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White and Chinese laundry kids learn from each other

Not many people, aside from Chinese friends and relatives, get to go beyond the front counter of a Chinese laundry into the work space or crowded living quarters usually found in the back or upstairs above the laundry. If they did, they might be surprised, as was true for a white school boy who many decades later wrote on his blog about his memories of his invitation by a Chinese girl, Mae, to join her family for dinner one evening. It was a valuable experience as he learned to appreciate or understand how people different from himself live.

In his 2010 blog post, David Farside wrote about the Chinese laundry down the street from where he lived, noting that:

“As kids we always joked about how they slaughtered the English language, how they dressed, their diet and how many of them lived huddled together in back of the sweat shop.”

He had invited a daughter of the Chinese family with whom he enjoyed a friendship to his 8th birthday party. Mae did not bring a present as all the other kids did, which he assumed was because her family was poor, but instead she gave David a written note at the end of the party inviting him to dinner with her family that evening in the laundry.

His mother was unsure whether it was safe for him to go, but David insisted on going. At the laundry he was greeted and led “through the maze of hanging clothes, ironing mangles and washboards to the back of the shop.”

In the back yard, he saw a shack that was “Covered entirely with sheets of corrugated metal, it appeared to be an old garage for auto repairs.”  Upon entering the shack he found: “The whole family was seated on the floor around a huge teak circular lazy susan covered with food. They all sang a Chinese happy birthday song and I sat at the seat of honor for the feast. I couldn’t tell what I was eating, except for the rice. But after 65 years I can still taste the delicacies I shared that day.”

After the meal, David recalled enjoying cultural activities and entertainment that were unfamiliar but captivated him.  He recalled going home and telling his  father he would never have guessed the Chinese possessed so much wealth, education, skills and kindness. His father listened for awhile and said, “David, things are never what they appear and I hope you always remember what you learned tonight at the Chinese laundry.”

Farside concluded: I learned about art, aesthetics, mysticism and the true meaning of life.  So dad, wherever you are, I always remembered my best birthday gift of all. I remember what you taught me and what I learned that night at the Chinese laundry.

David’s reminiscence was touching and illustrates how close personal interactions can correct misconceptions we might have about people from other backgrounds.

Here is a link to David Farside’s 2010 blog if you want to read the entire post.                https://davidfarside.wordpress.com/tag/chinese-laundry/

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to see what Mae learned about white people from her interactions with David as there surely must have been some surprises for her as well.

As an example of what a Chinese laundry kid could learn from personal contact with a white classmate, I can share my own experience with Richard, a Jewish schoolmate who was my best friend in grammar school.  Richard and I often walked home together as we both lived toward the business district of Macon, Georgia, whereas all the other kids in our class lived in the opposite direction. Richard and I would sometimes go inside his family’s apartment, which was the first, and only, white residence I ever visited while growing up.  His parents were both business people and their apartment was very nicely furnished, unlike the living space above our family laundry which was just two storage rooms with a sink with only cold running water but no toilet. We had dilapidated beds, several wood chairs, one table, to double as a dining table and a place to do homework, and sevral apple crates repurposed to serve as nightstands, storage spaces, and bookcases. As Richard’s parents were well-to-do, Richard had many nice toys, especially his Lionel electric trains, which I envied as I could only afford inexpensive wind-up trains by Marx.

Richard also had a black “nanny” who cooked meals, cleaned the apartment, and supervised Richard until his parents came home. Even though it was only about two blocks from Richard’s apartment to our laundry, his parents would often insist on giving me a ride home if they were headed in that direction.  Since we never had a car, it was a real treat to ride in a nice car even if only for two blocks!

Had it not been for my friendship with Richard, I would have never seen the inside of the home of any white classmate.   I had no real idea of the furnishings and arrangements inside a home other than from looking at furniture store window displays of dining, living room, and bedroom furniture although  I had a vague idea from some movies that had some scenes inside homes.

So, just as David Farside made discoveries of how Chinese laundry families lived from his visit to Mae’s laundry, I learned much about the American living space from my visits to Richard’s apartment.

 

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Anna May Wong and her laundry roots

The story of Anna May Wong, the talented pioneering Chinese American actress, is one of overcoming many obstacles and disappointments.  She achieved superstar status despite being relegated to roles that were stereotypical of Hollywood’s  image of  Chinese women as either sex kittens or as sinister Orientals.

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Unknown to most, Anna May Wong grew up in her father’s Sam Kee Laundry in Los Angeles, and she dreamed of escaping to become an actress.

“We were always thrilled when a motion picture company came down into Chinatown to film scenes for a picture,” she recalled in 1926. “I would worm my way through the crowd and get as close to the cameras as I dared. I’d stare and stare at these glamorous individuals, directors, cameramen, assistants, and actors in greasepaint…” Continuing her flashback in another magazine, she said: “And then I would rush home and do the scenes I had witnessed before a mirror. I would register contempt, shame, reproach, joy, and anger. I would be the pure girl repulsing the evil suitor, the young mother pleading for her baby, the vamp luring her victim.”

She found work as an extra in Hollywood, and eventually got parts in movies while still in her teens before becoming a star.  Even when cast in leading roles, she never got to kiss the romantic lead as she played ‘second fiddle’ to a white actress in such movies.  She was passed over for a white actress in the starring role in The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck’s epic story of the struggles of Chinese peasants.

Anna may Wong and Sam Kee laundry

She broke barriers in becoming an actors, not only those imposed by Hollywood, but also the cultural norms and expectations for women among the Chinese community.  As noted in the newspaper, her father was ‘disgusted’ with his daughter’s career as an actress.

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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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