Category Archives: Origins of Chinese Laundries

A Chinese Laundry…in China

Chinese laundries could be found any where that Chinese immigrant men went in the diaspora of the late 19th and early 20th century. It became a stereotypical occupation for Chinese, which was somewhat surprising because in China, it was women, not men, who washed the family laundry, as shown in an archival photograph from from the University of Bristol from Nanking in the 1930s.

chinese laundry in China

Further indication that men in China did not do the washing of clothing is an observation published in a white laundry trade journal by a white man who had spent many years in China.  He noted that there were no “regular” or commercial laundries in China but yet “nine out of every ten Chinamen who come to this country open laundries” despite their lack of experience doing laundry in China.

no china laundries

Chinese immigrants were not laundrymen in China

This paradox occurred because Chinese immigrants were denied opportunities to work in many occupations for which they were qualified due to anti-Chinese sentiment. By default, they became laundrymen because whites gave  little or no initial opposition to the Chinese operating hand laundries to wash and iron clothes.

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Who Did Laundry in America Before the Chinese Came?

Chinese laundries in the U. S. and Canada started sometime in the mid-19th century. Excluded from many occupations, the first business they were allowed to operate was the laundry and by the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese laundries were so ubiquitous that they became the stereotype for Chinese.

But who did the washing of laundry for people who could afford to hire others to perform this essential but labor-intensive chore?  In many areas, black women who were domestic servants for white families did the family wash as well as cook, clean house, and take care of young children.  In addition some black washerwomen picked up laundry from white homes to take back to their neighborhoods to wash and iron before delivering the clean laundry to their owners. Much less is known about the black washerwomen than about the Chinese laundrymen.  When the Chinese began to dominate the laundry business there was tension between black washerwomen and Chinese laundrymen, and even strikes or threats of strikes by the washerwomen.  The conflict was short-lived as the Chinese laundries dealt mainly with articles of men’s clothing such as businessmen’s shirts and collars (detachable, in those early days) or men’s work clothes while black washerwomen dealt more with family items such as linens, women and children’s clothing.

A multi-media theatrical production, The Clothesline Muse, consisting of dance, song, and art developed by jazz singer Nneena Freelon pays tribute to the black washerwomen who helped support their families through the arduous labor of doing laundry for white families.  Lana Garland, a filmmaker, is making a documentary about black washerwomen and The Clothesline Muse.  Freelon and Garland wanted to place their story in a wide societal context that included the Chinese laundries and invited me for an interview to gain more insight and information as I described here.

The Clothesline Musesfr post on Clotheline muse

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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

Some Places Welcomed Chinese and Their Laundries

In 1879 at a time when Chinese and their laundries were generally reviled across the U. S. and Canada, there were places which welcomed them.  For example, in Milan, TN., the local paper opined how welcome a Chinese laundry would be and hoped one would come to town.

Milan TN 1879After the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law passed, illegal Chinese were subject to arrest and deportation. When some smuggled Chinese laundrymen in Augusta, GA. were apprehended in 1904, people in nearby Edgefield, SC.  were encouraged by the hope that some Chinese laundrymen would come to their community to replace their “very unreliable” washer-women

edgefiled welcome

 

Edgefield soon got its wish, but didn’t need to have one of the Chinese dispatched from Augusta.  The news was that John Wing, of Savannah, an experienced laundryman of 17 years had already ordered improved machinery for the opening of Edgefield’s first Chinese laundry shortly.

edgefield sc 2Madison, Florida welcomed “a full fledged Chinese laundry” operated by “Wun Lung” (supposedly his name) from China scheduled to open in a few days.

1908 madison FL

 

In 1914, Welch, West Virginia, was delighted to “at last” have Sam Kee open a Chinese laundry next to the livery stable.

 

1914 bluefiled w va

 

In 1884, just after the Chinese Exclusion law went into effect, Winston (later, Winston-Salem) NC was eager to have a Chinese laundry so that it could show what an ethnic diversity they had, according to a newspaper report in the Weekly Raleigh Register.  The article showed that Winston already had “Canadians…Jews… Indians… but lacked “the pig-tailed celestial.”

1884 Winston NC brag report in Ralleigh paperThey could also have bragging rights if they had the first Chinese laundry in North Carolina.

Although Chinese laundrymen were being driven out of western states at the end of the 19th century, they increasingly moved to the South and East in search of better places to set up business which welcomed them, even if for questionable motives.

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Chinese Laundries of Macon, Georgia (1885-1956)

When I was growing up in Macon, Georgia in the 1940s, my parents operated the only Chinese laundry in town.  As a child, the thought or question never entered my mind once as to whether there had been any Chinese laundries or other businesses there before my parents came to Macon in 1928.  It was not until 1956 on the eve of my father’s retirement and move to San Francisco when the local newspaper published a commentary  with a headline, “Not A Chinese in Our Town for the First Time in A Century,” that I ever considered the possibility that other Chinese had been in Macon before 1928.

As I was only 15 years old then, this realization piqued by interest, but only momentarily and it was not until about 60 years later that I decided to search archival resources to learn what I could about these earlier Chinese in Macon. Much to my surprise, I found over 30 newspaper articles dealing with the dozen or so Chinese men who had all operated laundries in Macon from 1885 until 1928 when my parents came from China.  There were no Chinese women or children during this period so my mother was the first Chinese woman and I and my 3 siblings were the first Chinese children born in Macon.  I report my findings in this downloadable linked document, Chinese Laundrymen in the Heart of Georgia (1885-1956).

macon cover

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Chicago’s First Chinese Laundry?

Chicago's First Chinese Laundry?

A small news item in 1869 reported that Chicago was not only about to get a Chinese laundry, but a great one. Chicago merchants were recruiting 100 men from San Francisco, where many Chinese men work as house-servants in place of Irish women, referred to as “Bridgets.” However, in Paul Siu’s authoritative research, The Chinese Laundryman, the first Chicago Chinese laundry at 167 West Madison Street did not appear until 1872, a year following the Great Fire.  Perhaps, that date is close enough to the originally predicted date with the fire   delaying the planned 1869 opening.
Chinese laundries grew rapidly in Chicago as in other places across the country. Siu reported that Chicago had 18 Chinese laundries in 1874-5,  and that number doubled by the end of the decade. However, the growth did not mean that the Chinese were welcome. Often easy targets of assault and robbery, the laundryman did not have an easy life.
One of the more unusual and sinister attacks on laundrymen occurred in Chicago in 1884 when five young girls, aged 14-16, who called themselves “The Chinese Five” chloroformed Chinese laundrymen before robbing them.  They were arrested and fined $100 each, which was suspended on condition of good behavior. A number of Chinamen were arrested as well, presumably because some of the girls admitted “visiting Chinamen” in the back of the laundries while the others chloroformed and robbed the proprietors.

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08/08/2013 · 8:23 pm

Inside A Chinese Laundry

CBC  (Canada) Radio Visits The Sam Sing Laundry

I met producer Yvonne Gall of Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) Radio when I spoke in Vancouver at a fundraiser for Foo’s Ho Ho Restaurant  in 2010.  She was intrigued by the descriptions I included of what it was like to grow up in a Chinese laundry, which led her  to decide to make a documentary about the experiences of children in Chinese laundries.

Sam Sing window

In 2011 Yvonne came from Vancouver to interview me at my home in southern California. Afterwards, I took her to visit to one of the few remaining Chinese laundries in the area, the Sam Sing Laundry.  Present owner Albert Wong, a third generation descendant of the original owner, showed us the interior of the laundry.

cbc radio

The interior space of Sam Sing Laundry, as the photographs below attest, is cluttered and cramped from wall to wall, a condition that  was fairly typical of Chinese laundries.  Laundrymen, like other Chinese immigrants, were frugal and pragmatic as they struggled to survive.  Nothing was discarded if it might possibly be eventually useful.

clutter

Albert also spoke briefly about the history of Sam Sing Laundry, which is included in the hour long CBC audio documentary, Chinese Laundry Kids. 

 Scenes from CBC Radio Visit to Sam Sing Laundry

RTHK-TV Hong Kong Visits Sam Sing Laundry

rthk vid

In 2012,  RTHK Hong Kong Television made a 5-hour documentary on Chinese in North America.  I served as a consultant for producer Annie Yau who created episode 4, which dealt with Chinese laundries and restaurants.    The Sam Sing Laundry again proved to be a valuable resource as it is a living “museum” or laboratory for examining the work and living space that Chinese laundries served for hundreds of Chinese immigrants over many decades.

I took Annie and her film crew to the Sam Sing Laundry where they filmed my conversation with Albert Wong’s father, Jon Wong, who operated the Sam Sing Laundry for many decades.  He spoke about the history of this business that was started by his grandfather in 1900, which is a small part of the hour-long 2012 RTHK video documentary.

gfather

Early History of Sam Sing Laundry

The building that housed the Sam Sing Laundry, as was true for many other Chinese laundries, was also where owners and their families lived in other sections of the building.  Not only did this arrangement reduce expenses, but it also enabled owners to guard the premises against theft, vandalism, and fire. Living in the laundry also provided safety from physical assaults Chinese might encounter if they had to travel from the laundry after they closed to reach their residences.

The photographs  of the living quarters of the Sam Sing Laundry in the linked collection below show the kitchen and eating areas as well as the family room.  The walls are lined with family photographs including grandparents and parents in China as well as children and grandchildren. Framed diplomas of the academic achievements of the descendants are proudly displayed.

living

side room

Other Scenes from: Sam Sing Laundry Living Quarters

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