Laying Some History On You: The Chinese Laundry

Laundry has become indelibly associated with the Chinese-American population, but many white people do not probe more deeply into why that is. There’s a reason that so many Chinese labourers worked in the laundry industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the story behind Chinese laundries is actually quite fascinating; should this post pique your interest, I’d highly recommend this list of resources on the subject. The association between laundries and the Chinese communities has its origins in racism, but where the story went from there opens up other narratives that aren’t often discussed, as Chinese labourers organised in and around laundries to resist discrimination and protect their rights.

Early Chinese immigrants to the United States faced an uphill battle when it came to seeking work. They were excluded by law and by custom from numerous jobs, and many found themselves facing empty hands in the supposed land of plenty. As a result, they started turning to laundry work, first in California and later in other regions, like New York City. Chinese men didn’t have very much experience with laundry, but they took it up as an occupation because nothing else was available, and started to build thriving businesses. As other avenues of employment were closed to them, laundries became an important source of income, and later, of organising.

Running a laundry was not an easy business. Racist laws excluded Chinese from property and business ownership in some regions, which required, in some cases, exploitative partnerships with whites. The laundries themselves were hot and crowded, with grueling working conditions that were hard even on workers who were extremely strong and accustomed to long hours. Needless to say, labour protections like limits on overtime and required breaks weren’t present in Chinese laundries or any other businesses of the era, so workers had harsh conditions to contend with while also dealing with a constant tide of racism from their unwelcoming and hostile communities.

White business owners resented the success of Chinese laundries, and embarked on subtle discrimination campaigns along with the not so subtle. The case of the Yick Yo laundry brought this issue to a head in San Francisco. The whites in the community lobbied for a law insisting that laundries be situated in brick buildings for safety. On the surface, nothing about this law was discriminatory. It was brilliantly framed as a public safety issue; we see the same sort of cleverly racialised legislation in the United States today, where seemingly innocent laws actually target minority groups. Necessary, you see, for public interest.

Chinese business owners decided to fight back. They argued that the law was inherently discriminatory, and won, illustrating that Chinese residents could and would use the court system to enforce equal rights in a society that was determined to deny them. This 1886 case was an early example of a civil rights battle carried out in the courts, and like much of the history of Chinese people in the United States, it’s been largely erased. The Yick Yo laundry case was important, and played a critical role in shaping Chinese-American activism, but it’s apparently not considered relevant in history classes that discuss civil rights in the United States and the hard-fought battles by minorities to take what they should have been freely given in the ‘land of opportunity.’

This case was cited in others, became the grounds for other forms of resistance, and it’s largely faded from memory. History repeats itself now as growing numbers of US states pass racist anti-immigrant legislation which has a chilling effect on nonwhite communities and people of colour, all while claiming to be in the interest of public safety. Employee verification programmes, for example, clearly target Latino workers in particular, just like the law banning wooden laundries. Workers are organising against them, as are advocacy organisations, and it’s an uphill battle, just like it was in 1886 for Chinese labourers fighting for their rights.

The Yick Yo, though, was not the end of laundry organising among Chinese residents. To take just one of many examples, across the country in New York City almost 50 years later, laundry workers organised to protect their rights and fight racial discrimination. New York attempted to legislate laundries out of existence and when the established Chinese community and social network failed them, laundry workers took matters into their own hands to assert their right to work and do business in the city. The Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance won, marking another important battle that, again, has gone largely unrecognised. As a labour organisation, it was later involved in political activism and commentary within New York’s Chinese community and abroad, and it played an important role in the community’s history.

These are stories that are not often told; many white people are familiar with the link between laundries and the Chinese community, and stereotypes about these connections endure, but people don’t explore to find out why this link developed, nor do they learn about the community organising that surrounded Chinese laundries. They certainly aren’t provided with information about the history of Chinese laundries in school, or in texts on this era. A symbol of racist exclusion became a tool for resistance in communities determined to carve out a place for themselves in the world, and to force the United States to live up to its own stated values about liberty and justice for all.

Oddly, Chinese laundries are both symbols of oppression, and of freedom. An example of how people persecuted on racial grounds forged communities, built connections, and held their ground. Laundries helped Chinese workers join the labour movement, they became grounds for key civil rights cases, and today they’re nothing more than topics of jokes and stereotyped depictions of Chinese people in the media.