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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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Chinese Laundries and Advertising “Humor”

Chinese laundries have been used in many advertisements, usually in a way that pokes fun.  One old print ad for a home washing machine shows several Chinese men, presumably laundrymen, standing around it with a puzzled look.

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A television commercial in the 1970s for a laundry product suggests that the Chinese laundry used it for getting washed clothes to be white. Playing on the idea of China being an ancient civilization, the laundryman tells his customer that he uses an “ancient Chinese secret.”

The Chinese laundry serves again as the stage for a 2014 commercial for a bluetooth headset in an audacious scenario replete with racist taunts from a white customer who berates all the Chinese in the laundry. It is definitely not your bland 1950s commercial, but ends with a bold but violent resolution.

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Chinese laundries, horoscopes, and Donald Trump!

set of sam lee laundries

I suppose you can take several ideas or topics at random and find some way to show that they are more or less “connected” but I was somewhat startled to find someone had posted a comment entitled “21-22 Degree Sagittarius: A Chinese Laundry (and Donald Trump’s Moon) to one of my blog posts that connected Chinese laundries with Donald Trump via the horoscope

21 to 22 degree Sagittarius locates in the Leo decadent (10-degree divisions within a sign) and the Leo duad (2.5 degree sections within a sign). It is the 21st degree of Sagittarius and 1st degree of the decadent, therefore carries the energy of numbers 3, 7, (3×7=21), and 1.

People and matters contacting this degree identify themselves passionately with –or against – an individual, a ethnic or social minority group that’s underprivileged or prosecuted. The social climate that supports such discrimination and injustice is often prejudiced, hypocritical, unreasonable, and going against the universal value of fairness and equality.

Due to Leo’s influence, there is also a strong dramatic element associated with these unjust events. Spreading of falsehood, or some sort of a “creative” effort, is often involved.

On the opposite side of same coin, this symbol speaks of the bitterly oppressed and those who take on the thankless job of cleaning up the aftermath of epic misdeeds. At its higher expression, this degree allows profound understanding of the deep rooted injustice and societal wrongs, and take courageous action to counter such atrocities.

Some famous people with 21-22 Sagittarius degree in their chart are:

  • Donald Trump (moon), whose hard-line and controversial stance of deportation of illegal immigrants marks the flagship issue of his presidential campaign.

 

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Chinese Laundries in Charleston, S. C.

Charleston was a thriving city of the Deep South during the middle 19th century. Like other southern cities, there never were more than a few Chinese in Charleston where almost everyone was either black or white. In 1888, Charleston had 22,699 whites and 27, 285 coloreds, which included only nine Chinese.

Among the first Chinese listed in the 1880 census for Charleston was William Ah Sang, recruited for his knowledge of Chinese tea to work in a prosperous teashop. The aristocratic members of Charleston during the 19th century held Chinese decorative art and home furnishings in high regard and promoted the growing “China Trade.” A few missionaries brought Chinese boys to their homes as domestic servants. However, most early Chinese in Charleston owned or worked in laundries. The City Directory showed that from 1870 to 1973, there were as many as 17 laundries between 1900 and 1909 when they peaked. In the 1920s the number began to dwindle, leaving only 2 in the 1960s. The first Chinese restaurant opened in the 1920s but there were never more than 3 at any time before 1973.   One Chinese grocery store existed as early as the 1870s but there was never more than one during any decade before the 1970s. By 1899, strong hostility toward Chinese laundrymen had developed in Charleston as illustrated by a newspaper article, “Too Many Chinese,” that called for increased license fees for Chinese laundries, which were dominating that business. The article quoted the reaction of one laundryman protesting the unfairness of the increased fee by arguing that Chinese did not make trouble like the blacks or Mexicans who also paid no license fees at all.

Although the Charleston writer of the following passage describing Chinese laundrymen in a letter printed in 1886 was referring to his observations in New York City, it reflects prevalent negative attitudes about the Chinese in many regions of the country.

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Anti-Chinese laundry Views

A white-owned Charleston steam laundry published an ad in 1915 attacking the Chinese hand laundries because it felt they were taking work away from Americans,

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The ad criticized the Chinese for sending money back to China and not spending locally to help the American economy. Finally, the charge was made that Chinese laundries were unsanitary.

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A Chinese Counterattack

One Chinese laundryman, J. S. Wah did not passively tolerate this attack on Chinese laundries. He fired back with an ad of his own entitled, Perfectly Sanitary in which he implied that the charges in the Greenwood Steam Laundry ad was an instance of ‘sour grapes.’

1915  JS WAH rejoinder agst white ad

Wah cleverly deflected the charge of the steam laundry ad, “We are glad to know that the Greenwood Steam Laundry keenly feels our competition…We live here too, and spend our money in Greenwood.” He diplomatically closed his ad by thanking customers for their business and promising the “same good service that we have always given.” Clearly, J. S. Wah was no dummy with respect to public relations! Moreover, he was not only adept at defense, but expert in taking the offensive as shown in his ad promoting his laundry.

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Attitudes toward Chinese laundries were not hostile everywhere in South Carolina in 1915. In the small town of Edgefield, a newspaper article expressed pleasure in welcoming its first Chinese laundry. It reported the plans of John Wing, who operated a laundry in Savannah for 17 years, to open a first-class Chinese laundry in Edgefield. The article proclaimed, “…we believe it (a Chinese laundry) is an innovation that will be cordially welcomed.”

fEdgefield welcome

Robbery and Physical Harm of Laundrymen

Although most communities accepted Chinese laundrymen, but not as enthusiastically as in Edgefield, the Chinese were often at risk for robbery and violence.  In 1928, Charley Loy, a laundryman was robbed and murdered. Four black men were arrested and sentenced to die in the electric chair for his murder. This was not an unusual case. Chinese laundrymen, working late and often alone, were often prime targets for robbery, assault, and homicide. In the same year, two Chinese laundrymen suffered were attacked and robbed in their laundry in Spartansburg, S. C.

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Were Chinese Treated As Black or White?

Few Chinese men in Charleston or elsewhere in the South had Chinese wives with them due to immigration exclusion laws prohibiting laborers from bringing their wives and children from China. In Charleston there were five known instances of Chinese men marrying non-Chinese women, 2 white and 3 of mixed race. Whereas children of Chinese married to white women were treated as white, and allowed to attend white schools, those of Chinese married to mixed race women were considered as black and restricted to black school.

Around 1947, one Chinese, Chung Lum, married to a light-skinned colored woman, devised a strategy for getting their children admitted to a white school by changing his racial identity to distance himself and his children from his mother and siblings. They associated only with whites, attended a white church, and he worked as a Chinese interpreter for the Chinese embassy. This strategy worked for a while in getting the children into a white school but the following year they were prohibited when someone anonymously revealed that other members of Lem’s family attended a black school.

In contrast to the second class status of working-class Chinese and their children in Charleston until the middle of the twentieth century, students coming from China to attend college were warmly accepted, Six Chinese from well-to-do families were cadets at The Citadel from 1926 to 1932.

For a detailed study of Chinese in Charleston: Li, Jian. A History of the Chinese in Charleston. The South Carolina Historical Magazine, (1998) 99, 1, 34-65.

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Life in a laundry is long and lonely

chin ldy lady Bud Glick CT gallery

Photographer Bud Glick included several excellent photos from inside a Chinese laundry (#14-#17) in his online photo gallery of New York Chinatown taken about 30 years ago. This photo of a woman, possibly the laundryman’s wife, says more than words can tell about her long and tiring days in the laundry. An excellent interview of Bud Glick discloses how he approaches the people in his photographs and shows his sensitivity to their feelings.  He shares a remarkable anecdote in which a Chinese man, moved after viewing some of Glick’s photos, decided to send Glick a photo of himself when he was a young boy, not knowing that it had been taken by Bud Glick some 30 years earlier.  The original negative had been destroyed in a fire, so Glick no longer had this photo until this providential contact occurred.

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Chinese Laundries: What’s in A Name?

The highest frequency of names of Chinese laundries involved “Lee” as in Sing Lee Laundry or Same Lee Laundry.  However, the laundryman was not named “Sing Lee” or “Sam Lee” as many customers assumed.  Lee, or Li, referred to the concept of “profit” and not to a clan name of Lee.  Examination of the written Chinese character for Lee in a laundry name clearly shows the reference is to monetary rewards, and not to a clan name.  Sam Lee was not only not a “Lee” but his first name was not “Sam.”  Sam refers to the number three in Cantonese.  Thus, Sam Lee really means “triple or three-fold profit.”  One could think of it as wishful thinking that if a prosperous sounding name was used, the laundry might live up to its name.

Of course, there were thousands of Chinese laundries, and some were indeed named after the owner or perhaps the location of the store.  One of the more unusual names was the Square Deal Laundry in New York on 69th Street near 1st Avenue.  A 1931 photograph of the Square Deal Laundry was kindly sent to me by Shallesh Saigal.

Square Deal Laundry NYC 1931

Clearly, this laundryman understood marketing psychology. Everyone wants a “square deal,” a concept promoted by President Theodore Roosevelt in his presidential campaigns. The typical customer is more interested in getting a square deal than in whether the laundryman makes ‘triple profits.”

Note also that even as early as 1931, the laundry sign shows dry cleaning service was offered. In addition, the laundry offered mending and darning, services which seem to have gone out of style today.

Out of curiosity, I wondered how the 69th Street neighborhood has changed since 1931.  The google map suggests that the Square Deal Laundry gave way to become part of the site where a MacDonald’s now sits.

You might say that the “Square Deal” has become a “Happy Meal”!

69th and 1st 2015

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Chinese laundry bags? You got to be kidding!

The once ubiquitous Chinese laundries that could be found in virtually every town a century ago did not have ‘laundry bags’ but the concept captured the imagination of some nonChinese.  Although I don’t know where the hotel was located, I discovered the ‘laundry bag’ blow that at least one hotel provided to guests to place outside their room in the hallway if they wanted to have any clothing items laundered.  My guess is that it dates back to the 1930s or earlier.

hotel laundry bag from Steve DaoThe laundry bag contained the image, more or less, like a dummy wearing a bellboy cap that had a smiling Chinese face. Even though the hotel probably did not employ the services of a Chinese laundry, it used the Chinese laundryman image to make sure the hotel patrons knew what the bag was for.

Another laundry bag that was marketed for sale as late as 2005 did not bear any images of Chinese faces.  The designer was content to place the words, Laundry Bag, on it in English, and in Chinese.  The ad copy praised the Chinese for their prowess in laundry work and bragged that Chinese even “perfected the bag,” which allegedly had “a mystic, irresistible appeal.’ Appealing to another stereotypical view of Chinese, the ad noted that the bag did not come with a fortune cookie.

duluth trading co. laundry bagA contemporary attempt to mock the Chinese with stereotypes involved marketing a laundry bag that combined the Chinese laundry with the Chinese restaurant. This laundry bag that bore the image of a Chinese restaurant take-out box and the ad copy included comments such as follows:ad copy

chinese take out laundry bag Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 11.05.08 AM

So, even though the Chinese laundry has largely vanished from the American landscape, it continues to live on through feeble efforts that perpetuate stereotypical views of Chinese.

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