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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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.
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”!
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.
The 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.
A 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:
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.
Historians note that early Chinese immigrants were primarily males. Many were bachelors, or if married, left their wives and children, if any, in China while they worked in other countries to send remittances home to support their families. This situation was strongly reinforced in the U. S. by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion laws that were extended until 1943 and in Canada by the Head Tax in 1885 that did not end until 1923 only to be replaced by a Chinese Exclusion Act that did not end until 1947.
Not much has been studied about the sex lives of these bachelor Chinese men. The general unavailability of Chinese women, aside from prostitutes, greatly reduced their sexual relations with Chinese women, and consequently, a dearth of children born in the countries where they emigrated to. Moreover, racial prejudices against Chinese limited their prospects of forming heterosexual unions, short or long term, with white women. Prejudices of the Chinese themselves led to disapproval of Chinese men who had heterosexual relations with black women. Clearly, these circumstances affected the sex lives of these bachelors and may have increased their involvement in sexual activities which society strongly disapproved.
For example, some incidents publicized in newspapers suggested that some Chinese laundrymen were pedophiles or suspected of luring children into their shops for immoral purposes. Less attention seems to have been directed toward homosexual partners among Chinese, or for the few Chinese women here, lesbian relations, Yet, given the circumstances the Chinese faced in North America in the 19th and early 20th century, it would have been more surprising if there had not been homosexual or lesbian relationships.
A thoughtful dramatization of how societal conditions could have contributed toward homosexual relationships among Chinese immigrants is an excellent 1996 short film by Chinese-Canadian writer and filmmaker born in Trinidad, Richard Fung, captly titled, Dirty Laundry with commentary by historians Anthony B Chan, Dora Nipp, Sky Lee, and Nayan Shah.
A summary of the film:
Dirty Laundry speculates upon the buried narratives of gender and sexuality in Chinese-Canadian history of the 19th Century, when Chinese communities were almost exclusively male. A story about a chance late-night encounter between a steward and a passenger on a train interweaves with documentary interviews with historians and writers and historical documents brought to life. The video poses nagging questions about the personal and political stakes in the writing of history and in our interpretations of the past.
In the last part of the 19th century, the Kendall Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island, produced a successful soap with the unimaginative name, “Soapine.”
Trade cards were popular promotional and marketing tools for many businesses during that era and Kendall Company was no exception. In fact, their cards were quite prolific and generally attractive in design. Perhaps the most popular one used humor to show soapine to be effective in changing the dark color of a whale to white (clean).
Nonetheless, Kendall could not resist the social hostility of the times toward Chinese and incorporated a Chinese laundryman with endorsing soapine with a mocking sing song approval in the trade card.
Usually one thinks of Chinese laundrymen having to do battle with organizations of white owners of steam laundries, labor unions, and discriminatory laws such as the San Francisco prohibition against laundries in wooden buildings (Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 1886). In their communities, they suffered pranks, assaults, robberies, and homicides. Add to that, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the inability to bring wives and children from China, they definitely had a difficult existence.
As if these circumstances were not dire enough, competition among Chinese laundrymen was sometimes fierce. Cut rate pricing offered a way to increase patronage, but at the expense of other laundries. For example, in 1896, Sam Sing, a laundryman in Alexandria, Virginia, accused a nearby competitor, Ah Moy, of sending anonymous obscene letters to Sing’s wife. It was suspected that Moy may have been motivated to send these letters because Sing had cut his laundry prices to gain more business at Moy’s expense. Moy, being single, may have been also motivated by jealousy of Sing who seemed happily married with two children.
Two years later, another bitter battle developed among some laundrymen in Washington that also involved conflict over cut rate laundry prices. Moy Gee You, aka Hop Sing as well as Ah Sing, was the only laundryman offering cut rate prices, which the Chinese laundry union opposed. They retaliated by accusing him of mailing obscene literature. The plaintiffs admit they paid off Moy Gee You to hold the line on higher laundry prices. They charge he did not live up to their price fixing contract, and should be required to refund the money he had received to fix prices.
It is interesting that in both cases, the way chosen to get back at someone was to accuse them of sending obscene mail. You could get your opponent in trouble with the authorities and he would have to spend time and money defending himself.
Some early Chinese laundrymen placed small business ads in local newspapers that simply gave the name and address of their business, but soon some employed more promotional wording in their ads that emphasized quality, speed, and reasonable prices. Promises of “satisfaction guaranteed,” “first-class work,” and New York style began to be used by the more sophisticated.
Even humorous slogans could be found such as “We Wash Everything But The Baby.”