The Art Of Chinese Hand Laundry – And What Juliette Is Doing About It.
What is “Chinese laundry?”
It’s a noun that dates back to the 20th century and is a business that flourished for years. And though there are only 19 Chinese laundromats left in New York City, their history can’t be ignored because the art of Chinese Laundry is what the dry cleaning and laundry industry were built on.
And at Juliette, we’ll be preserving it and bringing it to the 21st century.
It all began during the Gold Rush, which was between 1848 and 1855.
There weren’t many women in the West who were available to do laundry – and white men did not want to do it – so laundry was shipped to Hong Kong for $12 per dozen shirts and it took four months to come back.
Later it was sent to Honolulu, Hawaii for $8 per dozen shirts.
This is when Chinese entrepreneurs in San Francisco saw an opportunity. The first known Chinese laundry was opened by Wah Lee in 1851, charging $5 to wash one dozen shirts.
The industry eventually found its way to the East Coast. By the 20th century, one of four ethnic Chinese men in the United States worked in laundry.
At the beginning of the Great Depression, there were an estimated 3,550 “Chinese hand laundries” owned and operated by Chinese immigrants across New York City.
It was referred to as “Hand Laundry,” because ironing was done by hand. On the door of every Chinese laundry in New York, there were big words in red paint, and it said: “Hand Laundry.”
“At the end of almost every residential block or alley, there was always a Chinese laundry. A Chinese laundry was usually small — about the size of five dining tables, equipped only with an ironing board and a shelf to put cleaned, ironed clothes that were packaged and ready to go.”
The laundry business wasn’t – and still isn’t – glamorous, but back then, it’s all that most Chinese immigrants had. Racial discrimination and a lack of English language skills kept them – and Chinese Americans – from pursuing other careers.
It was dirty work. It hurt your back, ruined your hands and required you to touch dirty clothes. A typical launderer worked for 10 to 16 hours a day.
“Laundry work was especially wearisome, because it meant the soaking, scrubbing, and ironing of clothing solely by hand; moreover, prompt and high quality service was necessary to keep customers satisfied. Workers in laundries and groceries received the going wage of twenty-five dollars per month, and despite long hours the work-week was seven days,” according to the Alberta Online Encyclopedia.
“For the majority of the Chinese, then, the daily routine was almost solely working, eating, and sleeping.”
While the Chinese were a growing community in the laundry business, so were white Americans, like the Jewish.
The competition began to get volatile because Chinese-owned laundries charged less. The New York City Board of Aldermen attempted to pass a law that required “all city-based laundries to be operated by United States citizens and post a $1,000 security bond.”
But it was unsuccessful thanks to push backs by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association who hired Polish Jewish lawyer Julius Bezozo, who lowered the bond to $100.
The Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance was formed not too long after, and it continued to advocate for civil rights of Chinese people in the U.S.
Business was booming in the early 1960s to the 1990s when people dressed more formally for work.
One longtime Chinese Hand Laundry owner, Robert S. Lee, said he would process over 100 business shirts a day. But when work clothes began to get more casual in the 2000s, he would do under 40 shirts a day.
Still, during these days customers witnessed Chinese Hand Laundries’ vintage signs; silver countertop bells; and bundles of laundry wrapped in brown paper, tied neatly with string and topped with bright colored laundry tickets.
There was also a secret language of the clothes.
Launderers would write a code in a hidden part of a customers’ clothes, which would help them identify the customer later on. Unlike modern cleaners who heat seal a barcode, the old way was to write the customer’s code with ink inside the fabric, but somewhere they wouldn’t see it.
For many first-generation Chinese immigrants, this industry is what put their children through college – something they didn’t get access to. And with the college education, the owners and operators of the Chinese Hand Laundry began to age – because not many wanted to pick up the family business – in addition to the rise in casual wear and the fall of business wear.
And so, the art of Chinese Hand Laundry continued to get lost over the years.
Fast forward to nearly two decades later, the COVID-19 pandemic pulled many laundromats’ lifelines, like Lee’s laundromat, Sun’s Laundry, which closed around October of 2020.
[Not] The End
Though it feels like the end of this tradition, with Juliette, it’s more like a revitalization.
Juliette is uniquely positioned to preserve the tradition. We’re going to reintroduce this lost art. As an Asian, and as an immigrant, we will honor the toil and hard work, and refuse to let the art of the Chinese Hand Laundry die here.