The Invention of the Chinese Laundry

Katie Gee Salisbury
9 min readFeb 17, 2021
a neon “hand laundry” sign glows in the window of a laundry above a rack of hanging shirts wrapped in plastic
a laundry on the Upper East Side, NYC, 2015 (taken by the author)

Small businesses have long been the bastion of first-generation immigrants starting out in America and hoping to build a life here. There was a time when Chinese laundries were as common as the corner bodega or mini-mart. Once industrial washing machines came along, though, many hand laundries went the way of the dinosaurs. In their place a new business sprung up: Chinese takeouts.

Oftentimes trends like this have a lot to do with migration patterns and how networks of immigrants leverage resources. In the case of Chinese laundries, the industry was born of a practical strategy to survive in a hostile country and circumvent the racist strictures enforced against Chinese immigrants.

To really understand what I mean, we have to go back to the transcontinental railroad. Sometimes I feel like a broken record because I bring up the railroad so dang often. But the truth is, when it comes to the Chinese in America, immigration law, post-Civil War America, or Manifest Destiny, all roads lead back to the railroad.

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Katie Gee Salisbury

Author of NOT YOUR CHINA DOLL, a new biography of Anna May Wong, out now from Dutton and Faber.