March 10th, 2007

The Age of Chinese Laundries

Posted in Canada, Demographics, History, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Chong Sing Laundry, Notre Dame Street

The Chinese laundry seems like such an inexplicable stereotype. References to them still exist—witness Abercrombie and Fitch’s infamous “Wong Brothers Laundry Service” t-shirt from several years back—yet Chinese laundries long ago vanished from the North American landscape. There are no indications today why Chinese people would ever be associated with the laundry trade.

Sixty years ago, the link was more evident. In 1949, Montreal was home to 231 Chinese laundries and they were a fixture of every neighbourhood and every commercial street in the city. Twenty years before that, the number was even higher: 405 Chinese laundries in a city with less than a million people.

Over at Coolopolis, Kristian and J.D. Gravenor—authors of the indispensable book Montreal: The Unknown City—have been digging up all sorts of great material on Montreal’s Chinese laundries, including a fascinating interactive map that charts the location of every single one of them. (The densest concentrations were in the east end of downtown, around the old Forum, near the Main and in Mile End.) These laundries—not to mention the very history of the local Chinese community—are an oft-overlooked facet of Montreal’s past.

First, let’s set the scene. Kristian reproduces a nostalgic Globe and Mail article from 1998, written by Moses Milstein, that describes neighbourhood life in Montreal’s old Jewish district. “Around the corner was Wing Ling, the Chinese laundry, like all Chinese laundries painted green on the outside,” writes Milstein. “Within, great vats seethed with steam where Mr. Lee and his family washed and ironed our sheets, which he would then hand to me in a package wrapped in brown paper and string.” Wing Ling, Lee Wong, Charlie Hum, Sam Wah, Yuen Sun: these were the names of Chinese laundries scattered across Montreal. In each, a hardworking family or group of men served the neighbourhoods around them, toiling for endless hours in a city and country that regarded them only as aliens.

Montreal’s first Chinese laundry was the Wah Lee California Laundry, which opened in 1879 on Craig Street, now known as St. Antoine. While Chinese immigrants arrived in British Columbia as early as the mid-nineteenth century, a significant Chinese community did not start to grow in Montreal until the CPR’s transcontinental railway opened in 1885. (It was built largely by exploited Chinese workers, who were paid only a fifth of what their white colleagues earned.)

At the time, the fortunes of Chinese immigrants were restricted by racism; running laundries was one of the few lines of work open to them. Even then, Chinese participation in the laundry trade was viewed askance by white Canadians who feared that Asian immigrants would steal jobs and destroy Canada’s racial character. Overt racism was very much in vogue in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and Chinese immigrants, being so visibly different, were a favourite target. Race riots across the country destroyed Chinese homes and businesses. Legislation restricted the rights of Chinese-Canadians to participate in the mainstream economy and social life; the threat of violence confined them to increasingly dilapidated Chinatowns.

Unlike European immigrants, the Chinese who came to Canada were subjected to the unfair burden of a head tax. First imposed in 1885 at a rate of $50, the tax increased to $500—the equivalent of nearly $10,000 in today’s dollars—in 1904. On July 1, 1923, Chinese immigrants were excluded completely from Canada, leading to a long period of isolation and stagnation in the country’s Chinese communities. New immigrants still managed to come to Canada, however: known as paper sons or daughters, they bought the birth certificates and travel documents of dead Chinese-Canadians in order to sneak into the country. Once here, however, they were faced with the Canadian reality of legal and socio-economic racism.

Compared to the West Coast, home to a large Chinese population, racism in Montreal was less virulent, partly because its exclusion-era Chinese community never numbered more than a few thousand, and partly because the local elite was busy picking on the much larger Jewish community. Even if there were no anti-Chinese race riots in Montreal, however, the Chinese here suffered from many of the same injustices as their counterparts elsewhere in Canada. On Coolopolis, J.D. unearths a front-page article that appeared in a 1921 edition of La Patrie, Montreal’s most widely-read French-language newspaper. “Is He the Yellow Peril?” it asks of a Chinese day labourer, pictured doing roadwork in an east end street.

Dressed in a long frock, with hat pulled down over his eyes and very long hair, this friend of Li Hung Chang shovels enthusiastically. His trespassing into this line of work might make you smile. … Who knows? Could he be tired of doing the dirty laundry of others? This photograph we present to you is authentic. If you look very closely, you can see that this work doesn’t look like his cup of tea. He wasn’t born to be a road mender—he still hasn’t lost his passion for ironing boards.

In Montreal, it would seem, a Chinese guy could wash the white man’s dirty laundry, but be would never earn his respect.

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It wasn’t until 1947 that Chinese exclusion was finally abolished. In 1948, Chinese-Canadians gained the right to vote. But the end of exclusion was accompanied by new regulations that continued to restrict Chinese immigration to Canada. Families that had been separated for decades were not allowed to reunite until 1957, when the Diefenbaker government, under pressure from Chinese-Canadian groups, eased immigration restrictions. Much of the credit for this goes to the indefatigable Jean Lumb, a Canadian-born Chinese woman who had lost her citizenship in 1929 when she married a Chinese national. It was her meeting with Diefenbaker that is said to have finally convinced him to allow Chinese families to reunite.

With a renewed influx of Chinese immigrants in the 1950s and 60s, one might have expected Chinese laundries to flourish. But the racist laws and attitudes that had kept Chinese-Canadians in the laundry trade to begin with were crumbling. (Mechanization also gradually eliminated most of the human labour needed to run a laundry.) New immigrants and Canadian-born Chinese were finally free to attend university, live where they wanted and make a living in whatever industry they chose. Gradually, Chinese laundries disappeared. Kristian Gravenor reports that the last one still operating in Montreal was Charlie Chin’s laundry on Crescent Street. It closed in 1982.

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Wong Lee Laundry, Sherbrooke and St. Laurent.


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4 comments

  1. Donal hanley says:

    Fascinating article, thanks! It is scarcely a wonder that, having been forced, in effect, to work in the laundry trade for so long, once the humiliating restrictions were lifted,, Chinese people fled to other lines of work which bore less stigma. This story is probably as unfamiliar to more recent Chinese immigrants as it is to non-Chinese people.

    Here in Los Angeles, living as part of a Taiwanese family, I am struck by how diverse the different Chinese groups are here, how they live in different areas, have vastly different levels of wealth according to the group from which they come, etc. I read the same was true of Jewish immigrants to Canada & the US, except that, in their case, the longer established Jews were the wealthier ones who looked down on the more recent immigrants. In my own case, the Irish story, at least in England, mirrors more closely the Chinese one. When my friends and I moved to London we did not feel any great kinship for the older Irish immigrants (or emigrants, as we would have called them). They were much older than us, and from much poorer backgrounds. Their children spoke with English accents….

    March 11th, 2007 at 11:40 am

  2. John Jung says:

    Nice presentation that shows striking similarities with the origins and fate of Chinese laundries across Canada and in the U. S. Chinese did not come over to do laundry, but did so to survive as it was one of the few occupations not contested by whites…at least initially. Then whites tried to drive the Chinese out of laundry work, not satisfied that they had already prevented them from taking other work. Still, the laundry was the first major form of self-employment for the Chinese and it provided the economic avenue of entry into society. I have found its history is well worth study and recording (www.lulu.com/Chineselaundries).

    March 14th, 2007 at 12:12 am

  3. Christopher DeWolf says:

    John, I just took a look at your site. When will your book be published?

    March 14th, 2007 at 2:07 am

  4. JOHN JUNG says:

    http://www.lulu.com/Chineselaundries

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your interest in Chinese Laundries; it is now available at the above website. Hope you find it interesting (it includes some material about laundries in Canada as well as in the states as well as a Foreword by a Canadian authority on Chinese laundries).
    John

    May 6th, 2007 at 4:44 pm