A Bargain Buy of A Chinese Laundry

When the Chinese in Seattle, as in many other west coast cities, were literally driven out of town in the late 19th century, they were lucky to escape with their lives and had to abandon their businesses and belongings.  So what happened to the property of the fleeing Chinese?


Documentation of one case from Seattle might not be applicable to every instance, but is suggestive of what may have happened in many cases.

An interview in 1938 of Mrs. H. Scoville, born in England in 1863, captured her memories of the riots against the Chinese in Seattle in 1886 and her description of the lucrative windfall her husband and she received when they bought a Chinese laundry at a bargain price.

A CHINESE LAUNDRY AT A BARGAIN SALE “What I remember best about the early days in Seattle in the Chinese riots in 1886.
“My husband came home one Sunday morning and told me an officer from the Home Guards had come into the church and commanded all the men to report for duty at once.
“There were a number of Chinese in Seattle then, some running laundries, others having cigar stores, and so on. The people of the town had become incensed at the idea of Orientals being allowed to carry on business when Americans needed work

“The Committee of Fifteen had told the Chinese that they must go, get out of town, by a certain date. A steamer from San Francisco would be in the harbor on that date, and they must go aboard.
“The Chinese began selling off their goods and equipment. My husband and I decided to buy a laundry. We knew nothing about the laundry business but we thought we could learn.
“We bought the laundry and all the equipment for almost nothing, and opened for business. We prospered, the business grew fast, and we never regretted buying a laundry at a bargain sale.”

A Chinese Laundryman Takes The High Road Against A Verbal Attack

From the 1880s Chinese laundries were often attacked in many ways  for decades.  They were condemned not only for taking jobs from Americans but for sending their profits back to China rather than spending it in the U. S.   Chinese laundries were depicted as unsanitary and dangers to the health of customers.  (In addition, Chinese  laundrymen were robbed, assaulted, and even killed).

A white-owned steam laundry in Greenwood, South Carolina, made these points in its 1915 rant against a local Chinese laundry.

1915 greenwood steam ldy S.C. screed


The presumed target of this screed was J. S. Wah, a Chinese who took the high ground in his measured reply, “Perfectly Sanitary,” published the following week  in the local newspaper. Wah turned the tables on the Greenwood Stem Laundry by describing its complaints as the whining of a sore losing rival.  He concluded by emphasizing that he contributed to the Greenwood economy and thanks his loyal customers.

1915 J. S. Wah rejoinder Greenwood SC steam ldy

Racist Images of Chinese Laundrymen

Racism toward Chinese in general was frequently expressed using images of the Chinese laundryman in cartoons that depicted him negatively.These pig-tailed,slant-eyed caricatures were portrayed variously as inept, effeminate, sexually starved, dangers to white women. Some cartoons expressed physical violence toward them while others displayed comical views of them, their language, and their clothing.

Laws Against Chinese Laundries

In the late 1800s numerous laws directed against Chinese laundries were passed, the most notorious one in San Francisco banning laundries in wooden buildings. Yick Wo appealed this law to the Supreme Court, which ruled that inasmuch as only the Chinese had laundries in wooden buildings. it violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that protected Equal Rights.

Other examples of anti-Chinese movements can be seen in a Women’s League campaign against Chinese in 1885 and a trade union in the midwest denouncing Chinese and their supporters in 1882.