What factors led to the Chinese entering the laundry business and why did Chinese laundries become so prevalent that they became an ethnic group stereotype? When and why did these laundries begin to vanish and eventually disappear?
The story of Chinese laundries cannot be fully appreciated with first considering the historical and cultural context in which they developed. What circumstances led to the Chinese diaspora from Guangdong province in southeast China starting in the middle 19th century? Why did they emigrate to areas such as California, the Pacific Northwest, and Canada as well as to other distant parts of the world? What factors led to the discrimination and racism the Chinese soon encountered in all of these host countries that lead to laws excluding Chinese laborers from further immigration to the U.S. and Canada? How did the Chinese manage to still gain entry despite these adverse conditions?
What set of conditions created an unmet and unprecedented need for providers of laundry service? For centuries, washing and ironing clothes was considered women’s work done in homes, either by domestic servants or wives and mothers. It was physically demanding and time consuming work. Until plumbing was available there was no readily accessible water supply in the home for washing. Water gathered from a source had to be first heated to boiling temperature over a fire. Clothes had to be soaked and scrubbed by hand to remove dirt and stains. Then excess water had to be wrung out of articles by hand before it was hung up to dry by the wind, and sun when it was available. This tedious chore consumed one day while another day was spent ironing with heavy hand irons.
Not surprisingly, washing laundry was not a desired occupation. However, by the 1800s greater awareness and concerns about the diseases caused by germs increased the desire for clean clothes as well as bathing. In addition, being able to afford clean clothes became a marker of higher social standing. Finally, from a moral view, cleanliness became a virtue “next to Godliness.” All of these factors served to create an increasing need for laundry services.
In the frontiers of the west, women available to do laundry were few, and ships transported laundry to Hawaii for washing, a costly and time-consuming solution. In the large cities of the East, crowded housing conditions did not allow laundry to be done easily in residences, flats, and apartments. These conditions made it possible for the first time in history that doing laundry became a business opportunity. In a sense, denied entry to other work the Chinese immigrants of the mid-1800s got in on the ground floor of this occupation, which was unattractive to whites. Washing and ironing laundry day and night, week after week, and year after year was by no means an easy way to earn a living but it was the only option available to the Chinese then.