Chink, chink, Chinaman,
Wash my pants;
Put them into the boiler,
And make them dance.
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.
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 laundries 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.
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.
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.
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 Gazette (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.”
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).”
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 poor white 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
physical setup 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
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.
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.
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
passerby 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 described 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.”
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.
local press urged on health authorities pressing their attack on “dirty
laundries.” As a result, the city government passed by-law No. 41 in
June 1902, to “license and regulate laundrymen and laundry companies and
for inspecting and regulating laundries.”
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.”
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.
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.
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, laundries, etc.”
reactions against Chinese laundrymen was part of a
general white counterattack 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.”
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
Street, and another in the Kensington Market
area on St. Andrew Street.
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
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 time employed 4 workers.