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.”

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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

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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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Sex and the Bachelor Chinese Society

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. 

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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.

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One of the Last Remaining Chinese Laundries Today

at sam sing laundryExcerpt from 2012 RTHK (Hong Kong) documentary on Chinese laundries.  After showing some media examples depicting extremely hostile attitudes toward Chinese laundrymen, I make  a visit to the Sam Sing laundry in West Los Angeles, one of the few remaining full service Chinese laundries still remaining to interview retired owner Jon Wong. Sam Sing Laundry was also featured in a CBC (Canadian) radio documentary on Chinese laundries in 2011.

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Soapine and anti-Chinese laundry trade card

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.”

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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).

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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.

Soapine.. Boston publ library

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