Lives of Chinese in Grinnell, Iowa, c. 1900 Similar to Other Small Towns Across the U.S.

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.

1898SanbornWestSideMainSt.png

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).

Fong seems to have left no other footprint in the town’s records until early 1920 when owners of the Monroe Hotel Annex announced that they would undertake a serious remodeling, obliging Kim Fong either to move or close his laundry. In a boxed advertisement in the Grinnell Herald, Fong reported that he was closing his business “forever,” and advised customers to hasten to collect their laundry.
He added that he was going to open a chop suey restaurant after he closed his laundry and that he was selling his stock of soap chips from his laundry.
grinnell iow laundry into cafel kim fong .jpggrinnell to get chop suery rest in pl of ldy kim fong

 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Chinese Laundries of Macon, Georgia (1884-1956)

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 my 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 1884 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.

The lives of the Chinese laundrymen in Macon, Georgia from the 1880s until the 1920s were probably similar to the Chinese laundrymen in scores of other small towns across the United States whether in the Deep South or other regions as Chinese were regarded as foreigners in customs, attire, language, and foods. Seen as threats to jobs for whites, they were targets of prejudice, unfair laws, and even physical violence. Unable to bring their wives and children due to the Chinese Exclusion Acts (1882-1943) and other factors, most lived “bachelor” lives.

I use the Macon laundrymen in Chinese Laundrymen in the Heart of Georgia (1884-1956) as a case study of these pioneers and because, having grown up in Macon, of an emotional connection with them.

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.

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

Chinese in Dallas Move From Laundries To Restaurants, 1875-1940

Between the 1890s and 1900, the number of Chinese laundries generally peaked in cities and towns across the country as Chinese restaurants became to offer an alternative means of self-employment.  Chinese laundries, which were primarily hand laundries at that time, faced increased competition from white-owned steam laundries.   National newspaper coverage of the Chinese viceroy enjoying “Chop Suey” in New York  in 1896 generated interest among non-Chinese to patronize Chinese restaurants. Depending on the locale, however, restaurant work  did not overtake laundry work until the 1920s and 1930s.

The history of Chinese in Dallas, Texas, documented thoroughly by Stanley Solamillo, is a concrete illustration of a shift from laundries to restaurants although the restaurants never surpassed the laundries in number.  In the 1880s, Chinese owned as many as 26 of the city’s 34 laundries, before declining over the 1890s.  Using census records, newspaper articles, city directories, and probate files, Solamillo created a  compilation of the Chinese immigrants in Dallas, Tx. from 1873-1940, listing their names, addresses, and occupation. The listing shows that laundries were almost the only occupation held by Chinese in Dallas until 1890 when the number of laundries began to decline, possibly due to white opposition to their domination of the laundry business.  Advertising by white laundries claimed Chinese laundries were not only inferior, but posed health hazards. An ad by a white steam laundry in 1890 borrowed a popular image of the times showing a Chinese laundryman being kicked back to China.

1890s?dallas white ldy ad toon anti Chin laundry By 1900, Chinese were working as cooks and waiters in several Chinese restaurants  and grocery stores in addition to laundries.  However, the Chinese presence in Dallas was greatly reduced by 1913, as there were only three restaurants, three laundries, and no grocery stores.  Some Chinese died, others may have returned to China, and possibly some moved to nearby states such as Mississippi or Arkansas, but there is no documentation on this matter.  By 1920, the census reported only 11 Chinese living there.  From then until 1940, only one other Chinese appears to have come to Dallas, immigrating in 1939.