Two Women, Possibly White, Buy A Chinese Laundry

white women buy CHinese laundry 1962

  When Chinese laundries change owners, the typical situation involves new or younger Chinese buying the business of a retiring Chinese laundryman.  In 1962, however, the Decatur, Illinois newspaper reported that Mrs. June Lafferty and Mrs. Shirley J. Mann, who don’t seem to be Chinese, bought the Sam Lee Laundry that allegedly dated back to 1865 at 152 S. Main Street and renamed it, June and Shirley’s Hand Laundry.

However, according to a 1903 newspaper article, there were no Chinese listed in the first City Directory of 1871, with the first listing of a Chinese laundry occurring in 1883-4 for Joe Hop Hing who had a laundry at 152 S. Main Street.  Note that this is the same address of the Sam Lee Laundry the two women bought in 1962.  However, in 1883-4, the City Directory shows that Sam Lee Laundry was at 145 E. Prairie Street and a few years later at 149 E. Eldorado St.

Another inconsistency in the information is that the 1900 census records indicated that Joe Hop Hing did not immigrate to the U. S. until 1890, so if that is correct, he could not have operated a laundry in Decatur as early as 1883.

1900 chin laundrymen decatur IL

Interestingly, when I further researched the earlier history of the Sam Lee Laundry that was sold in 1962, I discovered there had been several other Chinese laundries in Decatur at the turn of the last century. However, they soon disappeared, possibly due to competition with white-owned steam laundries.  The 1903 news article reported that there was already a large decline in the local Chinese population:

chinese in decatur gone

The Hop Hing Joe laundry was reportedly part of a “trust” or part of a set of laundries in different cities that was operated by Chinese who had some financial and or family ties. This trust was alleged to be run by Hop Hing, and headquartered in St. Louis, but I could not verify this claim. Historian Huping Ling, author of Chinese St. Louis does mention a Chinese named Hop Hing in connection with his arrest in 1914 for manufacturing opium, and again in 1915. It does not seem likely that he is the head of the trust mentioned in the Decatur newspaper.

hop hing trustThe local newspaper noted in 1944 that business was ‘booming’ for the three Chinese laundries still operating.  It acknowledged Sam Lee as the “Dean of Chinese Laundry Men.”

decatur IL 1944 2 Ch laundries

An Historic Marker for A Chinese Laundry Site in San Diego

Chinese Laundry, 1923 Marker

I was excited, and also a bit envious, to discover that San Diego placed a marker on a building in the historic Gaslamp Quarter which housed the Hop Lee Chong Laundry, which was  in continuous operation from the building’s construction in 1923 until 1964.

In contrast, I grew up in the Sam Lee Laundry in Macon, Georgia, which started back in 1885 and operated in the same building, (on the right edge of the photo below), until 1956 when my father sold the laundry, retired, and moved to San Francisco .

1906 Sam Lee laundry bib245-82

Sometime, probably in the 1970s, the historic building was demolished and converted into a parking lot, which stunned me when I saw it on a visit in 2004. I saw no historic marker at the site!

sam lee laundry-parking site 2004
I am standing in 2004 in front of what had been Sam Lee Laundry from 1885-1956.

A few years later, the street level open air parking lot was “upgraded” to an enclosed parking structure, but there was still no historic marker!  Maybe sometime in the future?

Sam Lee laundry site parking blg 2012


The Last Sam Lee Laundry?

One of the most prevalent names for Chinese laundries has been “Sam Lee Laundry.”  On a personal note, I grew up in one in Macon, Georgia, and I was surprised to later discover similarly named Chinese laundries all across North America.  “Sam Lee” was not usually the name of the proprietor of such laundries, even though in U. S. Census records you can find a few  “Sam Lees” listed as the operator of a Chinese laundry.  Actually “Sam Lee” is the transliteration of the Chinese for “triple profits,” an example of wishful thinking on the part of the laundryman who chose such a name.  But many customers, as well as some census enumerators, just assumed that the owner’s name was indeed, “Sam Lee.”

Today, there are very few Chinese laundries left, Sam Lee or otherwise named, for many reasons. Recently I discovered via the web that a Sam Lee Laundry was still in business in Lambertville, a small New Jersey town near Philadelphia.  The 1910 census records show that a laundry at 12 Church Street was run by a Chinese “named” Sam Lee, although as noted above, that may not have been his actual name.  In the old photograph below of Church Street from I guess around the 1950s, you can’t see the laundry, looking toward the historic Presbyterian church at the end of the street, but the second photograph shows the laundry as it currently stands at 21 Church Street on the opposite side of its earlier location at No. 12.

Lambertville-Sam Lee Ldy on CHURCH st with church at end

sam Lee l lambertv  photo

Eventually, immigrants from China, Mon Wai Louie and his wife, Chun Nui, became its owners around 1950 and retained its name as Sam Lee Laundry.  A Trenton, New Jersey, newspaper article featured the Louie family in a 1974 story about how their family celebrates Chinese New Year.

Sam Lee ldy family 1974

That was 40 years ago.  Mon Wai Louie and his wife certainly would have retired by now.  I was amazed it was still in business as Chinese laundries faced a serious threat from the widespread availability of home washing equipment, as noted in a 1987 newspaper article in which Mon Wai Louie was interviewed about the future of Chinese laundry businesses.

1987 pt 2 Sam Lee

Somehow, the Sam Lee Laundry in Lambertville managed to stay in business.  But I wondered if it was still run by Chinese.  Perhaps a non-Chinese had acquired the laundry and simply retained its original Chinese name.  My curiosity led me to phone the laundry to find out. I discovered that  Chinese still ran the Sam Lee Laundry.  John Louie, one of the six Louie children, was its fourth generation owner and continuing the family laundry business, which had been operating for over a century!  I don’t know if there are any other Sam Lee Laundries operating today, but this one is, and it  could well be the very last one in existence.

The “Sam Lee Laundry” in Goldsboro, NC (ca. 1910-1960)

As noted in a prior post, Sam Lee was a common name for a Chinese laundry.  A small sample of Sam Lee Laundries is shown in the photograph below.  You could find one in virtually every state, but the Chinese men who operated them were not necessarily named “Sam Lee.”

set of sam lee laundriesSAM LeeHAND LAUNDRY list

An examination of the history of one Sam Lee Laundry located for many decades in the heart of Goldsboro, North Carolina, illustrates some reasons why the name was so prevalent even though misleading with respect to the names of the owners. This Sam Lee Laundry was operated by a Chinese  known in this town as Sam Lee.  Born in Canton, China,  sometime in the 1870s,  he immigrated to the U. S. hoping to earn more here than he could in China.  Like many Chinese immigrants during this era, he first worked in elsewhere, two years in New York, before coming to Goldsboro and settled down with his laundry for around 60 years, according to him. However, there is no record of the exact year he came to Goldsboro but he did stay there until he closed his laundry in 1960.

Although the 1911-12 Goldsboro City Directory listed a “Sam Lee Laundry” at 138 East Center South, the U. S. census did not list a “Sam Lee” living in Goldsboro in either the 1910 or 1920 Census. This absence does not prove that he was not there, only that he was not available when the census enumerator came to his address. The 1910 U. S. Census did list a different Chinese, 28-year old Sing Lee, operating a laundry with a 17 year old cousin Joseph Lee at 218 East Center South, an address  very close to the 1911-12 location for the aforementioned Sam Lee Laundry.  Although it might seem that  these were two different Chinese, each operating his own laundry, it is possible that there was only a single laundry and it was operated by the same Chinese man.  Census enumerators may have made an error in recording the address. Another possibility is that the two different  numbers of the two laundries on the same street reflected renumbering of street address numbers that occurred in some towns as they grew.  Another conjecture is that the 28- year old Sing Lee might actually have been the same man known as Sam Lee who was the same approximate age. Perhaps when the Chinese man spoke his name, with imperfect English pronunciation, for the census enumerator in 1910, it might have been that “Sam Lee” was heard as “Sing Lee.” 

In Chinese,  “Sam Lee” is not a person’s name but a concept that translates to mean “three (triple) profits,” 三利, a name that might be chosen for a laundry business in hopes that the name would magically bestow good fortune.  However, many people assumed that a Chinese operating a “Sam Lee Laundry” must be someone named Sam Lee.  For such reasons, it is conceivable  that his real name was not Sam Lee. The Chinese character for Lee as a surname is  李 , which differs from the Chinese character for profit, 利, even though they have a similar pronunciation.

Many years later, when  Sam Lee was asked to write his name in Chinese for a newspaper article, he did not use the character for the surname Lee 李 but instead he wrote the  characters for triple profits,  三利, although the newspaper, unfamiliar with Chinese, printed his name upside down.

Sam_Lee char

The first City Directory for Goldsboro, published for 1916-17, followed the fashion at that time and used the heading “Chinese Laundries,” to distinguish them from the white-owned steam laundries. It  listed two Chinese laundries, one run by Charles Lee at 130 south Center East and another one run by Sam Lee at 137 south Center West. The street number differed by a single digit from the location, 138, given for Sam Lee Laundry in the 1911-12 Directory, so it is reasonable to assume it might actually be the same laundry.


Sam Lee, finally turned up in the U. S. Census lists for Goldsboro for both 1930 and 1940. The 1930 Census recorded Sam Lee as 51 years old and married.  However, there was no listing of a wife or children for Sam Lee in either the 1930 or 1940 Census.  It is likely that, like many other Chinese, he was unable to bring any family members because the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 did not permit laborers like him to do so. Although this law was repealed in 1943,  difficulties persisted for many years for Chinese trying to bring family members over.  On Nov. 26, 1951 a Greensboro Daily News article about Sam Lee when he was 71 years old is consistent with this conjecture. It cites his inability to bring his family to the United States, a situation that was aggravated by the rise of the Chinese Communist government around the early 1950s. Even though he had already sent his family $500, the most he could raise, he was still unsuccessful. He received a letter from his wife that pleaded, “Send for me. I don’t pay fine. I put to death.”

According to the 1930 Census, Sam Lee had a Chinese roomer, Lee Joe, age 37.  The Census enumerator probably reversed his name, because as noted previously, in 1910, a 17-year old cousin, Joseph Lee, was listed with Sing Lee at his laundry.  Lee Joe and Joseph Lee were probably the same person. This evidence fits the conjecture that Sing Lee and Sam Lee might have been the same person since it is highly unlikely that two different Chinese laundrymen of about the same age would each have a roomer named Lee Joe (Joseph Lee).  Interestingly, Joe Lee or Lee Joe, worked for a different laundry in between his time in 1910 with Sing Lee and in 1930 with Sam Lee for in the 1920 Census he was listed as a 28-year old servant for a laundryman, Kai Hong,  at 127 James St.  His moves may have reflected the ups and downs of the laundry business for by 1930 Sam Lee Laundry moved to 205 N. Center St. which was also its address  in the 1940 census.

Almost 20 years later, on June 1, 1969, the Goldsboro News-Argus newspaper published a heart-wrenching story about Sam Lee (then 89 years old, but described incorrectly as 98 years old). He had operated his laundry for over 50 years until he closed it in 1960, unable to compete against large steam laundries.  Without work, he struggled to survive on social security and welfare, unable to even afford glasses or a hearing aid for his declining vision and hearing.  Fortunately, a former laundry employee of about 46 years provided him with housing by taking him into her home.

The story involved a little white girl who received a pair of small chopsticks from her father serving in the American Air Force in Vietnam who had sought Sam Lee to teach her how to use them. Sam Lee made a gift to her of a larger pair of chopsticks, ones  he had brought with him when he first came from China.  As news of this kind gesture  spread, people in the community reached out to provide Sam Lee with glasses, a hearing aid, food, and even money.

Sam Lee’s life was similar in many respects to that of hundreds of other Chinese laundrymen, especially those who lived and worked in isolation from other Chinese, often separated from their wives, children, parents, and other family. The more fortunate ones may have had brothers, cousins, and even sons who managed to circumvent the immigration barriers to join them in operating their laundries.

Sam Lee died in Goldsboro in 1978. Death records for North Carolina reported Sam Lee as born in 1877 and dying in Goldsboro at age 100 in 1978, although a local newspaper obituary reported his age as 107.

“North Carolina, Deaths, 1931-1994,” index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 08 Apr 2013), Sam Lee, 23 Mar 1978.

The Index of North Carolina Deaths, 1931-1994, indicated he is buried in Willow Dale Cemetery, Goldsboro, N. C., but a check of that Cemetery’s records does not confirm this claim.

On The Relationship of Chinese Laundry Names and Their Owners’ Names

In my book, Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain, I speculated about the origins of Chinese laundry names.  I noted that while some laundries bore the name of the owner, many laundries had names such as Sing Lee or Sam Lee that were often mistakenly assumed to be the names of  the owners.   One of the most common Chinese surnames,李, is Lee in English. Sing Lee and Sam Lee being two of the most common Chinese male names in the U. S. from around 1900 to 1920.   Most men named Sing Lee and Sam Lee ran laundries. In a sample of 50 Chinese named Sing Lee and 50, Sam Lee, in the 1910 census, 73 percent were listed as laundry heads. Many Chinese did not speak English well so census takers may have sometimes inferred their names from examining their laundry names, thus inflating the number of laundrymen named Sing Lee and Sam Lee.

In Chinese,  the ideograph for the common Chinese surname, Lee, sounds like “li,”the Chinese character 利 that means ‘profit.’  Thus,  a laundry might be named Sing Lee because “Sing” which refers to “victory,” when  combined with “Lee,” translates  to “victorious profit.”   The Chinese  ideograph, 三,  for the number three is pronounced “Sam” and when combined with “Lee” 利 connotes making a three-fold  or triple profit.  Thus, the owner of a “Sam Lee Laundry” is not necessarily someone named “Sam Lee,” but customers might readily make the assumption that it was.   Thus, many laundries used names that represented a form of wishful or magical thinking, a belief that its name might contribute to financial success.

For example, my father owned a Sam Lee Laundry and even though his Chinese name was Lau Kwok Fui and he adopted Frank Jung as his American name, he was commonly known as “Sam Lee” by townspeople, an error that  he felt no need to correct.  A similar disparity probably exists for many Chinese laundries, but proof would have to come from interviews with owners as it can not be confirmed from official records.  Thus, examination of City Directories can help identify the names and addresses of Chinese laundries, but the name of the owner is not specified.  In contrast, U. S. Census records can help identify the names of Chinese who ran laundries but they do not specify the names of their laundries, only their addresses.  And, to make matters more difficult, sometimes Chineses names are misspelled, misheard, or illegibly recorded. Census data is sometimes incomplete because the enumerators could not locate some Chinese residents who may have been absent or in hiding, fearing deportation if they lacked proper papers.  Discrepancies between owner names and names of their laundries might also occur when there is a new owner.  The existing name of an established business might be retained instead of using the new owner’s name for continuity, and to save the expense of a new sign.