A Thousand Cuts: Or, How Soo Hoo Doo Got Run Out of Town.

Author:Carter, Susan Boslego

Police whistles broke the peace of a quiet Sunday morning in the summer of 1887. Customers collecting their finished bundles from the Chinese laundries along Philadelphia's Race Street jumped aside as police rushed from door to door. In rapid-fire order the police charged Yee Hop, John Lee, Hop Lee, and Kim Wah with Sunday closing violations and slapped each with a $4 fine. When the laundrymen refused to pay, the police marched them to Magistrate Eisenbrown who threatened them with jail if they did not comply by the end of the week.

Word spread quickly. The next evening over sixty men--nearly every Chinese laundryman in downtown Philadelphia--met to plan a course of action. For more than two hours, one after another shared stories of police harassment. In the end, they retained a lawyer to petition Judge Bregy for an appeal. Bregy granted the appeal but postponed arguments until the fall.

The next Sunday the men opened their laundries as usual. Soon afterward a customer entered the shop of Sam Chung, begging Chung to finish a shirt so he could take his best girl to the park. Chung didn't work Sundays but eventually he yielded to the man's persistent pleas. The moment Chung picked up his iron the police came and arrested him.

Chung's Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Downing, was visiting and witnessed the entire episode. Short, stout, blackhaired, and determined, she erupted in fury at the policemen and accompanied Chung, only sixteen, and the arresting officer to Magistrate Eisenbrown's office. When Eisenbrown imposed a fine, Downing exploded. "That's right! That's right! Persecute the poor Chinamen. You can only see on one side of the street. You can see the poor Chinese with their laundries open, but you can't see the white groceries and grog shops and cigar stores and candy stores!" Eisenbrown tried to calm her but she would not calm. She denounced the magistrate, the lieutenant, and the entire police force. When Eisenbrown insisted he would fine Chung $4 and costs, Downing cried, "Don't pay them a cent. It's downright robbery." "I won't pay no fine," replied a resolute Chung. (1) Chung was determined to stay and fight but Soo Hoo Doo (aka Mon Yuen Soo, 1865-1914), another Philadelphia laundryman and manager of a prosperous bazaar, decided it was time to move on. This is his story.

Doo moved to the rapidly-growing community of Scranton in northeastern Pennsylvania where he founded a laundry and import store. In the early 1890s he brought his wife from China as one of the first Chinese women to live in the state. (2) The couple soon had four children, all born in the United States. They established close ties with prominent members of the Scranton community and prospered. Then, in the violence surrounding the Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, Doo became the target of incessant police harassment. To safeguard his family, he removed them to China and returned alone to manage his business interests. The harassment intensified. He moved to nearby Wilkes-Barre, but after a few peaceful years, police harassment commenced there as well. Doo hired lawyers, assembled witnesses, and fought extortion efforts by the Black Hand, the police, and plain crooks. His exertions proved futile. He was tried three times and thrown in jail before charges against him were finally dropped. In despair he returned to Philadelphia and died at the young age of forty-nine.

I tell Doo's story--parts of it at least--in Doo's own voice. Since few Chinese Americans of the era left personal records, this fact alone makes Doo's story a valuable addition to nineteenth-century American history. Most Chinese were illiterate immigrants without the time or resources for journal-keeping or extensive letter-writing. They were men whose families were largely forbidden from joining them, so few had American-born children to tell their tales. (3) As targets of harsh laws limiting their entry and conduct, many understandably avoided the spotlight. Even census takers appear to have undercounted them. (4)

Although Doo was able to read and write, he does not appear to have left a diary. Doo's children were born in the United States, yet his offspring did not leave written records. In place of these traditional sources, what we have instead are stories Doo placed in the local newspapers. Perhaps hoping to distance himself from ugly stereotypes in wide circulation at the time, Doo invited the press to meet his family and to observe his business and cultural practices. Doo and his family were upstanding members of the Scranton community. He wanted his neighbors to know it and the newspapers to report it. The recent digitization of historical newspapers together with census records, city directories, wills, ship manifests, and similar documents makes it possible for the first time to reconstruct and verify the story Doo told of himself.

Doo offers an inspiring example of Chinese assimilation as early as the nineteenth century and of one mans heroic efforts to defend himself and his family against racial violence. Doo's story is also a powerful reminder of the caustic, sometimes deadly, effects of hate speech, especially hate speech encouraged and legitimated by powerful public figures.


Police harassment was hardly the most intense form of hostility directed against the Chinese. Anti-Chinese riots, massacres, raids, and roundups murdered many hundreds and injured and uprooted many thousands. Anti-Chinese union rules barred the Chinese from virtually all branches of manufacturing. An anti-Chinese amendment to the California constitution prohibited corporations and governmental agencies from employing Chinese workers. Anti-Chinese municipal statutes outlawed laundries in wood-frame buildings, targeted persons carrying bundles on shoulder poles, and limited residential density. (5)

Banned from most legitimate work, some enterprising Chinese opened whorehouses, gambling joints, and opium dens, exposing themselves to other forms of violence. Whites who frequented these vice spots were often drunk and disorderly. Fights were frequent. The rival syndicates who operated them hired armed thugs to protect their turf. Their rivalries periodically erupted into wars that left Chinatown streets red with blood. (6)

Solitary laundrymen living outside of Chinatowns were subject to random attacks by ruffians emboldened by the vitriolic anti-Chinese rhetoric of the day. One of them threw a stone into the window of Wing Lee's laundry in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. The stone upset the stove, broke Lee's lamp, and ignited a blaze that set the laundry on fire. Lee was forced to flee for his life and lost almost $1,500 in bills, equipment, and structural damage. (7) A stranger came into Sam Wing's laundry, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, swept clothing onto the floor, overturned the starch pail, knocked down the stove, and crashed a chair down over Wing's head, leaving him bloodied and dazed. (8)

Police harassment may seem inconsequential in comparison with these acts, but it was ubiquitous and unrelenting. Police harassed Chinese laundrymen in New York when that city stepped up its enforcement of Sunday closing laws. (9) In Oakland, California, police harassment was so outrageous that even the mainstream Oakland Tribune mocked it.

In 1875, a certain Ah Sam was arrested for peddling without a license: "His vegetables are lying on the floor of the police Court office, while businessmen throughout the city are going ahead as usual, very few of whom have taken out a license." ... "Ah Dong has been arrested on suspicion of being a Chinaman." In 1887 a police officer set out to arrest Wing Hop, who ran an unlicensed laundry. Wing Hop was not at home, so the officer arrested another man "at random," and booked him as Wing Hop, "on the theory that there is little difference in the appearance of Chinamen." (10) When laundryman Soon Hing challenged San Francisco's Sunday closing law, arguing that its sole purpose was to harm the Chinese, his case became a test of the constitutionality of such provisions and went all the way to the Supreme CourL. Hing lost. (11)

Soo Hoo Doo's story illustrates the deleterious effects of pervasive police harassment of Chinese in the relatively small cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. These cities were home to only a small number of hardworking, law-abiding Chinese American laundrymen and restaurateurs. These men made no effort Lo "steal" the jobs of coal miners, machinists, or railroad workers. They and their families gave the lie lo the argument that the Chinese could not assimilate. They had to assimilate. There were only thirty-six of them in a community of almost half a million. Yet abusive racist speech had defined the Chinese as undesirable and the police harassed them with a vengeance. Like the Chinese capital punishment lingchi, "death by a thousand cuts," no single assault was lethal. Done repeatedly, however, they led to a painful end. In China, the Qing dynasty was abandoning lingchi to better align its judicial system with Western sensibilities. (12) Through the practice of police harassment of Chinese, America imported the practice, at least metaphorically.


Police harassment originated in Ehe creation of formal urban police departments in nineteenth-century American cities. Before such departments, civil order was kept by part-time, self-employed constables and night watchmen who worked for fees and brought their cases directly to the courts. As cities grew in size, mayors replaced these part-timers with hierarchically organized, uniformed, and salaried police officers who reported directly to the mayor. These policemen were not trained in the law. Instead, new recruits "heard a brief speech from a high-ranking officer, received a hickory club, a whistle, and a key to the call box, and were sent out on the street to work with an experienced officer." (13)

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