A collage of a Chinese man ironing clothes, and signs related to Chinese laundries

442: The history behind the Chinese laundry

How the California Gold Rush and racism (surprise!) led to this now ubiquitous stereotype

Chinese laundries have a long history in the United States.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

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For more than a century, public laundry facilities in the United States had been so closely tied to the Chinese American community that the term “Chinese laundry” could have been seen as redundant—to the point that Asian American faces and stereotypes were used in advertising and (racist) fashion as recently as only a few decades ago.

But how did it start?

It all dates back to the mid-1800s and the California Gold Rush. During this period, hundreds of thousands of people (mostly white men) traveled to the Golden State in hopes of striking it rich. There weren’t many women around, so the men—who considered washing clothes women’s work that was beneath them, and never bothered learning how to do it themselves—would ship their laundry all the way to Hong Kong, and later Honolulu, since this was still cheaper than shipping their laundry back East. It would take about four months for the laundry to come back.

Eventually, Chinese entrepreneurs—who were among the droves who had traveled to California (this was a good three decades prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act)—spotted a golden opportunity that had nothing to do with mining. In 1851, Wah Lee opened the first known Chinese-owned laundry in San Francisco. He charged $5 to wash a dozen shirts, which was much more affordable (not to mention local) compared to the $12 or $8 per dozen shirts men were paying when they shipped their laundry to Hong Kong and Honolulu, respectively.

As more Chinese started arriving in California, white people’s resentment and hostility toward them increased—sometimes ending in violence—especially as the economy worsened. Eventually, Chinese men were driven out of mining and other “men’s” work, and into industries such as laundry. And while Chinese men also considered this “women’s” work, it was one of the few lines of work that was still available to them.

A hard day’s work

Opening a laundry required little initial capital investment and minimal previous experience, but washing and ironing clothes was not easy. It was hard physical labor—clothes needed to be soaked, brushed, washed, scrubbed, dried, ironed and leveled, all by hand—with workers often putting in 15-hour days, and living in the back of storefronts that were often staffed by only one or two men.

On top of that, Chinese laundries faced racism and discrimination—such as when a San Francisco city ordinance required permits for all laundries in wooden buildings. While straightforward in appearance, it singled out Chinese applicants. About 95 percent of the city’s roughly 320 laundries operated in wooden buildings. About two-thirds of these were owned by Chinese people and all but one applicant were denied a permit. On the other hand, all but one non-Chinese applicant were approved for permits. This resulted in the case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins, when two Chinese men refused to pay the fine for operating their businesses without a permit and sued sheriff Peter Hopkins for discriminatory enforcement of the ordinance. The case was taken up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled on May 10, 1886 in favor of the two immigrants.

Enforcing stereotypes

Despite this victory—which resulted in cementing equal protection of the law under the 14th Amendment, despite citizenship status—anti-Chinese sentiments continued to grow, to the point that the government passed laws to legitimize its racism. Chinese men continued to be impacted most by these laws: While the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited any Chinese from immigrating to the United States, the Page Act of 1875 seven years earlier effectively banned Chinese women from entering the country.

Anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriages made it basically impossible for Chinese men to be seen as potential partners...This, combined with Chinese men being forced to do “women’s” work, has led to stereotypes of Asian men being effeminate, passive and asexual.

It could be said that the latter played a large role in the stereotypes Asian men still face today. With very few women (of any race) in the West, marriage prospects were already low for men. But anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriages made it basically impossible for Chinese men to be seen as potential partners—which was only compounded by the fact that Chinese women could not immigrate (with the exception of those who arrived under the guise of “paper daughters”). This, combined with Chinese men being forced to do “women’s” work, has led to stereotypes of Asian men being effeminate, passive and asexual.

Once the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 and Chinese were once again allowed in the country, more women began coming as well. Some were the wives of the men who were already in the United States, and they joined their husbands in the laundries. Laundries soon became family-run businesses.

Simultaneously, negative perceptions against the community began to change (largely because Americans shifted their negativity onto the Japanese amidst WWII), and technological advances brought along the washer and dryer. As Chinese hand laundries slowly became a thing of the (recent) past, some people continued working in the industry, transitioning to operating laundromats and dry cleaning businesses. While others—including the children of laundry workers—took this decline as an opportunity to pursue career options outside of their families’ businesses.

Published on May 22, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.