening Journal, June 20, 1923, p.3). Worse things happened elsewhere.