‘A sad and glorious history’: One of NYC’s last Chinese hand laundries closes

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By Hanna Park

Oct. 9, 2020

For more than half a century, residents of Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood would pick up their freshly starched shirts in flimsy plastic bags from Sun’s Laundry. The store’s red vintage sign, silver countertop bell, Chinese and Westernized calendars, bright customer tickets and over-the-counter conversations served as relics of a bygone era. 

Now, the shop sits desolate after having closed at the end of August, following decades during which the Sun family spent their days washing clothes in mixed starch and water, then taking an electric stainless steel iron to the garments to present their customers with crisp, pressed shirts. At night, they retreated to their two-bedroom apartment unit above the store. 

The Chinese hand laundry store — known for packaging the final product in traditional brown paper and twine — was one of the last in Manhattan, and it had been operating as a family business since 1959, with Robert S. Lee, 84, at the helm. He opened it with his father, Lee Dow Sun, after whom it’s named. During the 1930s, Sun also owned a laundry in Boston, where Lee had first immigrated searching for opportunity. 

Robert Lee, left, sending off his cousins from Hong Kong to the U.S. in 1955. (Courtesy Robert Gee)

Robert Lee, left, sending off his cousins from Hong Kong to the U.S. in 1955. (Courtesy Robert Gee)

Robert Lee’s first departure from Hong Kong to Boston in April 1957, with his brother-in-law’s mother, Gam How Gee, left, and Wai Lee Hom. (Courtesy Robert Gee)

Robert Lee’s first departure from Hong Kong to Boston in April 1957, with his brother-in-law’s mother, Gam How Gee, left, and Wai Lee Hom. (Courtesy Robert Gee)

With waning clientele as the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Lee couldn’t afford to put money into his business anymore. It closed Aug. 29. 

“If I had my way, I’d still be working,” said Lee, whose given name in Chinese is Li Hong Sen, meaning “prosperous life.”

Like many other first-generation Chinese immigrants, Lee resorted to the hand laundry business to earn a better living. Lee, born in the agricultural village of Toisan, China, had fled to Hong Kong by himself in 1951 amid the growing influence of the Chinese Communist Party before arriving in America. He says his mother, Lee Suet Fong, had been tortured by the Japanese with forced labor before she joined Lee in Hong Kong three years later, and his father, the first to arrive in the U.S., had sent thousands of dollars to build a home for the family in Toisan.

“It was a difficult trade, and I wanted to help out my parents in every way possible,” Lee said in his native Toisanese, according to his nephew Robert Gee, who provided a translation of the Chinese dialect. “In the early 1900s, the business model was to send Chinese men to the U.S. to work and support families in China. Given the uprising of the communist rule in 1949, we had no choice but to stay in the U.S. and make the best of life in a new country. Life in America was better than in China with modern facilities versus living in the farmland.” 

Lee said that in the booming days of businesswear in the early 1960s to the 1990s, he would process over 100 business shirts a day. As work clothing became more casual in the 2000s, he would sort just under 40 shirts a day.

According to the Partnership for New York City, an estimated one-third of local small businesses in the city, or about 77,000, will close permanently because of the coronavirus, with closings disproportionately harming immigrant communities. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo deemed laundromats to be essential businesses, many, like Sun’s Laundry, closed temporarily to curb the spread of the virus.

Robert Lee, center, and Wai Hing Lee pose at their wedding in 1962 with his sister Wai Lee Hom, left, and brother-in-law, William Hom, and their two boys. (Courtesy Robert Gee)

Robert Lee, center, and Wai Hing Lee pose at their wedding in 1962 with his sister Wai Lee Hom, left, and brother-in-law, William Hom, and their two boys. (Courtesy Robert Gee)

Sun’s Laundry, which he operated with his wife, Wai Hing Lee, 76, was the last of five laundry businesses within his extended family, and it was an emblem of the role the industry served in the U.S.

“It helped make America’s lifestyle convenient and made them look good,” said Gee, whose grandfather had also owned a Chinese hand laundry business in Manhattan. “People would give laundrymen soiled underwear, and you’ll receive the result of beautiful clothes. Nobody wanted these jobs. Yet, the Chinese folks had to make a living.”

“Nobody wanted these jobs. Yet, the Chinese folks had to make a living.”

As an influx of Chinese immigrants escaping economic and political upheaval in the mid-1800s sought refuge in the U.S., many men scrambled for fortunes in the California Gold Rush and found work as laborers. Later, many of them started working on the Transcontinental Railroad, which would link the U.S. from east to west. 

“The Chinese man’s vision of America was ‘The Gold Mountain,'” Gee said, explaining what the country represented to the early Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush of 1849. “But after there was no more gold, [white Americans] said, ‘Let’s make the Chinamen build the Pacific Railroad for us.'”

However, widespread unemployment after the Gold Rush led to a spike in anti-Chinese sentiments. As the U.S. enacted the Page Law of 1875, barring Chinese women from entry, followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the entire Chinese population — including men — from immigrating based on their ethnic origin.

Restricted from owning property and barred from “masculine” trades in organized labor and in tobacco, shoe and woolen goods manufacturing, Chinese men were forced to take on more “feminized” jobs as cooks, laundrymen and domestic servants.

Robert Lee wrapping laundry in the classic brown butcher’s paper tied with string.  (Sheldon Chau / Leap Man Productions)

Robert Lee wrapping laundry in the classic brown butcher’s paper tied with string.  (Sheldon Chau / Leap Man Productions)

“Washing clothes was not considered men’s work. No men wanted to do the laundry, so the Chinese men took over the industry,” said Justin Wu, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, a representative organization.     

“[Due to] the lack of education and discrimination towards Chinese immigrants, there were not many opportunities,” Lee said. “The careers offered were mainly blue-collar opportunities. It was very seldom that a Chinese immigrant had the opportunity to become a white-collar worker.”                                 

To meet the demand for clean clothes, many white miners had paid “relatively high prices” to Native American or Mexican women to wash their clothes. However, the Chinese men began to replace those women as early as the mid-1800s because of the shortage of Chinese women.

Wu said the Chinese population was still scapegoated for stealing the jobs of white Americans. 

“They got upset that the Chinese hand laundries dominated every corner of the streets … from the East Side, West Side, downtown, uptown, Bronx and Brooklyn. Even when we were limited in job opportunities, we still faced people’s jealousy. So they decided to force us out again,” he said.

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