English-Chinese Phrases for Chinese Laundrymen

Chinese immigrants from the last quarter of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century operated laundries throughout the U.S. and Canada. The popularity of this business among early Chinese was due to several factors. Racial discrimination prevented Chinese from entering many occupations and businesses. The small amount of capital required to start, the low operating expenses, and the ability to function with minimal English language fluency also contributed to the growth of Chinese laundries. On this last issue, several English-Chinese phrasebooks were available as early as the 1880s that covered practical topics of everyday communication including phrases use in obtaining or transferring a store lease.

Other phrases were included for situations where laundrymen had to communicate with customers about their laundry procedures, operation, and ordering laundry supplies.

Perhaps the bane of every laundryman’s existence was the “lost ticket'” which was such a common event that it popularized the mocking, “No tickee, no shirtee.” expression. To locate a customer’s laundry without a ticket was like searching for the proverbial “needle in a haystack,” requiring time lost from work in unwrapping and rewrapping parcels until the customer’s clothes were located. Furthermore, the laundryman had to trust the customer because he was liable if the claimed clothes really belonged to a different customer.

Guess Who Did The Laundry Aboard Ships of the Royal Navy

When you think about large naval vessels carrying hundreds of crew for many weeks on the high seas, probably you never thought about how much dirty clothing and bedding needs to be washed and pressed. In addition to having batteries of guns, a battleship had to have washing machines and dryers! And who was selected to do the laundry work?

Believe it or not, but sometime in the 1950s and 1960s, ships of the Royal Navy of Great Britain going between U. K. and Hong Kong had two or more CHINESE LAUNDRYMEN! No, they were not Chinese sailors in the U.K.Navy. They were contracted labor obtained in Hong Kong, and they earned a living by charging sailors for doing their laundry!

In fact, one Chinese did laundry on a Royal Navy ship for 53 years before retiring.

After ironing more than an estimated three million shirts and surviving a bomb attack, the British Royal Navy’s longest serving Hong Kong laundryman plans to return home to retire.
Chick Shun-chui, 72, is heading to the SAR after a 53-year career in the navy, the Ministry of Defence announced this week
.

Chief of the Navy Rear Admiral Jack Steer helps farewell Shiu Hang Che in 2014.

An informative blog by Godfrey Dykes gives rich historical detail of how the Chinese laundry was created and operated on battleships.

“In approximately 1950/51 (certainly during the early part of the Korean War) the Admiralty ordered that spaces should be made available in HM Ships to be assigned and dedicated as permanent LAUNDRIES – HMS Tyne was also the Flagship for the Korean War.  Laundry machinery was designed or procured from well known manufacturers and for the first time in naval history, a laundry school was established at Devonport in HMS Drake. The whole process of washing, ironing and starching clothes which started from pragmatic experience very soon became a science and led to the appointment of the Laundry Officer. ”

On his blog post, Dykes includes copies of a detailed 20 page Laundry Manual as well as other documents describing equipment in the laundry.

From the Table of Contents, you can see that some serious thought to every detail was made.

If a Chinese had to know this much about running his on laundry on land, he would have gone into some other work! At the bottom of his post, Dykes lists these other documents.

LAUNDRY MANUAL INTRO ADMIN AND ORG.pdfWashing machines in HM Ships and Fleet Shore Barracks.pdfMaterials used in RN Laundries [Soap, bleach etc].pdfRN Laundries – The Washing Process.pdf
RN Laundries – Drying Equipments.pdfRN Laundries – Flat Ironing Machinery.pdfRN Laundries – Presses and Pressing.pdfRN Laundries – Collar and Dress Shirt Processing.pdf
RN Laundries – Racking & Packing Processed Articles.pdfRN Laundries – Decontamination of Clothing & Equipment.pdfRN Laundries – Appendix and Work Routines.pdf

in a postscript, recognition of the lack of recognition of the contribution of the Chinese laundrymen to the Royal Navy is given.

POST SCRIPT

Parliament UK

Early day motion 290

Main content

ROYAL NAVY CHINESE LAUNDRY WORKERS

  • Session: 1997-98
  • Date tabled: 23.07.1997
  • Primary sponsor: Hancock, Mike

Sponsors:

That this House notes with concern that loyal Chinese laundry workers who have been serving the Royal Navy for decades face having to accept draconian and appalling changes to their contracts of employment; condemns the ruthless way the laundry workers have been faced with the sack unless they accept the new contracts by Guernsey Ship Management Ltd.; and notes that if dismissed the workers would have to return to communist-controlled Hong Kong with no rights to stay in the United Kingdom despite their long service.

Should I Be Flattered?

I stumbled upon a cute image related to Chinese laundries accompanied by the well-worn expression associated with the business, “no tickee, no shirtee.”

medium plaig

As I read the accompanying text, I felt a sense of familiarity, and thought, wow, this writer certainly is good!

 

I reread the text and suddenly I got the feeling that these views were very much like my own! I googled several sentences and discovered that indeed I had written these exact words onMarch 10, 2011 on my Chinese Laundry blog!

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.

 

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.

220px-Anna_May_Wong_-_portrait220px-Poster_-_Daughter_of_the_Dragon_01

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.

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.

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.