Southern Fried Rice: Life in A Chinese Laundry in the Deep South
This memoir conveys the experiences, first of my parents and subsequently of our family, the only Chinese people living in Macon, Georgia between 1928 and 1956. It describes our family's isolated existence running a laundry, enduring loneliness as well as racial prejudice for over 20 years, why and how it moved across the continent to live in a Chinese community, and how each family member adjusted to the challenges and opportunities of their new lives.
1. Why We Were In the Deep South
Most people, even other Chinese, assume that because I am of Chinese ancestry and live in California I must have been born or at least raised in a region with a large Chinese population such as San Francisco. When they discover that I was born and grew up in the middle of Georgia they are usually surprised and ask, “How did you ever end up down there?”
The simplest answer is that when my parents emigrated from a small village near Canton, now called Guangzhou, in southern China to the United States in the 1920s, the only people they knew who could help them get settled in the U. S. happened to be Chinese from their village who were already living in the South. But that answer only leads to the next question about why those Chinese went to the South. The answer is probably similar to that of how my parents found themselves in Georgia. Ultimately, the inquiry becomes an historical query to determine how the first link in the chain between our family village in China and the American South was forged.
From the middle of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century most Chinese coming to America disembarked in ports on the Pacific coast such as San Francisco or Seattle. The 1848 Gold Rush in California lured many young Chinese men to America; however, opportunities for Chinese immigrants to mine for gold were restricted by racial prejudice. In the mid 1850s, white labor contractors sought unskilled Chinese laborers to help build the American railroads. Unscrupulous practices were often used to mislead or even kidnap Chinese into a form of indentured servitude known as coolie labor. After these illegal means were outlawed in the 1885, contractors recruited voluntary laborers using a credit-ticket system that paid for the immigrants’ passage to America, which would later be repaid with interest out of their wages.
After the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, few work opportunities were available to Chinese workers although for a few years some found work building smaller railroads throughout the country. With an increasing number of Chinese immigrants arriving just as an economic depression hit the United States in the 1870s, heightened discrimination and racial prejudice against the Chinese became widespread. Chinese laborers had earned a reputation as hard workers, doing dangerous tasks, and accepting lower wages than whites. As a result of the economic competition, they were castigated as the “yellow peril.” Strong anti-Chinese sentiment had led to numerous laws restricting them, among which were laws curtailing their economic opportunities and jeopardizing their civil rights. In 1882, the U. S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that further blocked immigration of laborers from China. However, Chinese merchants, and their families were still allowed entry under the 1882 exclusion law to allow U. S. - China trade to continue. This law, the only law ever passed against a single ethnic group, remained in effect until 1943, when more favorable attitudes developed because China became an ally against Japan in World War II. Even then, the change was mainly symbolic as only 105 Chinese per year were allowed to enter the country.
Due to the increasingly hostile treatment from whites, who reacted with riots and violence to the threat of cheap Chinese labor, many Chinese fled from cities into rural and farming areas away from the West coast. Others moved to urban areas in the East and Midwest such as Boston, Baltimore, New York, Chicago and St. Louis.
One exception was a colony of Chinese who settled in the Mississippi delta area shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865. The end of slavery disrupted the labor situation, and many freed slaves were no longer available to work on the plantations under terms set by whites. Because of the reputation the Chinese had earned as hard and reliable workers building railroads, farming, and fishing, a meeting of planters was convened in 1862 in Memphis to decide whether to hire 200 men brought from China into the U. S. through New Orleans to help offset the loss of slave labor in the fields. However, working on plantations proved to not be agreeable to the Mississippi Chinese in delta towns like Greenville, and eventually, many began operating small family-owned businesses such as grocery and general stores in poor neighborhoods, mainly serving the Chinese and black populations. Unlike in other regions across the U.S., Chinese did not run laundries in these rural communities. Caught in the middle between the whites and blacks in a racially segregated society, the Mississippi Chinese functioned as a middle group that could work with both whites and blacks.
Perhaps because of the small town and rural areas in which the delta Chinese lived, they were able to create and maintain a strong community that preserved Chinese culture and traditions for themselves, and for their children. Chinese language classes were provided to the children. Community activities centering on Chinese cultural events fostered a strong ethnic identity among the small pockets of Chinese immigrants living in the delta.
The Chinese in southern states further east arrived under quite different circumstances. In 1873, a handful of Chinese was recruited for work on the expansion of a vital canal in Augusta, Georgia. Several hundred Chinese laborers were recruited from the Indianapolis area where they had probably migrated to after work on the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869. Many of them accepted whatever work they could find in the surrounding areas, often involving subservient roles as domestic servants who cooked, cleaned, and laundered clothes for white households. However, these activities, disdained by whites, served as steppingstones for Chinese toward better future occupations. Others drifted back to the West coast or headed toward the east or south as laborers, farmers, and construction workers.
The Augusta canal required two years to complete, and then these Chinese were without jobs. Some moved on, but others stayed in the region. By starting their own businesses, primarily family-run grocery stores similar to those started by Mississippi delta Chinese, along with a few restaurants, laundries, and stores with Chinese goods, they formed the foundation for a small Chinese community in Augusta. Similarly, a small community of Chinese developed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with over 20 Chinese laundries operating there from around 1880 to around 1930. An examination of City Directories, however, suggests that the Chinese community in Chattanooga dwindled quickly after 1900. A similar trend occurred in other towns and cities. Thus, in 1910, Atlanta had numerous Chinese laundries with close to 100 Chinese residents, according to U. S. Census records. In Macon, where we were the only Chinese when our parents moved there in 1928, there had been three Chinese laundrymen at the turn of the century and as many as eleven Chinese in 1908.
This decline in the number of Chinese during this period was not limited to Southern towns. Those men who came to the U. S. in the late 1800s as young men may have either moved, died, or retired to return to China by the early 1900s. Also, stricter enforcement of immigration laws curtailed Chinese immigration to all parts of the U. S. And, by the middle of the last century, newer immigrants may have seen better opportunities in other parts of the country. In any case, eventually, some of these Chinese left jobs involving manual labor such as construction and farming in search of opportunities to become merchants or entrepreneurs so they could have more control over their work and be less dependent on the whims of employers.
The Chinese Hand Laundry
The Chinese family screened by a wall of steam
Soaks its pride in white bleach
Scrubs the ring around the collar of racial slurs
Rinses with its tears of humiliation
Presses with the starch of its courage
Washing dirty laundry was one job that whites did not care to do, so they were willing to cede this occupation to the Chinese. Moreover, the Chinese did not need much training to operate laundries. Their experience gained from other types of jobs with rigorous physical challenges such as mining, farming, fishing, and railroad construction may have helped the Chinese to withstand the physical demands of running hand laundries.
From about the 1870s until well into the twentieth century, the Chinese laundry was the major occupation of Chinese immigrants and they dominated the laundry business in many communities. These Chinese had not been laundrymen in their country but fell into this work to survive in America. Operating a laundry required relatively little capital, education, or English speaking ability, and it was something that whites did not, at least initially, try to prevent them from doing. It was the primary occupation for Chinese after the major demand for railroad construction work ended after 1869 until around 1900, with other Chinese opening small neighborhood grocery stores and restaurants. Chinese hand laundries sprang up all over the U. S. in small as well as in large cities during the first half of the twentieth century, as well as in other parts of the world. Even though individuals owned them, they had an unmistakable look, almost as if they were franchises. Many had store-window signs with the name of the laundry such as “Loo Ling Laundry” in large black block letters. All of them used tickets printed with some Chinese characters on them, and probably purchased from the same printer in Chicago.
Laundries played a central role for generations of Chinese immigrants, not just in the U. S. but also in other parts of the world. For early Chinese immigrants, the hand laundry provided them one of the few means for self-employment not controlled by whites. Working as servants or farmers did not enable Chinese to save money or be independent whereas operating a laundry allowed the hard working, frugal Chinese to gradually accumulate sufficient funds for their families either here or in China.
White-owned laundries, aided by discriminatory laws, competed aggressively with the Chinese. In the 1880s San Francisco passed laws to ban laundries in wood buildings because they represented fire hazards. Other laws forbade laundry operators to work after a certain hour or from living on the premises. These laws were designed against the Chinese for they just happened in live in their laundries, which were located in wood buildings. But the Chinese fought and overcame these legal obstacles. In 1886, they got a favorable ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court in the case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins over the law that prohibited laundries in wooden buildings because this law had a much more adverse impact on the Chinese, as it violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution provision for the Equal Protection of Rights.
In contrast to small Chinese hand laundries, white laundries started in the 1850s were factory-sized power laundries that used steam engines to supply energy for washing and ironing machinery that could handle much larger volumes of laundry. But one competitive advantage held by the Chinese was that clothes washed by hand were much less likely to be damaged than those run through the machines of the steam laundries. Eventually, however, many Chinese converted from hand laundering to the use of steam-powered equipment.
In the southeastern United States many of the Chinese laundrymen came from the same rural villages of Guangdong province. Survival was more likely if immigrants initially settled near relatives and friends from the country of origin. Thus, 19 or 20 of the male descendants of my great, great grandfather came to own or operate Chinese laundries in Georgia and its neighboring states of Alabama and Tennessee starting from about 1915 and operating until the 1960s. In fact, one laundry owned by three generations of the same family still operates in Atlanta.
Five of his grandsons, and nine great grandsons, left China to escape economic hardship in the early part of the last century and ended in the Deep South running laundries. This could hardly have happened by chance. More likely, the first of his descendants to leave China headed for the Deep South because he had either a relative or a friend from his village there who helped him get settled. This conjecture does not address the question of why these earlier Chinese got to the region. This pathfinder might well have been in the South as early as the 1870s as one of the workers recruited from China to help build the canals in Augusta or perhaps someone who worked on the building of the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad, a venture that failed leaving almost 1,000 Chinese workers needing other means of survival.
Figure 1 (not shown in preview) Chinese Laundries (shaded ovals) run by my Father’s kin in the South
When these construction jobs ended, he may have stayed in the area and turned to operating a laundry, one of the few work opportunities available to Chinese. Once he gained a toehold financially by owning his own business rather than working for wages, he probably encouraged other male relatives to come. These later ones would have probably stayed temporarily with one of the earlier arriving kinsmen to apprentice and to save money so they could open their own laundry. They may have opened laundries in nearby towns or acquired laundries from elderly Chinese laundrymen who retired to return to China. From these laundries, these men managed to eke out a hard-earned living. In many cases, they raised families in America, and sent money back to help relatives in their villages in Guangdong. There was a favorable exchange rate for American dollars so that the monies remitted from the laundrymen were worth considerably more in China.
Figure 2 (not shown in preview) Remains in 2004 of family home in Hoi Ping built with Father’s aid.
Chinese laundrymen in America did not exactly live in luxury, washing laundry not being an occupation that promised much wealth. The laundrymen had little to spend, and they often lived in back of their shops, cooked their own meals, and had few material luxuries. Many had left their wives and children behind in China thinking that they would eventually return home with newfound wealth, or at least send money to them until they could return. It is somewhat ironic that Chinese immigrants who led frugal existences still managed to send enough money to their relatives in small Guangdong villages to enable some of them to build rather impressive looking family residences.
However, societal change is inevitable even in the ways people clean their clothing. By the 1950s, Chinese laundries, like the drive-in movie theaters that once flourished along major highways, dwindled in number to the point of extinction. This loss was partly because of the wide availability of automatic washing machines for self-service laundromats and for the home along with new, easier to clean fabrics with features such as permanent press. However, the demise of Chinese laundries should not lead us to overlook the vital role they served in the history of Chinese in America.