Laundry was central to the building of the West. The West was dirty – unpaved streets, tent homes, open sewage, and most working people only owned one or two sets of clothes.
In early days of immigration, the most common labor of Chinese women was laundry work. According to the 1920 census, almost 30 percent of all employed Chinese worked in laundries; out of a total of 45,614 Chinese workers, 12,559 were laundry workers. Opening a laundry was also a fast way to launch one’s own business. It required almost no start-up capital – just a scrub board, soap, and an iron. Laundry owners usually saved rent by living in their shops. 36
Most laundries were started by Chinese American men who had been banned from jobs in mines and factories. Many Chinese entered the laundry business because whites viewed it as lowly women’s work. 37
Yet once the Chinese started to make a profit from washing clothing and bed linens, the contemptuous attitude towards laundry work changed. White men felt jealous of the visible profits of Chinese “washmen.” Chinese laundries became frequent targets of arson by white vigilantes. To force the Chinese from their towns, white local authorities tried to bankrupt Chinese laundries. Town after town passed municipal codes banning laundries in wooden structures, at a time when most buildings in the West were made of wood. 38
Hundreds of Chinese were arrested under such discriminatory codes as the San Francisco Fire-Safety Ordinance. Elsewhere local codes banned the delivery of laundry in buggies or outlawed men carrying baskets on shoulder poles, or limited the hours a laundry could stay open—all ways to make it impossible for the Chinese to work, and to remove Chinese men and women from towns across the West.
“We live above the laundry in two rooms. I helped out with the wash, pressing, and ironing. It was hard work, long hours. We did everything ourselves. We hardly slept…I helped at the front when someone came to pick up laundry. Even though I couldn’t read, I knew how to find the package by number. There was no time for anything else, only time to go get my hair cut.”
Some Chinese men managed to pass as “merchants” by buying a tiny share of a laundry in order to protect their right to travel to China and return, and to secure permission for their wives to immigrate. Wives who managed to sail from China and enter the United States often worked alongside their husbands, even as they cared for their children and cooked meals in the back of the laundries.