The Chinese-run laundry is an enduring stereotype despite the fact that traditional laundry services are actually dwindling, courtesy of home machines and the laundromat. Using a laundry service used to be common for people of a variety of social classes thanks to its accessibility and affordability, but that’s changed, turning it into something of a luxury. Though the times may have changed, many people have a vague mental association between Chinese-Americans and laundry, though they don’t really know why. One restaurant and a shoe company have certainly capitalised on the meme.
The origins of the Chinese laundry are actually quite complicated, and very sinister, in yet another instance of a cultural phenomenon that has implications even more loaded than people may realise — because most people would (hopefully) admit that a stereotype linking domestic labour and an immigrant class is pretty racist even without knowing the full story.
Chinese-Americans started entering North America as a result of economic depression, settling heavily along the West Coast, especially in California, where the lure of the gold rush proved tempting to people hoping to raise funds to support themselves and start families or bring their families over to the land of economic opportunity. However, new arrivals were in for a bitter disappointment: They were cut out of the gold trade. A combination of racist laws, hostility on the gold fields, and difficulty accessing startup capital made it functionally impossible for Chinese immigrants, mostly men, to enter the mining field. They were also shut out of timber and fishing, both large industries in California at the time, and were effectively forced into urban areas. The same pattern repeated itself in other regions where Chinese-Americans settled in the hopes of finding work and building lives for themselves.
Even within urban areas, Chinese immigrants were not entirely welcome. Cities like San Francisco were highly segregated, with immigrants clustering in a core district of the city not necessarily by choice, by via social pressure and sometimes the law. Straying outside the official or unofficial boundaries of your ‘zone’ could have serious consequences, and few people were willing to try. These ‘Chinatowns‘ were packed with mostly male immigrants struggling to eke out a living when few opportunities were open to them. Some became cooks, both in Chinatown and in the gold fields, catering to an audience of white miners who didn’t want to bother with cooking.
Others, however, turned to laundry. The industry was appealing for a number of reasons, of which one of the most pressing was that on a small scale, it didn’t require a huge investment beyond some laundry kettles and drying lines, though some laundries grew and acquired heavy industrial equipment over time. Chinese-Americans also weren’t regulated out (right away, and more on that in a moment), and competition was pretty minimal. Stooping over a boiling kettle with people’s filthy clothes all day is not very much fun, and white people didn’t want to do it.
If those employment conditions sound familiar, they should. They’re the same driving forces at work behind current occupational segregation, with a disproportionate number of immigrants performing domestic and agricultural labour. White people don’t want those jobs, and employers routinely engage in abuses like underpaying their workers, not allowing them to take breaks, threatening them with deportation, overworking them, putting them up in substandard housing, and sexually assaulting them. In 1900 it was laundries. Today, it’s strawberry fields.
As the population grew and Chinese laundries began to expand, though, the consequences were almost inevitable: Whites began to see that while laundries weren’t pleasant, they could be incredibly profitable. That’s when they started lobbying to regulate immigrant-run businesses out of town, as for example in San Francisco, where the city mandated that laundries run in wooden buildings get permits, and then refused to issue permits to Chinese-owned businesses. White-run companies began to displace Chinese-run laundries, forcing immigrants to seek other labour (like working in restaurants and taking on domestic work).
However, the social construct of the Chinese laundry lingered, alongside the few Chinese-owned business that manage to survive. As often happens with stereotypes, the history softened and disappeared — people couldn’t explain when and why Chinese-Americans became so closely associated with laundry, and they often reinforced the stereotype, sometimes unconsciously, from pop culture to business practices. Today, some Chinese laundry services continue to thrive in various regions of the United States, and some have been family-owned for generations, weaving through a variety of historical periods.
When you notice a given class of people heavily overrepresented in a field, whether in reality or in the zeitgeist, it always pays to find out why. Many immigrant groups in particular have been pushed into narrow, specific fields over the course of history, and even in a country where all jobs are ostensibly open to them, there’s often pressure to stick with their cohorts. For Chinese-Americans, laundry services may mostly be a thing of the past, but the legacy has stuck with them over the years, saddling them forever with a stereotype that crops up in media and pop culture, shapes expectations about who provides laundry services, and contributes to playground bullying and taunting. It’s not that their ancestors were delighted with the prospect of doing laundry and all flocked to the field en masse after seeing their pals do it, but that they were systematically excluded from so many economic opportunities that laundry became one of the few available choices.
Image: Wong Wing Chinese Laundry, Cory Doctorow, Flickr