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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Here’s the concentrated orange juice: Chinese laborers made up 90% of Central Pacific’s workforce, were paid considerably less than white laborers, did the most dangerous work including dynamiting their way through the Sierra Nevadas, and paid out of pocket for food and shelter. When the railroad was completed in 1869, thousands of men suddenly found themselves unemployed. The Civil War had left a bitter taste in many people’s mouths, but now that Black people were free, the racial animus that has always been a part of America’s DNA set its sights on a new scapegoat. People were angry and they took that anger out on the Chinese in the West, a territory where the lynch mob was the only law in town.

At times the white majority succeeded in running the Chinese out of town, and a number of Chinese did return to China or were denied re-entry to the U.S. after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, but thousands of Chinese men remained (Chinese women had already been effectively banned from entering the U.S. by the 1875 Page Law). They needed work in order to continue sending money home to their families in China and to pay off whatever debt they’d been saddled with to get there in the first place.

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Katie Gee Salisbury

Author of NOT YOUR CHINA DOLL, a new biography of Anna May Wong, forthcoming from Dutton on March 12, 2024. Available for pre-order: www.notyourchinadoll.com