Winston Ho 何嶸.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
Departments of History and Asian Languages and Cultures
2016 Jan. 22 (revised on 2017 Nov. 11).
[Charles Tung Oriental Laundry on 300 South Rampart and Perdido Streets. Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC 1979.325.5498). 1945.]
In an age before laundry-machines, washing clothing by hand involved immersing dirty clothes in tub full of soap and water, pulling the water-soaked clothes out of the tub, wringing the dirty water out of the clothes, repeating the process for everyone’s clothes in the entire family, then line drying everyone’s clothes in the sun, in the hopes that wind and rain would not ruin everything. And this not include the ironing or mending of clothes. Washing laundry was time-consuming and back-breaking work, the most dreaded of all domestic chores, and a chore relegated to women and servants.
In New Orleans, which is uncomfortably warm and humid for most of the year, washing the family laundry by hand could take an entire day. By tradition, laundry was done on Mondays, and thus began the tradition of “Red Bean Mondays” in New Orleans, as women were so exhausted from washing laundry that they prepared “red beans and rice,” a fairly simple dish, for their families at the end of the day. With the growth of manufacturing and industry at the end of the 1800s, Americans cities were populated by a growing middle-class, and the first chore middle-class American women attempted to eliminate with their disposable income was washing laundry.
Around the same time, working-class Chinese immigrants began looking for work in American cities. For the Chinese, washing laundry was a vocation that required little education, work experience, or initial investment, only the willingness to endure endless hours of intense back-breaking work. The typical Chinese laundry in New Orleans was a small family-owned business, a business with enough work to employ an extended family. The entire family would often live near or inside the business itself.
[Chinese Laundries in New Orleans, circa 1910s. From Richard Campanella’s “Chinatown New Orleans,” New Orleans Geographies: Ethnic Geographies Before the Storm, p. 349.]
The Chinese were taking jobs most other Americans refused to do, and even other immigrants, like the Irish and the Sicilians, considered washing other people’s laundry beneath them. The Chinese only competed with African American laundries and the industrial steam laundries. Chinese laundries were once located in every neighborhood within walking distance of every house in New Orleans, and by the 1900s, the Chinese out-priced most of their competitors and dominated the industry. From the 1880s until the 1940s, Chinese laundries were so ubiquitous that they became an indispensable part of the economic and cultural landscape of the city.
[Charles Tung Oriental Laundry on Canal Street and North Front Street. 1935.]
Nearly all of these laundries died out after the Second World War. First, the post-War economy allowed for the mass-production of low-cost washing and drying machines, which became an indispensable appliance in the middle-class home. These same low-cost machines gave rise to the laundromat in working class neighborhoods, with its rows of coin-operated washers and dryers. Second, the Chinese laundries were highly profitable. The frugal Chinese spent little money on overhead and saved most of their earnings, savings which the Chinese spent on homes in the suburbs and a college-education for their children. Thus, beginning in the 1940s, the next generation of college-educated American-born Chinese abandoned laundries and pursued other careers, in business, medicine, engineering, education, and (for one Chinese New Orleanian) politics. A handful of Chinese laundries modernized and survived into the 1980s and beyond, but by the 2000s, the Chinese laundry was all but extinct in New Orleans.
Campanella, Richard. “Chinatown New Orleans,. New Orleans Geographies: Ethnic Geographies Before the Storm, p. 349.
Litwin, Sharon. “The Last of the Chinese Laundries.” Times-Picayune (1982 Aug. 1): sec. 2, p. 10-11.
Jung, John. Southern Fried Rice: Life in A Chinese Laundry in the Deep South. Lulu Press, 2014. http://www.lulu.com/shop/john-jung/southern-fried-rice-life-in-a-chinese-laundry-in-the-deep-south/paperback/product-21910499.html