Dance No More: Chinese Hand Laundries in Toronto

By: Lee Wai-Ma

From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp. 32-34
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

Chink, chink, Chinaman,
Wash my pants;
Put them into the boiler,
And make them dance.

Many Torontonians who have resided in the city since the 1950s would probably be familiar with this doggerel about the older generation of Chinese Canadians. On one hand, this dowdy rhyme reflects the bigoted mind of its author. On the other hand, it characterizes, to a certain extent, a major facet of the life of the Chinese Canadian community before the 1960s.

If gold mining and railroad construction were two important occupations of Chinese Canadian pioneers in western Canada, then clothes washing was a common occupation for the earlier Chinese Canadians who chose Toronto as their new hometown. Indeed, the first Chinese recorded in the City Directory of Toronto were the owners of two laundries founded in 1877, Sam Ching & Company at 9 Adelaide Street East and Wo Kee at 385 Yonge Street. The fact that these two laurdries opened their doors eight years before the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) suggests that they were not the result of railway migration, rather their owners might have moved from the United States. In the late 1870s, there were already close to forty Chinese hand laundries operating in Chicago. Similarly, many early New York Chinese were engaged in the laundering business. It would not be too surprising to find out that Sam Ching and Wo Kee were indeed former laundrymen from the United States, although more definite evidence is needed to substantiate this claim.

Some sociologists contend that the Chinese laundry, like the Italian fruit stand and the Greek ice-cream parlour, in North America is the product of social invention. However, it is a social invention by circumstance rather than by choice. In 1879 the Select Committee on Chinese Labour and Immigration of the House of Commons succinctly pointed out that, "wash clothes, which white men who can get anything else to do will not do- this labour is left to the Chinamen.'' As a matter of fact, many Chinese Canadian laundrymen were peasants before they emigrated from China. Laundries were one of the pioneering businesses for the early Chinese immigrants in Canada. When the first major wave of Chinese immigration took place in the late 1850s in British Columbia, the second issue of the Victoria Gazerte (June 30, 1858) said that, "doubtless ere long the familiar interrogation of 'Wantee washee?' will be added to our everyday conversation library." The newspaper further reminded its English-speaking readers that, "whether their [the new Chinese immigrants] efforts will be directed to the washing of gold or of clothing is a point yet to be ascertained, but we shall lay it before our readers at a moment as early as the grave importance of the subject demands." In 1902 when the Dominion government appointed a Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese immigration, it paid special attention to Chinese laundry and received several deputations on this subject. The Commissioner, Mr. R.C. Clute, was a Torontonian. He took note of the fact that many Chinese laundrymen learned their trade only after they had migrated to Canada. The Commissioner faithfully recorded this in his huge report: "Ming Lee, laundryman (farmer in China)."

Although there were few Chinese Canadians living in Toronto in the early 1880s, Torontonians did not receive them with open arms. Six years after Sam Ching and Wo Kee opened their laundries in the downtown core of Toronto, they were condemned as a "curse" by several union leaders. On December 26, 1883, the Canadian Labour Congress met in Dufferin Hall, Toronto Its newly elected president, Charles March, urged the delegates not to disregard the "Chinese immigration curse." Next day, the congress discussed the matter at length. One Mr. M. O'Hallaren asserted, " . . . Christian people in Toronto would hire Chinese to do their washing" before they would hire "the poorwhite woman who had a family to support.'' Then he blustered that, "they could starve the Chinese out of Toronto, notwithstanding the large number of rats and cats in the city." O'Hallaren's rousing attack on Chinese Canadians triggered enthusiastic response among the delegates. Of course, not many union leaders at that time saw the Chinese worker as a fellow-labourer with a family to support too. Soon, Chinese laundry became a favourite target for legislators as well as nativists.

The number of Chinese laundries did not grow drastically until the completion of the CPR. During the 1886 civic election, the Vancouver Vintners and the Knights of Labour called on all candidates to denounce Chinese laundries as a nuisance. Two months later in February 1887, arsonists burnt down several laundries in Vancouver during an anti-Chinese riot in order to drive the Chinese out of town. On top of all these anti-Chinese sentiments, numerous recently unemployed Chinese railroad navvies began migrating to eastern Canada along the cross country railway line. This migration caused the number of Chinese-operated restaurants and laundries to mushroom over the next several decades in numerous small towns and cities across the land. By the time the City of Vancouver passed a by-law to limit the operation of Chinese laundries to within certain designated areas in 1893, there were at least twenty-four Chinese wash-houses already set up in Toronto.

Life was by no means easy for the Chinese laundrymen. Although few records of the working conditions of early Chinese laundries in Toronto have survived, one can draw from parallel descriptions of Chinese laundries in other cities. In the report of the 1902 Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration, a full chapter was devoted to the Chinese laundry business in British Columbia. It reported that Chinese wash-houses were usually set up in "a tenement that is not fit for anything else" and were regarded "as a nuisance and a menace by those who live in the vicinity." People were genuinely afraid that the presence of a Chinese laundry in the neighbourhood would depreciate the value of their property.

In the beginning, owners of small-sized Chinese laundries did much of the work themselves. Later, as business picked up and demanded more help, paid workers were hired. The wages for the hired workers were comparatively low. At the turn of the century, the average wage paid to the Chinese laundry worker ranged from $8 to $18 per month, with room and board. It was said that white laundry workers got $10 to $18 a week.

The physical set-up of a typical Chinese laundry in North America became a familiar sight everywhere. Usually it was a small place in a modest building in the working-class residential area. A red "Hand Laundry" sign hung outside the premises, or was painted on the window. Inside, a wall-to-wall counter divided the shop into a reception area and a working place. Behind the counter, some brown packages of clean laundry, with Chinese labels to identify the customers, were tucked on several shelves, waiting to be picked up by the clients. On the other side of the shelves, which functioned as partitions as well, was the working and living quarters of the laundry-house. Washing troughs and machines were aligned near the water supply and drainage systems. If the business of the laundry was large enough, a big
stove would be used to warm up several irons, each weighing about eight pounds and alternately used by the pressers. In earlier days, however, Chinese laundry workers ''ironed at tables in the front close to the street, where a curious passer-by might watch the operation if he pleased.'' They also used a more primitive type of pressing equipment-an ingenious iron saucepan about half a foot in diameter. An American writer once decribed that, "in this saucepan, he contrived, by some mysterious agency, to make a charcoal fire, though whence the draught was obtained would puzzle the Caucasian.''

While Mr. R.C. Clute was receiving anti-Chinese laundry deputations in Victoria early in 1901, newspapers in Toronto reverberated this sentiment vigorously. There were ninety-six Chinese laundries in Toronto then, compared to sixty-six laundries operated by other ethnic groups. The local press urged on heaIth authorities pressing their attack on ''dirty laundries.'' As a result, the city government passed by-law No. 41 in June1902 to "license and regulate laundrymen and laundry companies and for inspecting and regulating laundries.'' Toronto was not the only city to have such a by-law. Back in 1900 Vancouver had already passed by-law No. 373 prohibiting Chinese laundrymen from using mouth water to spray clothing while ironing. In 1903 Kamloops city government declared Chinese laundries a public nuisance and forced a Chinese laundryman, Ah Mee, to sell his property.(1) Then in the next few years, Calgary, Lethbridge and Hamilton followed suit and later induced several provinces, such as Ontario, to pass similar anti-Chinese laundry acts. In May 1914 the Ontario Legislative Assembly passed ''An Act to amend the Factory, Shop and Office Building Act,'' stipulating that ''no Chinese person shall employ in any capacity or have under his direction or control any female white person in factory, restaurant or laundry." Again, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada took the lead in the anti-Chinese laundry attack. At its 22nd annual convention, held in Victoria in September 1906, Gus Francq, a delegate of the Jacques Cartier Typographical Union of Montreal, stated ''in the name of the Shirt, Waist and Laundry Workers'' that, ''the actual tax imposed upon Chinese immigration does not prevent the great overflowing of yellow workers to injure especially the laundry workers of our country.'' The congress urged the government to increase the Chinese Head Tax from $500 to $1,000. The union leaders at the time either did not realise, or were too prejudiced to see that many of the Chinese workers could have been drawn into the Canadian labour movement. They ignored two significant events which happened among the Chinese laundry workers in that same year. Sixty employees of the Chinese laundries in New Westminster, British Columbia, struck that fall. They demanded to have their wages increased, and their employers acceded to their demands on the same day. Half a year earlier in 1906, a Chinese Laundry Workers' Union (the Sai Wah Tong) was formed in Vancouver. Its 120 members advocated fighting the laundry proprietors for better working conditions.

Soon, labour unions pushed for prohibiting Chinese laundries from employing white female workers. In 1912 when the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada held its 28th annual convention in Guelph delegates reported at length on how they successfully persuaded the Manitoba. Saskatchewan and Alberta governments to pass legislation, ''prohibiting the employment of white girls or females by Orientals in restaurants. Iaundries, etc.'' The reactions against Chinese laundrymen was part of a general white counter-attack against Asian competition. As Tom Maclnnes-a Vancouver lawyer and at one time an advisor to the federal government-lucidly stated in 1927, ''it is clear that economically we can not compete with the Oriental in this community, industrially, commercially or professionally, except if we handicap him, hamper him, restrict him and as far as possible put him out of the industrial and commercial running.

Remarkably, the Chinese laundry business in Toronto kept growing apace between 1900-25 in the face of restrictions and bigotry. The number increased from 96 in 1901 to 374 in 1921 -more than fourfold in a matter of two decades. According to the 1921 census, the population of Chinese Canadians in Toronto was 2,134. Assuming an average Chinese laundry employed four persons, including the owner himself, then over 50 per cent of the Chinese Canadian population in Toronto was related to the laundry business in the early 1920s.(2)

After the Dominion passed Bill No. 45, later known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting Chinese immigration in 1923, the growth of Chinese laundries in Toronto stopped and actually began to decline in the 1930s. When the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947, the number of Chinese laundries in Toronto had shrunk to 258. With the introduction of coin laundries and permapress fabrics, Chinese hand laundries as an institution have become something of the past. However, there is still at least one Chinese hand laundry on Spadina Avenue just north of Harbord Street, and another in the Kensington Market area on St. Andrew Street.

The era of Chinese laundrymen who made the pants dance is definitely gone. However, the lingering tendency to stereotype early Chinese Canadians as laundrymen has caused some mixed feelings among the younger generation of Chinese Canadians. At times, the question ''Is your father a laundryman?" to some Canadian-born Chinese is looked upon as demeaning. They certainly are not familiar with a famous Chinese poet Wen I-to, who studied in North America in the 1920s. After observing and being shocked by the contempt of Americans for the Chinese laundrymen, he wrote a poem called ''Song of the Laundry" Wen lauded the Chinese laundrymen with the following ode:

You say that the trade of laundrymen is too base,
Only the Chinese are willing to descend so low,
Your pastor informs me, saying
Jesus' father was a carpenter by trade,
Do you believe it, do you believe it?

1. Leslie Moffs, "Ah Mee," mimeograph (Kamloops Museum Association, Kamloops, B.C., n.d.), pp. 2-3.

2. According to the 1902 report of the Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration, there were 40 Chinese laundries, employing 197 Chinese in Victoria; 35 in Vancouver, employing 192; 9 in New Westminster, employing 38; 20 in Rossland, employing 60 Chinese. Therefore, an average Chinese laundry at
that lime employed 4 workers.

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