Chinese laundries developed as a major occupation for the first wave of Chinese immigrants who came to the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. Laundries opened throughout the country and became uniquely identified with this ethnic group. The Chinese launderer stereotype appeared in popular culture and media.
Although the first Chinese had arrived in the United States in 1820, the first significant wave of Chinese immigration did not occur until soon after the California gold rush in 1849. With hopes of making a fortune in “Gold Mountain” and then returning to their families in China, thousands of young men left their impoverished villages in southern China to travel to California. They became contract laborers who worked in the gold mines and on the railroads. However, growing anti-Chinese sentiment and restricted urban labor markets forced the increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants to seek other work.
In 1851, Wah Lee opened the first Chinese hand laundry in the United States. His small, leased storefront in
However, as more groups competed for work, prejudice against Chinese immigrants intensified. In 1880, 95 percent of San Francisco’s 320 laundries operated in wooden buildings. The city passed an ordinance requiring owners of laundries in wooden buildings to obtain a permit. Two-thirds of the laundries were owned by Chinese people, but none of them was granted a permit. Only one non-Chinese owner was denied.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Family-run Chinese laundry in California around 1910.
In 1922, the Los Angeles Times ran a “Junior Times” section that included a variety of mechanical paper puppets. Along with policemen, animals, a jack-in-the-box, and other figures was “Lee Ling, Chinese Laundry Man.” Shockingly derogatory portrayals occurred in
An ingrained part of popular culture, the old comedic associations were carried into television. A television commercial for Calgon water softener that was popular during the 1970’s featured a white woman asking a laundry owner named Lee how he gets his shirts so very clean. He replies, “Ancient Chinese secret.” The secret is exposed when Lee’s wife sticks her head out from the back room and shouts that they need more Calgon.
The Chinese laundryman stereotype persisted, but by the 1950’s the actual traditional Chinese laundries were becoming obsolete. Self-service laundromats proliferated during the 1950’s. Generations of children who grew up in laundries pursued higher education and entered other occupations. With the end of the civil war in China in 1949, a new wave of Chinese immigration had begun. These immigrants often came from upper- and middle-class families searching for a better life in America or were well-educated intellectuals pursuing advanced degrees. In 1993, writer
Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Viking Press, 2003. Highly readable chronicle of the Chinese American experience through the twentieth century. Includes details about Chinese laundries and the laundry workers. Jung, John. Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain. Morrisville, N.C.: Yin & Yang Press, 2007. Comprehensive historical, social, and psychological study that includes personal stories from “children of the laundries,” as well as newspaper articles, photographs, and historic documents. Siu, Paul C. P. The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation. New York: New York University Press, 1987. The son of a laundryman, the author presents an intimate but scholarly study of Chinese laundries in Chicago from 1870 to 1940. This classic is a landmark in the exploration of ethnic occupations and the American immigrant experience. Yu, Renqiu. To Save China, to Save Ourselves: The Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance of New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. The complete story of the leftist labor organization that successfully advocated for Chinese laundry workers and other overseas Chinese living in North America. Yung, Judy, Gordon H. Chang, and H. Mark Lai, eds. Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Anthology of personal stories revealing the political, social, and cultural history of the Chinese American experience. Includes the Declaration of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance of 1933.
Chinese American Citizens Alliance
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Chinese Exclusion Cases
Chinese family associations
Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance
Geary Act of 1892
Yick Wo v. Hopkins