The Historical Importance of Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain
The Historical Importance ofThe Historical Importance ofChinese LaundriesChinese LaundriesTICKETS TO SURVIVAL ON GOLDTICKETS TO SURVIVAL ON GOLDMOUNTAINMOUNTAINJohn JungPortland Chinese Student Scholarship FoundationPortland Chinese Student Scholarship FoundationMay 5, 2013
Real Meaning of Popular Laundry NamesSam Lee, Sing Lee, Wah Lee, Tai LeeWere these laundries owned by men named Lee?NO, the surname, Lee, 李 , sounds like li, 利 (“profit” )Chinese liked words suggesting prosperity in their laundry names.Sing Lee and Sam Lee: two common Chinese male names73% of Sing Lees & Sam Lees ran laundries.
• Now Mr. Wu was a laundry man in a shopwith an old green door.• Hell iron all day your linen away, he reallymakes me sore.• Hes lost his heart to a Chinese girl and hislaundrys all gone wrong.• All day hell flirt and scorch your shirt,thats why Im singing this song.• Oh Mr. Wu, what shall I do, Im feelingkind of Limehouse Chinese Laundry Blues.• George Formby, popular 1930s British singerSimilar Anti-Chinese Views Over in England
. 1880 San Francisco Ordinance required all laundries be built of brick.. All Chinese, and 1 Euro-Am, laundrymen with wood buildings were fined. Yick Wo filed a case to the Calif. Supreme Court and lost. Yick Wo won his appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court in 1886.Unfair Laws:Landmark Case of Yick Wo vs. Hopkins
A Novice Laundryman’s Experience• When I first handled the dirty clothes, I could not take the smell. I almostthrew up. Father saw my reaction and comforted me, "Take your time. Youknow, picking up these clothes is even worse than moving corpses back inChina.• I never mentioned the unhealthy conditions of the laundry in my letters toChina. Knowing those things would not do the family any good back home.• Frankly, I was busy from dawn to dusk…I always wrote I am well and healthy here. No need to worry. It didntmatter whether I was well or sick. Being here, you had to endure.
• The irons weighed 8 pounds each. When the iron was hot enough, youtook it off the stove where it was heated and ironed until it cooleddown. Then you heated it up again.• After ironing all day, marks would appear on your palm. Blisterswould turn to calluses so thick that even if you cut them open with aknife would not bleed…• Many Chinese had health problems after only three years of laundrywork… My father never wrote about his bad health to his wife back inChina.• Laundry work was a difficult life but the Chinese endured it becausethey wanted to send money back to their homeland.Physical Hardships of Laundry Work
Life of A Laundryman’s WifeMy husband was 20 years old when we weremarried. We were introduced bymatchmakers. He was 27 years old when hecame here…We saw each other again when I came over,ten years later… I came here when I was 46,48 and I have been here since then…I came tohelp my husband with the laundry…
The Laundry PremisesThe building that held the laundry was a converted horse barn about ahundred years old and we lived in very cramped space in the backwith no clear separation of the work areas from the living quarters.My ‘bedroom’ was the space where we dried clothes from lines strungacross the ceiling during the work hours.We had no heavy equipment in the store, only ironing tables and wesent all clothes out to a wet wash service for washing and most of theshirts to a shirt pressing factory for ironing/folding.
Children Worked in the LaundryMy father would routinely have me crawl into the inner cavity burner ofthe mangle where the flame ports need to be unplugged with a small poker.This was done to prevent uneven heating of the massive round cylinder.I had to twist my body into Houdini-like contortions in order to gainaccess into the inferno chamber.With a flashlight in my left hand and the small poker in my right hand, myfather would issue instructions from outside the inferno cavity.
Laundry AccidentsThe laundry was not a safe place to grow up.Nelson, my eldest brother, was horsing around the hydraulic shirtpresses while our mother was pressing collars. With his hands on eachof the two “ON” levers, which were spaced apart for safety reasons, hesent the hot 24” x 36” iron clamp down onto our mother’s right hand,leaving her hand permanently disfigured.In another incident, I was doodling with a ballpoint pen on a movingconveyer belt when my hand got caught.
Life Of A Laundryman’s SonOur living quarters were located on the second floor above the laundry.There were three bedrooms: my two sisters shared a room with our maternalgrandmother, my parents shared a room with one of my brothers, and Ishared a room with two other brothers.As young children, my brothers and sisters and I started off folding smallfluffy items such as towels. As we got older, we were assigned more difficultjobs, such as feeding damp linen into the mangle, a massive flat iron forpressing bed sheets and tablecloths.I spent the bulk of my boyhood folding, packaging, and organizingcustomers’linen. My time was also spent reconciling the differencesbetween the customers’ linen count against the actual count I had infront of me.
Life Of A Laundryman’s DaughterWe had no vacations, no trips to Disneyland, or any other fun events that theaverage family took for granted.I remember vividly all the limitations and deprivations that we as a family hadto deal with on a daily basis. …father opened the laundry from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but we were required to bethere well before opening, and work till long after closing.
Some Nasty Customers“Hey, there are still wrinkles here….and here….and, look, right there! NOT GOOD ENOUGH!I’m not going to pay for this!”Or, another complaining customer yelling, pointing out a stain,“I told you to clean that spot! It’s still there. Take that out!I don’t want to see that spot again!”Those interactions sting in my memory. The cranky customers causedmy parents to feel humiliated in their lowly posts of running a Chinesehand laundry.
Some Customers Were NiceA few of the laundry customers also noticed us four siblings and treatedus with friendly attention. They gave us dolls and American board games.They introduced us to hobbies of stamp collecting and coin collections.A few customers brought in hand-me-down clothing for my older sisterand jewelry for my mom. For Christmas, we received a few fruit basketsand fruitcakes.One customer and neighbor around the corner from us,hired me to baby-sit on occasion. Inside her house, I saw adifferent lifestyle of living---furniture, kitchen, snack foods, toys spread allover, and children who openly argued and fought.
Chineselaundry.wordpress.com• e-mail from India, April 30, 2013.I was thrilled to come across your website during a search for "Chinese laundries," and readmany of your entries with great interest. I am a South African but lived in Hong Kong foralmost a decade where I worked as a journalist on the South China Morning Post. Solveig