Historical notes on some of Maine's Chinese hand-laundries and laundrymen.

Author:Libby, Gary W.

In China, men did not work in the laundry business. In the United States, however, a combination of racial discrimination, a need for the service, and the small capital investment necessary to start up such businesses resulted in a large proportion of Chinese men becoming laundrymen.


Sam Lee, a fourteen-year-old boy, opened what appears to have been Maine's first Chinese hand-laundry in Portland in 1877. He was not alone for long. About a year later an article in the Portland Daily Eastern Argus said there "are now five Chinese laundries in this city and fifteen almond-eyed sons of the Flowery Kingdom are connected therewith." (1) The 1880 census enumerated eight Chinese men in Portland, all of whom were laundrymen.

As early as 1882 some of Portland's laundrymen visited Augusta to see if they could make arrangements to open laundries there. (2) In April of 1884 two Chinese men opened a laundry in Westbrook, a city neighboring Portland. The newspaper coverage treated that event with the racist derision that became typical of the coverage of Maine's early Chinese. The Westbrook Chronicle noted that "a couple of John Chinamee created a considerable curiosity on our streets Monday, it being the first 'Washee John' ever seen in the town." (3)

In Biddeford, the local newspaper remarked that Hop Sing's Chinese laundry was running full steam and that the proprietor was all right up to the present time, "but if the troublesome hoodlum element get at him, there a probability of his changing his name to Hop, Sing, and Git." (4) A few months later, that same newspaper mentioned an expansion by another Chinese laundryman in town and the possibility of more to come.

Wah Lung, who runs a Chinese laundry in Quimby's block and plays the kazoo for the amusement of the hoodlums, is about to open the store at the corner of Main and Franklin streets in the new block, which will be used as an ironing department in connection with his laundry. Two Boston celestials of the washee-washee persuasion, will shortly locate in the city and run an opposition establishment to Wah Lung. (5) Wah Lung continued to be an exotic attraction in Biddeford. Another newspaper article described his visit to a local barbershop for a "shavee." He was said to have "climbed into the chair with about as much grace as one would expect an elephant to display under the circumstances." In describing the reactions of the other barbershop customers, the article took a nasty turn when a man, whose wife had given up laundry work when Wah Lung opened his shop, "asked the barber why he did not cut the 'Chinese heathen's' throat." (6)

By 1884 there were enough Chinese laundrymen in Portland to support a moon festival celebration. (7) The first-mentioned Chinese New Year celebration in Maine took place in Augusta in 1890.[R] Chinese laundrymen had arrived in the state capital of Augusta in 1885. The Daily Kennebec Journal, Augusta's newspaper, reported that

The two representatives of the Flowery Kingdom who have entered into the laundry business here, are engaged in fitting up their quarters in the north end. Their baggage consisted of a tea-chest, two leather-covered trunks and several frying pans. The latter household utensils indicate that they will "board themselves." Boarding house proprietors will accordingly take notice. (9) In 1885 the Daily Kennebec Journal reported that "Chinamen are coming into the State in larger numbers than usual. Several Chinese laundries have opened in the larger cities." (10) That newspaper soon reported that "Sam Sing, the Mongolian laundryman, has moved to the block south of the railroad bridge on the water side of the bridge." (11) By 1890 ten Maine cities and towns had Chinese laundries. (12) Eventually thirty Maine cities and towns had them. (13)

By 1886 anti-Chinese agitation reared its head in Maine when a committee of the Augusta Knights of Labor approached the owner of the building in the city's north end, which was the location of a Chinese laundry. The Knights told the owner that, in the interests of labor, the "Mongolians" should not be allowed to occupy the building any longer. (14) Apparently, the landlord defied the Knights since the 1886-87 Augusta City Directory continued to list the laundry at that location.

The most vivid description of an early Maine Chinese laundry appeared in the Portland Daily Eastern Argus in 1889. (15) According to the story, one Sunday afternoon during the winter of 1881, Alfred York, an Eastern Argus reporter, had been invited for dinner by the owner of the Wah Lee Laundry. About eight years later Mr. York wrote an article describing the laundry, the laundrymen, and the meal. The shop's owner and his employee lived and worked in a two-room space. The front room, where the customers were served, also functioned as the office (with an abacus, account book, camel hair brushes, and India ink), ironing space, and place to store the bundles of finished laundry. The rear room functioned as the actual laundry area, the sleeping and eating area, and, occasionally, as a temple for religious services.

The article said that the laundry's proprietor, dressed in his Sunday best, greeted his guest clothed in a knee-length brocade robe with long flowing sleeves and a quilted silk cap with a round button at the top. The left breast of the robe was adorned with five buttons said to be symbols of the five virtues of Confucius: charity, justice, conformity to established conventions and usages, rectitude of heart, and sincerity. His trousers were American in form. He wore white socks with heavy-soled Chinese shoes.

Dinner began "at the fashionable hour of four." The three diners sat on stools at a table on which a small bowl and a porcelain spoon were set for each. A large bowl in the center of the table contained the first course. The meal began with tea, followed by a chicken stew, another round of tea, a second course of boiled rice, a third course of pork stew, and dessert of cream cakes. The dinner ended two hours after it had begun when Mr. York finished another cup of tea laced with American whiskey.

As early as 1891 Portland's Chinese laundrymen had formed a musical combo including fiddles, a form of pandeau pipes, and a banjo. The group's evening rehearsals at the laundry in the United States Hotel drew crowds to the sidewalk. The Bangor Daily_Whig and Courier's article described the selections practiced as "of the native growth of China, wild, weird and peculiar." (16)


Not everyone embraced the Chinese. There were many accounts of people, often adolescent boys, harassing Chinese laundrymen. On January 2, 1879, less than two years after the first Chinese laundry opened in Portland, "a young disciple of Kearney went into the Chinese laundry on Center Street and assaulted one of the 'moon-eyed lepers' as the gentle Denis calls them." (17) A little more than two years later, an intoxicated man broke into that laundry and was caught by the two laundrymen who turned him over to the police.

On March 17, 1883, the Daily Kennebec Journal referred to an article in the Portland Daily Eastern Argus that reported an assault, without provocation, against a "much respected" Jewish merchant by a group of three "roughs." The article said that Portland's "Hebrew population" had complained of persecution by such roughs. That article went on to state that Portland's Chinese had also made similar complaints and that the Portland Police had been "ordered to protect them to the best of their ability." The article concluded with the statement, "The police intend to treat all races and classes equally." (18)

A disgruntled customer assaulted Portland laundryman Sing Lee on February 22, 1885, and broke four panes of glass. On July 4, 1887, someone threw a cannon cracker against the door of Sam Wah Lung's Portland laundry, shattering several panes of glass. A month later, while Mr. Lung was entertaining some of his Chinese friends at his shop, a group of rowdy boys threw a rock through his shop's window. He and his friends gave chase but a policeman stopped Mr. Lung, who was brandishing a steel bosom pleater, before he could catch the boys who escaped. The Portland Transcript suggested that such boys should be arrested whenever caught molesting Chinamen. (19) A similar incident happened at another laundry that September.

In January 1890, three hoodlums assaulted laundryman Sam Lung without provocation, kicking and beating him. A few days later two Irishmen were convicted in the Portland Municipal Court for a brutal assault on Chin Foo. They were sentenced to six months in jail. The Portland Daily Press described their punishment as "deserved." (20) In November 1890, two young bullies entered a Chinese laundry. One of them presented a claim check to the laundryman and, when he turned to find the package, the other man hit him on the head, knocking him to the floor. The laundryman then grabbed a hammer that he kept behind the counter, and rose, stunned. He hurled the hammer at his assailants, who immediately fled the shop.

In November 1892, Charlie Ying, a Portland laundry owner, became angry with a boy who had been tormenting him. Mr. Ying confronted the boy and was, in turn, confronted by the boy's mother. Mr. Ying responded by chasing the mother out of his shop with a broomstick. A policeman arrived and arrested everyone.

In December 1893, Augusta's Thomas J. Clark was convicted of assault and battery on Hop Lung on Thanksgiving evening. Clark was acquitted of an accompanying robbery charge.

In July 1897, a man entered a Lewiston Chinese laundry just after it opened while the laundryman was in the back room building a fire. The thief forced open the cash drawer and stole the contents, which amounted to about six dollars. The laundryman called a police officer, who was unable to locate the thief.

In August 1900, three men entered Sing Lee's Lewiston laundry and...

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