A social history of the role of the Chinese laundry on the survival of early Chinese immigrants in the U.S.during the Chinese Exclusion law period, 1882-1943, and in Canada during the years of the Head Tax, 1885-1923, and exclusion law, 1923-1947.
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Chinese Laundries: Tickets To Survival On Gold Mountain
Chinese Laundries: Tickets To Survival On Gold MountainChinese Laundries: Tickets To Survival On Gold Mountain
Why and how Chinese got into the laundry business and how they had to fight discriminatory laws and competition from white-owned laundries to survive. Description of their lives, work demands, and living conditions. Reflections by a sample of children who grew up living in the backs of their laundries provide vivid first-person glimpses of the difficult lives of Chinese laundrymen and their families.
1. Did The Chinese Come To Do Laundry?
“Laundry is a problem that will not go away.”
With the discovery of gold at Sutter’s mill in the Sierra foothills of northern California in 1848, Chinese men came from the impoverished regions of Guangdong province by the thousands to seek their fortune on “Gold Mountain,” as the United States was called in China. Thousands of other Chinese came later in the 1860s under contract to help build the transcontinental railroad. Why, then, did laundry work instead become for many years the primary occupation of Chinese immigrants to the U. S. as well as to Canada well into the twentieth century? What social conditions led them into washing and ironing America's dirty clothes as a livelihood to such an extent that the laundry became the occupational stereotype for the Chinese?
Figure 1 (not included here) A trade comment on Chinese laundries. National Laundry Journal, 1905, 41.
As an American laundry trade publication noted in 1905 (See Figure 1), the Chinese men who came to the United States during the mid-19th century were not laundrymen in their homeland. In China, as well as in most of the world, women did the laundry.
The first Chinese laundry in America is said to have opened over 150 years ago, when Wah Lee hung a sign in front of his shop in the Chinese quarter of San Francisco in 1851 that simply read “Wash’ng and Iron’g.” However, it was not until the 1870s that Chinese laundries really began to proliferate. In San Francisco 1333 Chinese were listed in the 1870 U. S. manuscript census as working in laundries, rising to 2148 by 1880, but declining slightly to 1924 by 1900. These numbers represented from about 50 to 60 percent of California’s Chinese working in laundries during that period. Countless Chinese immigrants earned their living from hand laundries over the next 100 years. Chinese laundries opened in small and large cities and towns all across the country. The majority of these men from China worked in or owned Chinese laundries, and for a few years in the late 19th century they dominated the trade throughout the U. S. and Canada.
The story of Chinese laundries cannot be fully understood without considering the historical and cultural context in which they originated. We first need to see what led to the Chinese diaspora from Guangdong province in southeast China starting in the middle 19th century. Thousands of Chinese men left their villages during these years to work in distant regions of North America such as California, the Pacific Northwest, and western Canada. Why did so many of them spend most of their lives abroad washing and ironing laundry for a living, one of their primary occupations in most of these regions for many years.
Why Chinese Left Guangdong In The Mid-1800s
The province of Guangdong in the southeastern part of China, not far from Hong Kong, was beset by many problems during the early 1800s that made it extremely difficult to earn a decent living. The peasant villagers of the region, a fertile agricultural area for centuries, were primarily farmers. Figure 2 summarizes the major factors behind the exodus. Alternating floods and droughts during those years destroyed their crops. China was a weak nation, forced to make humiliating concessions to open the country to commerce with foreign powers following the disastrous Opium wars with England (1839-1842) and with England and France (1856-1860) as they were powerless to stop England from selling opium to China. From 1850 to 1864, there was also civil unrest leading to millions of deaths in the bloody Tai-ping rebellion against the ruling Qing or Manchu dynasty. Warlords fought for control of local regions while bandits attacked and robbed food from villagers.
Figure 2 (not included here)Push and pull factors for large-scale Chinese immigration to the U.S.
Desperation, born from these dire circumstances, “pushed” many of the sons, starting with the oldest, of families in these rural villages to leave home in search of work. California held an especially strong “pull” with the 1849 discovery of gold there. The cost of passage by ship from China to California was about $50, a large sum in those days, and equivalent to over $500 today, but relatives pooled their money to help purchase steerage passage for sons to cross the Pacific on arduous voyages that took about a month. The hope was that they would find work and send money home to assist their impoverished kin and then return to China.
Swallows and magpies, flying in glee:
Greetings for New Year.
Daddy has gone to Gold Mountain
To earn money.
He will earn gold and silver,
Ten thousand taels.
When he returns, we will build a house and buy farmland.
Figure 3 (not included here)Steerage class passage rates from San Francisco to China in 1883.
Their departure also meant one less mouth to feed at home. The married men left wives and children behind, because it would be difficult enough to survive in a foreign country without having the added costs for passage, travel problems involved with bringing families across the Pacific, and the burden of providing for them in a new land. Besides, the original intention of the early waves of immigrants was to stay abroad temporarily, long enough to hopefully strike it rich on “Gold Mountain” and then return to China. Little could they foresee that most of them would never return, or only for short visits, to their villages. Instead they would live the rest of their lives in a foreign, and often, hostile land.
In the years immediately after the discovery of gold in California in 1848, over two-thirds of Chinese immigrants on the continent worked in mining or as unskilled laborers. Despite facing discriminatory laws and taxes as well as physical violence during the 1850s aimed at preventing their work in mines, half of the Chinese in California were still involved with mining in 1861, but only around 25 percent were by 1870.
The passage of the Burlingame Treaty in 1868 expanded commerce and trade with China. It established cordial immigration policies between the United States and China, a nation that historically had not approved of its citizens leaving the country. This treaty broke through this barrier and opened opportunities for large-scale immigration to the U. S. where great supplies of cheap labor were needed to help build the rapidly expanding western regions. Under the Burlingame Treaty, the United States promised protection and fair treatment of Chinese immigrants. Chinese came from Guangdong by the thousands starting around the middle of the 19th century to seek work, which was not available in their rural villages. However, the treaty still denied them, unlike European immigrants, the possibility of becoming naturalized citizens.
Unfortunately, the protection and fair treatment promises were not upheld as racial discrimination led to unfair treatment of Chinese immigrants. Not allowed to engage in mining to the same extent as whites, they turned to other work that they were knowledgeable about such as fishing and farming. They acquired skills in logging, manufacturing shoes, cigars, and woolen goods. But eventually racially based discrimination excluded them from work in these areas as well.
A similar plight confronted the thousands of laborers recruited as contract workers for construction of the western section of the transcontinental railroad by the Central Pacific Railroad. They filled a need for plentiful and inexpensive labor. Similarly, a decade later, thousands of Chinese came to fill the need for railroad construction in western Canada. But once the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point, Utah, with the linking of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific in 1869, more than 10,000 Chinese who had worked on its construction for over four years became unemployed overnight. The same problem occurred in 1885 for thousands of Chinese laborers left without work by the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
Actually these men were in demand and many continued with construction work on smaller railroads located all over the country such as the Southern Pacific line between San Francisco and Los Angeles and the line between Los Angeles to Yuma, Tucson, and El Paso. Other Chinese went to work on construction projects like the extensive set of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California that transformed swampland into highly productive farmlands and on the building of the canal in Augusta, Georgia, that provided electricity to power textile mills to manufacture cotton goods. These activities introduced the Chinese to other regions than the west, and some remained after these construction projects were finished and found other means of earning a livelihood. Still others struggled as migrant farm workers, fruit pickers, and vegetable peddlers. Others became domestic servants, performing duties that included washing, ironing, and cooking while others did the same tasks by starting laundries and restaurants.
Chinese were not always unwelcome in America, as they would become by the 1870s. Before their large-scale arrival here in the mid 1800s, Chinese visitors had been welcome when they came to the United States, viewed with a mixture of interest and curiosity. Chinese civilization and its achievements were highly respected from as far back as the time of Marco Polo when Chinese goods such as silk and tea were prized. China’s culture, technology, and arts were envied and admired by American gentry.
In addition, the exotic appeal of the different language, attire, and customs attracted attention to visitors from the “Celestial Empire” during the early part of the 19th century. Opportunistic promoters like the showman of the century, P. T. Barnum, shamelessly involved exploitation of exotic aspects of the Chinese, appealing to the need for Americans to gawk at the strange ways of the ‘Orientals.’
However, Chinese were never fully accepted in North America. They were denied important rights, even though they paid taxes to work in their major occupations such as mining and laundries. They were not allowed to become naturalized citizens; hence, they could not vote and were unable to exert any political influence. The list was long; they could not testify in court against whites, marry whites, and their children could not attend white schools.
The anti-Chinese sentiment may have started well before Chinese came in any numbers to these shores. Many Western traders, diplomats, and missionaries dealt with China as early as the 16th century and they gave unflattering accounts of Chinese customs, values, and people. By the time Chinese arrived in the mid 19th century, these writings had instilled strong negative stereotypes of them. The Chinese rulers were described as despotic, Cantonese merchants were depicted as shrewd and cunning, and Chinese people were portrayed as immoral, godless pagans of inferior racial stock bearing exotic and loathsome diseases.
Faced with the lack of work opportunities, laundry work happened to be one of the few avenues open to Chinese in the latter half of the 19th century. Several factors created an unprecedented and unfilled need for laundry service during the mid 1800s. In the frontier west, few women were available to do laundry. Ships transported laundry to Hawaii for washing, an expensive and slow solution requiring several weeks.
Many factors served to create an increasing need for laundry services in the industrial east, making it possible for the first time in history for laundry to be a business opportunity. In the large cities, crowded housing conditions did not allow laundry to be done easily in city residences, flats, and apartments. At the same time, increased knowledge, awareness, and concern over the 19th century about the diseases caused by germs enhanced the desire for clean clothes as well as bathing as a form of personal hygiene. In addition, being able to afford clean clothes became a marker of higher social standing. Finally, from a moral view, cleanliness became a virtue “next to Godliness.”
Not surprisingly, laundry work, which involved physically demanding and time consuming labor, was not a highly contested occupation. Washing and ironing laundry for many hours each day and night, week after week, and year after year was by no easy way to earn a living. It was unattractive to most whites, allowing Chinese almost exclusive control of this occupation around the 1870s.
What Laundry Work Involved
Chink, chink, Chinaman,
Wash my pants;
Put them into the boiler,
And make them dance.
The procedures involved in doing laundry are not mysterious or complex. It is simple but tedious, tiring, and repetitive. Clothing becomes soiled from wear, and the unacceptable appearance and odors of garments require washing to remove the dirt, stains, and bodily secretions from them. Once cleaned, clothes are worn and get dirty again, and the cycle is repeated.
Figure 4 (not included here)Black washerwomen doing laundry, Dahlonega, Ga. c. 1900. Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection, LUM 092.
Until relatively recent times, laundering was done entirely by hand. For most of history, there was no plumbing for running water or electricity for powering washing and drying machines. A washerwoman had to go to a source of water such as a stream or river or had to bring water, pail by pail to the house. She would soak clothes to loosen dirt and stains, use a paddle to pound the clothes lying on a solid surface to remove dirt, wring out excess water by hand, and then hang clothes on a line to dry in the sun and wind before finally ironing them.
Laundry work was universally considered a domestic chore, and traditionally relegated to women. Those with financial means assigned this drudgery to servants. In some regions, black washerwomen (See Figure 4) did laundry for white families and businesses when few commercial laundries existed. It was their major source of income, but the work was hard and the wages low.
When Chinese started laundries during the 1880s in the South, black laundresses challenged this threat to their livelihood. The conflict was fairly mild as Chinese laundries focused on items from businessmen such as collars and white shirts and blue-collar work clothes rather than on domestic items such as bedding, linens, or women’s clothing.
Chinese were not the first to open commercial laundries; white-owned laundries existed since the early 1800s in England, and soon after in the U. S., using mechanized or steam driven laundry equipment. These large power laundries competed with washerwomen, domestic servants, and Chinese hand laundries, with the advantage of being able to do larger amounts of laundry in less time. Still, the laundry ‘business’ was an occupation well suited to the Chinese. It required no costly facilities or equipment and for many years the Chinese competed successfully against larger white-owned laundries through their long days of hard labor.
Chapter 1 examines factors that led Chinese immigrants to enter the laundry business from the mid 19th to the mid 20th century. Chapter 2 focuses on the social and economic conditions leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act, in effect from 1882-1943, and related discriminatory laws that adversely affected Chinese, leaving hand laundries as one of the few occupations available to them. Chapter 3 looks at how Chinese learned to be laundrymen, financial aspects of buying and running laundries, and how Chinese laundries survived initially against larger white-owned steam laundries. Chapter 4 discusses challenges to Chinese laundries from unjust laws and racist actions ranging from vandalism, assault, and robbery to even homicide. It describes how laundrymen lived, depending on region of the country and on the number of Chinese in their communities.
How kinship ties forged chains of migration for Chinese laundrymen is the focus of Chapter 5, using 19 laundrymen in the South descended from my great, great, great grandfather as a case study. Chapter 6 describes the hardship of laundry work and the austere living conditions of laundrymen and their families. We ‘hear the voices’ of children who grew up in their laundries describe their lives and laundry experiences in Chapter 7. Their vivid accounts give a first-hand glimpse into an important understudied topic. Finally, Chapter 8 examines the historical place of the Chinese laundry, serving as the primary economic launching pad for almost a century that enabled Guangdong immigrants to gain admission to Gold Mountain. Its declining role over the past century is contrasted with the rise of the Chinese restaurant as its replacement over the first half of the 20th century.