Chinese Bachelor Laundrymen on Their “Day Off”

            I was lucky to find the fascinating  photograph below, although I am frustrated in not knowing where it was taken or by whom.  It seems to be lunchtime for middle aged and older Chinese men who probably worked in either a laundry or restaurant in a  city with a sizable Chinese population.  Laundries were generally smaller operations and could involve only two or three men at most whereas a large restaurant  in a city like New York or San Francisco would need more workers to operate.  Seeing the photograph, which is beautifully composed either by design or accident,  heightened my awareness of what an invaluable opportunity these work breaks provided for these “bachelors” who had little time to enjoy the company of fellow countrymen. The virtual absence of Chinese women in the first waves of immigrants  ensured that  most of the men were bachelors and many of those who were married had left their wives and in many cases, children, behind in China.


          Hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese immigrants worked in laundries  and restaurants from the late 19th century well into the middle of the next century.  Virtually every small town in every state had at least one Chinese laundry, often operated by only one or two men, often relatives such as father and son, uncle and nephew, brothers, cousins or men from the same villages in Guangdong.  Initially, Chinese restaurants served only Chinese as non-Chinese generally did not find Chinese food appetizing. However, once Chinese food gained acceptance, small family restaurants serving Americanized Chinese dishes sprang up all over the country.

Work hours were long, and their days were lonely.  They would have only day off each week, and for laundrymen, that day would be Sunday.  To stem their loneliness, Chinese who lived far from Chinese communities in towns where they were the only or one of the few Chinese would congregate with other bachelor laundrymen from other nearby towns if they were “fortunate” enough to live within short travel distances  from a central site like Atlanta for those in the Southeast, Denver in the Rocky mountains, Chicago in the midwest, Dallas in the Southwest.  They might gamble, indulge in opium smoking, or just enjoy a meal and the company of  other lonely laundrymen.

I posted the photograph on Facebook to see if any of my Chinese contacts knew more about source of the image.  So far, no one has offered any information, but a friend, Raymond Douglas Chong in Houston, sent me a photograph that on the surface, is very similar, except for one important difference.    These 11 Chinese are also gathered for a meal, although it is interrupted to have a group photograph taken by a 12th person, who I assume was another Chinese man.  However, these men do not look like they were taking a rushed lunch break as in the first photograph especially since at least two are wearing neckties and the others do not appear to be wearing work clothes as the men in the first photograph do.


              This photograph was taken in the Sun Tong Laundry in Santa Barbara, California sometime in the 1930s.  It would be unlikely that all of the men worked at this one laundry.   It is more plausible that they lived in other parts of the city and in nearby towns where all of them had their own laundry.  On Sundays when their laundries were closed, they would have welcomed the chance to gather at a central location for socializing and enjoying a meal before they had to resume their labors for the following week.

According to Raymond Chong who kindly gave me the photograph with permission to post it, these men all worked in laundries. They were kinsmen who all came from the same village in China.  The photograph captures a Sunday gathering for a meal and companionship at the Sun Tong Laundry owned by Sun Yoke Tong, Raymond’s maternal grandfather.

“The Yee Clansmen worked long hours during the week. They faced racial discrimination with little opportunities for upward mobility. They were separated from their wives and children in China, especially during the Civil War in China and World War II. It was an insular society of bachelors in Chinatown. As a result, the men socialized together and closely bonded during their free times, usually on Sunday’s afternoons and evenings at Sun Tong Laundry on 30 Cota Street . They ate communal meals, shared stories, played games, and gambled. They wrote letters to their loved ones in China.”

Sun Tong Laundry, Santa Barbara 20

              Similar gatherings of lonely Chinese bachelor laundrymen occurred on Sundays across the country in towns, large and small. In larger cities Chinese might congregate at a family association hall or a  headquarters for  a chapter of  the Hip Sing Association or the  On Leong Merchants Association  whereas in small towns, laundrymen working would periodically journey from as far as 100 miles away to these gatherings at a  centrally located town.  Gambling at these meetings was a favorite pastime for some of them, and possibly, opium smoking.  Police would make raids and Chinese would be arrested and fined as shown below in a Philadelphia raid in 1944.

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 11.28.35 AM           Source of Gambling Raid Photograph: Balch Museum

 Many other raids on Chinese gambling occurred as described below when Atlanta police arrested 25  Chinese laundrymen in 1902 and when 9 laundrymen, most from out-of-town, were fined for Sunday gambling in a Trenton, New Jersey, laundry.

1902 atl gambling raid

1917 Trenton 9 Sunday gamblers at ldy fined