On the lower floor of the small house next to us in Oakland was a Chinese laundry. Working there was a young man about twenty-five years of age. His face was as imperturbable as the sky, and he went about his business with the undeviating regularity of the solar system. At first he was just an ordinary man to me, but my attention became riveted upon him and my curiosity was awakened wanting to know his story.
The man seemed to live merely for his work. If I came in at two o’clock in the morning I found him with the lights turned on brightly, patiently working at his calling. If I rose early in the morning, that prodigy-of industry was up before me.
I gradually became filled with wonder at the untiring persistency of the man. Because of his neatness and politeness and exquisite care to please, the neighborhood never thought of sending its laundry anywhere else.
I began to carry my things in person to the laundry, urged on by the desire to find out something more about him. I reasoned that no man could work as he did without being dominated by such an all-absorbing purpose.
I found him intelligent, friendly, and he could speak English well.
Finally I won his confidence. The young man was in love. A gal in China was waiting for him, and he was patiently and bravely undergoing the hardest kind of toil in order to go back to his native country and. marry her.
When he told me the story I realized that he was a man, working to earn a wife, and despite these meager, unpoetical surroundings, cherishing all the dreams of a young man whose sweetheart was faraway.
Linda Seccaspina Horses with No Names Column series.
Many Chinese men ran laundry businesses between the late 19th century and the end of World War II. They turned to laundry because they were shut out of other types of work (such as mining, fishing, farming, and manufacturing) and didn’t have the English skills or capital to make other choices. Washing and ironing was considered women’s work, so it was low status and also posed no threat to white, male workers.:(
According to sources cited in Wikipedia, “Around 1900, one in four ethnic Chinese men in the U.S. worked in a laundry, typically working 10 to 16 hours a day.” John Jung, who grew up behind a Chinese laundry and wrote a book about the business, explains that “New York City [alone] had an estimated 3,550 Chinese laundries at the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s.”
Chinese laundry disappeared into history not because discrimination disappeared, but because of technological innovation.
April 1941 Almonte Gazette
We are sorry to learn that in the course of the next week or two the town will lose its only laundry. This institution, of the hand variety, has been operated for the last 13 years by a very meek and unobtrusive little man named Wong. He came here from London, Ont. and has been in Canada about 25 years.
Few knew his name but he was a familiar figure to many as he trudged along the streets with his bag of laundry slung over his shoulder. The passing of highly starched shirt fronts, collars and cuffs took a severe toll on what was a fair business some years ago. Then, too, the outside steam laundries cut in on his field to an increasing extent and these factors, together with others, left him with little to do.
A few days ago Wong put a placard in his window asking customers who had laundry in his establishment to call for it as he must close owing to inadequate patronage. Thus the town severs another link with the past. Not a very important one, perhaps, but it is just one more straw which shows; how the wind is blowing in country towns. Poor Wong, was a civil, decent citizen. He attended to his own business—as long as he had any—and when he had none, he decided to leave town without complaint.
One tribute that must be paid to his work is that like most Chinese laundrymen he had the knack of ironing a shirt collar and other such accessories as no one else can do it. He will be missed by those who liked their shirts, especially collars and cuffs, starched and ironed immaculately. It is safe to say the only time any customer ever got the slightest bit annoyed at Wong was when the former found his laundry wasn’t ready and had his complaint dismissed with a cheerful giggle.
Wong now proposes to go to Ottawa or London where he will work in the large shop of some more prosperous compatriot. His life here must have been a lonesome one and no doubt his failure to make things go any longer may prove, for him, a blessing in disguise.
CLIPPED FROMKemptville TelegramKemptville, Ontario, Canada10 Oct 1901, Thu • Pag
Sandy Hill, Ottawa
Who’ll Help Charlie Sing? Second-Last Chinese Laundry Foundering By FRANK DALEY
There are two Chinese laundries left in Ottawa and unless something drastic is done within a few days there will be only one. Charlie Sing’s laundry has been at 618 King Edward Avenue for at least 50 years. ‘ Fifty years. That’s almost half our country’s age for ‘ heaven’s sake. And If Charlie Sing has to close on Saturday the loss wlll not be Charlie’s but Ottawa’s.
You’ve all heard about Chinese laundries and made jokes about them … but how many of you have ever tried one or are aware of the virtues of one? If you’ll bear with me a moment I’ll explain a little of our, problem. Not Charlie’s problem because he’s not only a first class launderer but also a first class Chinese cook. Already, one enterprising restaurateur has offered Charlie a job on Carling Avenue and he even drives Charlie to work. But it is our problem because if we allow Charlie’s laundry to die we allow a little anore of the city core to die.
Charlie pays $40 a month to the University of Ottawa as rent for his laundry quarters but that comes to an end Saturday because the university needs the building. This Isn’t an attack on the university; it has its work to do. But Charlie’ can’t find a place at a rent he can afford about $75 a month. That’s the first part of the problem. The second part is business. Some years ago Charlie did well: he had university students and businessmen going to him regularly. But the last couple of years have been difficult because of the. chain laundries which have opened nearby to cater to the students. They charge as little as $1 for five shirts; Charlie must charge 28-30 cents apiece.
They can advertise; Charlie can’t. They do their work by machine; Charlie does his work by hand and one old washer (he needs a new one and the other Chinese laundry, on Wellington Street, just paid $1,500 for one). The new students don’t know Charlie and couldn’t afford him if they did. And people bark at paying 30 cents for laundry they can get done for cheaper. Summer wash-and-wear clothes and laundromats have hurt Charlie too.
Well, that’s progress, I can hear you say. Maybe so in some ways but definitely not in others. – For example: if you were aware that Charlie’s sheets and shirts return beautifully laundered and smelling faintly’ of light soap and green gardens and night air . . . if you knew that Charlie’s work costs more because he does his work by hand and that his. work is much gentler on your things than machine washes … if you could see and smell and feel the prideful and gentle way Charlie does laundry … you’d use his place.
If you knew, ladies, that never not ever once has a , tablecloth returned from Charlie’s with so much as a hint of that terrible stain you thought would never come out (and often didn’t) would you be interested? If you were aware of the indescribably sweet scent of Charlie’s shirts that begin the day properly and of the sheets which make you feel like some kind of potentate, would you be stirred?
We are not all poverty striken university students. Some of us are MPs, lawyers and other professional people; or just reasonably well-salaried people who could use a personal touch in the personal service of this kind of laundry. Couldn’t we do something? Couldn’t Action Sandy Hill turn away from its buildings and trees for a moment and look at a human being and an excellent service In our community?
Couldn’t we write Charlie Sing, care of The Journal, and tell him that, yes, somebody gives a damn about sweet-smelling, personal service even if its only for tablecloths and sheets and shirts. And couldn’t somebody tell Charlie that, he has a hole in the wall someplace for about $75 a month? Someplace downtown or in Sandy Hill.
Charlie isn’t asking anything; this article was my idea not his. A city area of 500,000 can’t afford to lose the second last of its Chinese laundry, or its European tailor shops, or shoe shops or bakeries or anything else simply because they cost a few pennies more or because the parties involved simply don’t have the money to advertise.
The price and pace of big-city life cannot be permitted to snuff out the kind of elements that give it identity, individuality and quality. If you’ve got some business or a new address for ‘Charlie Sing call The Journal city desk between 9 a.m. and noon and we’ll pass the message along.
Does anyone know what happened to Charlie Sing?