In this ad from the 1970s, detergent maker Calgon depicts its soap as the “ancient Chinese secret” behind Chinese laundromats.
The stereotype of the Chinese laundry gets routinely parodied in the media, because so many Americans are familiar with the small, Chinese-owned laundry.
To trace the origins of this, we have to go back to the California gold rush of 1849. Initially, the thousands of Chinese men who moved to the west worked in mines, but by the ‘70s, growing anti-Chinese sentiment blocked entire industries from them, including mining, farming, and fishing.
There was increased prejudice against the Chinese community because the flood of immigrants competed for work, especially unskilled labor.
The male-dominated scene of the gold rush did mean one thing though: no one wanted to do their laundry; it was considered a woman’s job. So clothes were shipped from California to Hong Kong to be washed for $12 per dozen shirts—taking several weeks—and later, to Honolulu for $8 per dozen. It was cheaper and faster than sending clothes back to the East Coast.
Seeing the opportunity, the first Chinese-owned laundry in America, Wah Lee, opened in San Francisco in 1851, pricing its services at $5 per dozen shirts.
Since many Americans of European descent didn’t want to be in businesses such as laundry, restaurants, and construction, the jobs ended up being filled by Chinese migrants. By 1870, laundries were almost exclusively Chinese-owned.
By 1870, laundries were almost exclusively Chinese-owned.
The lack of opportunities for Chinese migrants meant that many ended up staying in the laundry business. After all, it was easy to start your own business as laundries required no existing practical or language skill sets, no start up capital apart from soap, an iron, and a scrub board, and rent was saved by living in-store.
Literacy wasn’t a requirement either. A laundryman recounts the story of how some of them, illiterate to the point they couldn’t write numbers, drew circles that were the same size and quantity of coins required.
Many of the Chinese laundries won business by charging 15 percent less than white-owned laundries, but put up with gruelling 16-hour work days in uncomfortable work environments.
Slowly, things changed. During WWII, anti-Chinese sentiment quieted and 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act from 60 years prior was finally repealed, opening up industries and opportunities to a new generation of Chinese immigrants.
Today, the laundry business is hardly Chinese-dominated. But the community continues to be associated with the stereotype, thanks to the years their forefathers spent scrubbing the dirt out of customers’ clothes.