|Chinese presence in American History|
The history of Chinese laundrymen goes back to the mid-1800s, when large numbers of Chinese immigrants started coming to the United States after the Gold Rush. Almost all of the early immigrants came from Guangdong province, the area surrounding Hong Kong.
The initial rush to California after gold was discovered in 1849 included 325 men from Guangdong. A few hundred soon became a few thousand and by 1870 there were about 63,000 Chinese in the United States, mostly in California. They were welcomed at first, but as their numbers grew, so did the backlash against them. White miners didn't like the competition from foreigners who were viewed as interlopers and politicians joined the anti-Chinese chorus, passing numerous discriminatory laws and taxes aimed at Chinese immigrants. During the Gold Rush in 1852, the California Legislature passed a tax that required all miners who were not U.S. citizens to pay the state $3 a month. This law was clearly directed at Chinese miners as the Naturalization Act of 1790 prevented nonwhites from becoming citizens.
At the same time as the gold rush petered out, grand plans were being made to build a railroad across the country, a huge endeavor that would need thousands of workers. In February 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad hired its first 50 Chinese workers to lay track for the eastbound half of the Transcontinental Railroad. Naturally, white workers objected as more and more Chinese were hired. The new immigrants were exploited as cheap labor, and over the next two years, the Central Pacific hired 12,000 Chinese workers--90 percent of the company's work force. By this time, the anti-Chinese movement was in full swing.
When the railroad was finished in 1869, many of the thousands of Chinese laborers went to San Francisco and took jobs in the manufacturing trades, making shoes, clothes and cigars. Others went to the rural regions of the Central Valley and helped build the state's agricultural industry. Chinese farmers from the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong used their experience to drain flooded marsh areas in Central California and reclaimed thousands of acres of land to help start the state's agriculture industry.
Economic competition always seems to lead to scapegoating of immigrants. The influx of Chinese workers and farmers in the late 1800s fanned the flames of anti-Chinese sentiment among whites. Labor unions and politicians led the anti-Chinese movement, and throughout California, Chinese were beaten or killed. Even President Rutherford Hayes got into the action warning the country about the "Chinese problem" in 1879. He said the "Chinese invasion was pernicious and should be discouraged. Our experience in dealing with the weaker races--the Negroes and the Indians . . . is not encouraging . . . I would consider with favor any suitable measures to discourage the Chinese from coming to our shores." Hayes got his wish when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred common Chinese laborers from entering the country. But the Chinese were hardly a threat to white labor or society--in 1880 only .002 percent of the U.S. population was Chinese.
So what does all this have to do with Chinese laundries? With few jobs open to them, Chinese immigrants set out on their own and opened retail stores and restaurants. Another industry open to Chinese was the laundry business. It was an untapped market with high demand in the years during and after the gold rush. Unlike farming, operating a laundry was not something inherent to or brought over from China. The Chinese laundry, like the fortune cookie, is an American invention, and they were the Starbucks of their day, with outlets on every busy street corner of most big cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
To many outsiders, Chinatowns and Chinese laundries were mysterious places. Stories were told of funny-talking, evil Chinese doing mysterious things in the back rooms of laundries. They kidnapped children, breathed fire (actually, they sprayed water onto clothes during ironing, which created steam) and other sinister things. These images became engrained in popular American culture and survive today in things like Abercrombie & Fitch's shirts.
The experience of Chinese laundrymen mirrors that of contemporary immigrants from all parts of the world. A hundred years ago, many Chinese found their niche in laundries. Today, immigrants continue to pull together the resources to start retail and restaurant businesses. Many others drive taxis, work as maids, paint houses, bus tables, wash dishes and are farm workers.
Chinese presence in American History