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Q: Chinese Laundries ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   2 Comments )
Subject: Chinese Laundries
Category: Reference, Education and News
Asked by: auralfloral-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 30 Oct 2005 13:33 PST
Expires: 29 Nov 2005 13:33 PST
Question ID: 586769
Where can I find out about Chinese laundries in the late 1800s and
early 1900s?  If you do a good job I?ll add $10 in tip.
Subject: Re: Chinese Laundries
Answered By: tlspiegel-ga on 31 Oct 2005 10:00 PST
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
Hi auralfloral,

Thank you for your question.


"Laundry work was dangerous work involving long laborious days.
Usually, a typical day at the laundry started as early as four o'clock
in the morning and did not end until the latest hours of the night.
Hand laundries required many hours of manual labor. The laundry was
washed in large wooden kettles of boiling water, and was then strung
over strong wires to dry by a coal stove. Ironing was also done by
hand sometimes using cast irons that required heating on the stove.

Often times, entire families lived cramped together in the back of
their laundries, using nothing more than mats for beds. Such was the
case for Lillie Hong, who came to St. Louis in 1924 at age five to
work in her family's laundry and continued to work in the laundry
business when she married in 1935. All capable family members,
including young children, shared the work in the laundry."


Yick Wo v. Hopkins


"In the 1880s, Chinese immigrants to California faced many legal and
economic hurdles, including discriminatory provisions in the
California constitution. As a result, they were excluded, either by
law or by bias, from many professions. As a result, many turned to the
laundry business and in San Francisco about 89% of the laundry workers
were of Chinese descent.

In 1880, the City of San Francisco passed an ordinance that persons
could not operate a laundry in a wooden building without a permit from
the board of supervisors. At the time, about 95% of the city's 320
laundries were in wooden buildings. Approximately two-thirds of those
laundries were owned by Chinese persons. Although most of the city's
wooden building laundry owners applied for a permit, none were granted
to any Chinese owner, while only one non-Chinese owner was denied a

========= American History - Chinese on the Western Frontier
"Immigrants from China poured into gold-rich California in 1852 and
kept on coming, mostly working as laborers who seemingly would do
everything that Anglos wouldn't or couldn't do.

"A tiny fellow with a scarred cheek and eager eyes, "John John," the
Chinese laundry man, was the laughingstock of Weaverville, California.
For months during he had been washing the Anglo miners' clothes and
never had charged even a penny for his services.

The Anglos thought he was stupid, and intentionally took advantage of
him. But a year later, according to prospector John Hoffman, who
followed gold and silver trails through the Sierras for nearly three
decades, one of the white miners came across John John wearing fine
clothes in Sacramento. The Chinese laundry man had washed enough gold
dust out of pants cuffs and shirttails to set himself up for life!"


"Even more ingenious were the suppliers of women who ran a little
Chinese laundry in a mining camp near Oroville. Like many Chinese in
the area, they were slender and stoop-shouldered from bending over hot
irons day after day. Facially, they looked very much alike and often
were mistaken for each other."


Readings: Excerpts from The Hollywood Dream & Chinese Laundry

Excerpts from Chinese Laundry

"One day when I was still in China, I saw someone put hot charcoal
onto the laundry iron before ironing clothes. He said, "If you have a
chance to go overseas to Gum San (Golden Mountain) and make money,
ironing clothes is what you'll do for a living." But others didn't
think so, "If one has to use their hands to iron clothes like you do,
it's too slow. Those Gum San people use machines!"


"After I arrived at New York, I was quite disillusioned. If things
were really the way I had naively imagined, all the Chinese laundries
would have been closed. In reality, Chinese laundrymen relied on their
hands. On the door of every Chinese laundry were these two big words
in red paint, "Hand Laundry," meaning all ironing was done by hand.

In New York, perhaps seven out of ten Chinese survived by working in
Chinese Hand Laundries. At the end of almost every residential block
or alley, there was always a Chinese laundry. A Chinese laundry was
usually small- about the size of five dining tables, equipped only
with an ironing board and a shelf to put cleaned, ironed clothes that
were packaged and ready to go."


"Some Chinese could not rent a decent place, and had to use the
basements of old buildings. The basements were dark all day long. In
the winter, working in the basement was actually tolerable because it
kept the place warm. But on hot summer days, the temperature hit over
100 degrees F and your whole body would sweat.

At the beginning, I thought the work that my father and I did was
really hard. Later I was surprised to learn from my father's
"colleagues" that we were already using a modern iron that made the
work much easier. When my father first came to the U.S., there weren't
any electric irons. Steel irons were used. Compared to the hot
charcoal irons used in China, these steel irons were even worse. My
father's laundry still Icept them around. They weighed eight pounds
each. Chinese heated them on a hot stove. When the iron was hot
enough, you took it off the stove and ironed until it cooled down.
Then you heated it up again. After ironing all day, marks would appear
on your palm. Blisters would turn to calluses so thick that even if
you cut them open with a knife would not bleed. Long time Chinese
immigrants all had those calluses on their palms.

Many Chinese developed health problems after only three years of
laundry work. Some caught TB. Some had ulcers, internal bleeding, or
swollen feet."


"After the war (WWII) unemployment skyrocketed. American owned
automated laundromats replaced many Chinese laundries. Hand labor was
not as fast as machines. Moreover, Chinese charged 20 cents a shirt
while American owned machine-equipped laundries would charge ten
cents. The Chinese laundry business declined day by day.

In the laundry business, Chinese always avoided competing among
themselves and helped each other survive. If I opened a laundry on one
block, you would try not to open another one close by. After the war,
many Americans started laundries that were close to those of the
Chinese. Many Chinese were squeezed out of business but they never
complained. They felt, after all, that they were living in someone
else's country.

Some Chinese would move to small towns not too far from the city. But,
after finding a good location, the landlord would either refuse to
rent the space at all or raise the rent because he did not want
Chinese tenants. So, Chinese had to go to even more remote areas.
Investing lots of time and money and facing the added burden of
alienation and the language barrier, Chinese laundries still survived.

Laundry work was a painful experience for Chinese. But they endured it
because they wanted to send money back to their homeland. During their
years in America, they only wished to remain healthy, strong, and
productive so that their children in China could grow up to be good
and outstanding."


Climbing Golden Mountain by Geoffrey Dunn

"Aside from performing tasks as day laborers, many Chinese men worked
in the laundry business. In 1880 there were already 19 Chinese
laundries in the county, employing 70 workers full time. Ten were
located in downtown Santa Cruz.

Because most white males felt laundry work beneath their dignity, the
Chinese were able to enter the wash house business with a minimum of
resistance. Chinese laundries were labor intensive and required little
initial investment. They rapidly became the foundation of the Chinese

On entering a Chinese laundry, Otto recalled in one of his historical
columns,"One saw a long ironing board against the wall on each side,
with six or seven men ironing ... At the side of each was a sauce bowl
filled with water set on top of a starch box. The Chinese, wearing
white cotton blouses, would bend over to fill their mouths with water
and then spray it over the clothes to dampen them." Rocks behind the
wash houses were used for beating the clothes."


"Aside from performing tasks as day laborers, many Chinese men worked
in the laundry business. In 1880 there were already 19 Chinese
laundries in the county, employing 70 workers full time. Ten were
located in downtown Santa Cruz.

Because most white males felt laundry work beneath their dignity, the
Chinese were able to enter the wash house business with a minimum of
resistance. Chinese laundries were labor intensive and required little
initial investment. They rapidly became the foundation of the Chinese

On entering a Chinese laundry, Otto recalled in one of his historical
columns,"One saw a long ironing board against the wall on each side,
with six or seven men ironing ... At the side of each was a sauce bowl
filled with water set on top of a starch box. The Chinese, wearing
white cotton blouses, would bend over to fill their mouths with water
and then spray it over the clothes to dampen them." Rocks behind the
wash houses were used for beating the clothes."


"Later that year, Arthur signed a slightly modified version of the
Chinese Exclusion Act, which was amended in 1884, extended
indefinitely in 1902, and wasn't repealed until 1943. For over 50
years, Chinese laborers and their wives were barred from entering this

The final great wave of the local anti-Chinese movement had its
beginnings in February 1885 and culminated a year later. By then local
Sino-racism was stripped of its Workingmen's facade. The state
"Non-Partisan Anti-Chinese Association" had active clubs in
Watsonville, Aptos, Boulder Creek and Felton. In downtown Santa Cruz,
Anthony and McPherson remained at the forefront of the movement.

Once again Chinese laundries provided the initial focus for their
attack. A health ordinance regulating sewage disposal was aimed
directly at Chinese wash houses. Soon after the local association
called for a boycott of all Chinese merchants (including vegetable
peddlers) and even white-owned businesses which employed Chinese."


I answered a question about the Chinese Exclusion Act 1882.  This also
might be of interest to you.

[slightly down from the top of the page]

"As the foregoing indicates, this first period of Asian American
history, from about 1850 to 1940, was marked by immigration
restrictions and exclusion. During this time Asian immigrants and
their children worked in backbreaking, labor-intensive, and sometimes
dangerous jobs, including the building of the transcontinental
railroads, lumbering, fishing, farming, working in canneries and
factories, operating laundries and restaurants,"

[scrolling further down the page]

"Other laws were blatantly discriminatory. In 1862, California levied a
tax against only Chinese residents of the state. California also
enacted laws prohibiting California corporations and governmental
entities from hiring any Chinese employees. San Francisco also enacted
special taxes targeted at Chinese laundries and, between 1873 and
1884, fourteen regulations targeting Chinese laundries alone. In a
similar vein, San Francisco passed the "Cubic Air Ordinance,... "


The Workers of the Central Pacific

[On the left side of page click on link for "The California Public's
Response to Chinese Labor"]

The Chinese were a boon to the Central Pacific; without them, the
railroad could never have been completed as quickly as it was. The
populace of California, however, saw things differently. California
laborers had never shown much more than "monumental indifference"
toward the work done by the Central Pacific [McCague 106]. However,
with the new Chinese labor force working for the Central Pacific, they
became suddenly worried about their futures and, "incited by an
indignant San Francisco press, leaders began to rais a passionate
hullabaloo over this unfair competition by 'yellow labor'" [McCague
106]. These working-class people were now faced with an issue that
seemed to be "bound up directly with their own bread and butter"
[McCague 106].

In San Francisco on March 6, 1867, the Anti-Coolie Labor Association
held its first meeting in the American Theater [Howard 235]. This was
the beginning of bad times for the Chinese in California. "Mobs of men
and women howled through the streets, pelting Chinese with rocks and
filth" [Howard 235]. Drunks and "young toughs" set fire to Chinese
owned laundries and cigar factories, emptied chamber pots on the
doorsteps along Grant Avenue, and howled indecencies at Chinese
funeral processions [Howard 235]."


Civilization CA  (Canada)

5. Enduring Hardship ? Chinese Hand Laundry 

"Following the extension of the Canadian Pacific Railway to Vancouver
in 1887, many Chinese labourers moved to other parts of Canada to look
for work. However, socio-economic discrimination and racial hostility,
in addition to a lack of capital and language barriers, limited their

Under these circumstances, many Chinese established hand laundries, as
a means to earn a living within the existing economic niches of
Canadian society. With a majority of Chinese living in poverty, the
entire Chinese community was virtually reduced to the lowest
socio-economic class of society from around the turn of the century
until the Depression years."

See photo
The Wah Chong Laundry, Vancouver, 1884
Courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives 

"The Fraser River gold rush and the construction of the Canadian
Pacific Railway, among other developments, brought thousands of
Chinese labourers to British Columbia from 1858 to 1885. Following the
completion of the CPR, many of these immigrants moved to other parts
of the country to continue to search for their dream of the "golden
mountain." Many set up laundry businesses in railway towns and cities
east of the Rockies and as far away as Quebec, the Maritimes and
Newfoundland. From 1890 to 1950, a significant number of Chinese
engaged in this trade. For example, in Montreal in 1921, there was a
population of 1,735 Chinese with an estimated 368 laundries."

Two factors contributed to the establishment of the Chinese laundries.
First, all that was required was a bit of capital and long hours of
work, with the owners speaking little English or French. Secondly, the
Chinese were discouraged from entering other occupations and were
subjected to legal restrictions and socio-economic discrimination.
They could only engage in labour-intensive work.

Laundrymen experienced social and family isolation. In most cases,
their family members were left behind in China."


"The life of a laundryman was very difficult and monotonous. Most of
his time was spent washing, ironing, pressing, packaging and
delivering clothes and chopping wood. The work was hard, and the
income was very low. Apart from their long hours of work, laundrymen
made an occasional trip to Chinatown to buy groceries and have a cup
of tea or a game of mahjong with their fellow clansmen and friends."

See photo

Laundryman with a wooden washing machine
Courtesy of Glenbow Archives 


Life in Seattle and Environs in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond -- as told
by Margaret Reed

Growing Up in Seattle During the Depression 

"You had these small mom-and-pop type grocery stores like Horrigan?s
in our neighborhood. There was a meat market down on Boren. Across 9th
Avenue, there was a grocery store and a Chinese laundry. They?d iron
those shirts on a flat surface with heavy irons they took off of a hot
stove. There were quite a few Chinese laundries around."



"Chinese hand laundries became one of the first types of businesses
associated with Chinese immigrants. St. Louis' Chinatown originally
had several hand laundries, that later moved elsewhere in the city.
However, the Downtown Cleaners, located at 716 Market, remained in
Chinatown over the decades.

Chinese hand laundries in St. Louis' Chinatown resembled Chinese
laundries in other areas of the city, as well as other Chinatowns
across the United States. A typical hand laundry consisted of four
sections. First, there was the office and workshop area located at the
front of the laundry. This area is where laundryman would greet his
customers. Second, in the back room behind the workshop, were the
living quarters for the laundryman and his family. A third area was
reserved for drying the laundry usually done by an old-fashioned coal
stove. Finally, at the rear of the laundry, was the location of the
laundry equipment such as washing machines, washing sinks, and steam


More on this page

Their hand laundry was where the brothers both lived and worked. A day
at a Chinese hand laundry for the brothers, like many other Chinese
Americans who operated hand laundries, consisted of arduous and
hazardous work. The Sam Wah Laundry had a widespread reputation in the
St. Louis area for the quality of their service. Although many
households at this time had washing machines of their own, the Gee
brothers still maintained a large clientele


See photos at: Chinese Laundy The story of Frank Wing Yow Soo

[Click on read his story bottom of page]

Frank Wing Yow Soo

"In those days, there were very, very few Chinese in England. So
whenever he saw a Chinese person, my father immediately went to greet
them. They spoke, exchanged addresses and sooner or later visited each
other. The only trade that seemed to be open to the Chinese was hand
laundry work. So they all opened little laundries where they and their
family could work.

In those days, the average English person washed daily, but only had a
bath and changed their underwear once a week. Most houses didn't have
a bathroom and even inside toilets only started appearing in houses
built from about 1930. People didn't have the facilities for washing
clothes and sheets, so tended to take them to the local laundry.

Being very poor, the laundries set up by the Chinese were in the
cheapest areas. These were usually also the roughest and toughest
parts of each town. So in Cardiff, the Chinese laundries were found in
Bute Street, Tiger Bay. In Liverpool it was Scotland Road.

It wasn't only the Chinese who ran small hand laundries. There were
still many small, English hand laundries satisfying this need. In
Cheltenham, in the back streets of Leckhampton, there was a little
English hand laundry, in the back of a terraced house, which didn't
close until the early 50's.

Immediately after the war, my father travelled all over England and
Wales working in Chinese laundries - possibly the equivalent of
today's back-packer. After a few years however, he settled down and
started his own laundry in Birkenhead."


"My father re-opened the laundry at 66 Oxton Road, almost opposite the
Brewery. This was quite convenient, as we didn't have to run very far
whenever the warning sirens went off.

I remember the laundry had a great big cauldron, about five feet
across and heated by a coke fire underneath. All the dirty clothes
were piled in and boiled, before being transferred to a large wooden
tub for rinsing. The clothes were then spun dry in a "hydro" and then
transferred to the "drying room" with wires strung across the ceiling.

The room was heated by an iron coke stove which was also the heater
for the flat irons. The flat irons were more versatile than the
electric irons available then. In fact, stiff collars could only be
formed or shaped with a flat iron - electric irons were too bulky and
couldn't get hot enough. Only Chinese laundries were able to produce
the very stiff collars as preferred by the police and armed forces and
for formal dress wear."


"Our laundry had a very quick turn-around of three days. The work was
hard and physically demanding, with my father having to work an
18-hour day for five days of the week and three to five hours on the
other two days. He always kept the afternoons free on market day and
Sunday. To be able to do an 18-hour stint he would sleep for an hour
each afternoon."






keyword search:

chinese laundries history 1800's - early 1900's
chinese hand laundry
chinese hand laundries


Best regards,
auralfloral-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $10.00
Thanks for your answer.  It certainly gave me a lot of the
information.  I was hoping for some slightly more factual/in-depth
information, but I know that you put a lot of work into the answer,
and the anecdotes and more general information are helpful, too,so I'm
happy to add in the tip.  Thanks for your work on this one.  I know it
would have taken me a lot longer to find all the information myself -
how long does it take someone like you to answer these questions?

Subject: Re: Chinese Laundries
From: umiat-ga on 31 Oct 2005 08:48 PST
I think we've caught on to you all by this time!
Subject: Re: Chinese Laundries
From: tlspiegel-ga on 31 Oct 2005 14:24 PST
Hi auralfloral,

Thank you very much for the generous tip!  I don't recall how long it
took me to find the information and compile it into an answer.  :)

Best regards,

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