Chinese Laundry Men

Title

Chinese Laundry Men

Description

Two Chinese laundries operated on Cooper Street during the late nineteenth century.

Biographical Text

During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, two Chinese laundries operated in the 200 block of Cooper Street. Like their counterparts throughout the United States in this era, the men who hand-laundered clothing for Camden's white residents endured harassment and sometimes violence. They also earned respect from Cooper Street neighbors who came to their defense as they persisted in the hot, damp, monotonous work of earning a living in one of the few occupations open to them at the time.

Camden gained its first Chinese laundry by 1877, around the same time that a community of Chinese immigrants began to form in Philadelphia. Judging by business listings in Camden city directories, Hong Sing's laundry at 62 and then 108 N. Second Street was the only commercial hand-laundry in the city from 1877 until 1881. By 1884, the number of Chinese laundries grew to six, enough to attract the attention of the Camden County Courier. In a story headlined "The Heathen Chinese," the Courier's writer observed: "If in the next few years our Chinese population and their laundries increase in the proportion that they have recently we shall soon have a veritable Chinatown in our midst, and if any one has a dirty shirt or soiled linen it will be his own fault." Camden's Chinese laundries had three to four men each, living at the laundries, and the city's residents were becoming accustomed to seeing the "Celestials" who wore traditional clothing and braided their hair in queues. The Chinese, for their part, operated at risk of vandalism and attacks by young men described by the newspaper as "hoodlums."

The numbers of Chinese and non-Chinese laundries in Camden grew with the city's population, and Chinese immigrants dominated the business with 30 of 41 laundries in 1890; 40 of 63 in 1900; 37 of 49 in 1910; and 29 of 35 in 1920. Some Chinese entrepreneurs ran two or three laundries, and some started laundries other South Jersey communities like Merchantville and Haddonfield. They did not, as the Camden newspaper expected, coalesce into a local Chinatown but dispersed their laundries around the city. On days when business did not require their presence, the laundry men maintained cultural connections by participating in the social life of Philadelphia's Chinatown.

The Chinese laundries on Cooper Street were located at 214 and 220, in a row of four small brick row houses that then stood on the site occupied in 2020 by the Cooper Street Historic Building Apartments and its adjacent parking lot. The row houses, two and one-quarter stories each, may have been built as early as 1820, when Cooper Street was still a country road leading to the Delaware River ferries. The aging row thus would have offered a relatively cheap yet prominent location on a street otherwise regarded as a fashionable address.

The first of the Chinese laundries on Cooper Street is documented as operating for just one year, during 1885 at 220 Cooper. This house had adjacent wood-frame outbuildings and stables, previously occupied by a milk distribution depot and a manufacturing facility for Fleishmann's yeast. During the location's year as a laundry, the Camden city directory named the owner as Junkee Kwong. The New Jersey State Census recorded three Chinese men at this address, rendering their names as Hong Sing, Charlie Lee, and Louie Lee. Like so many other Chinese men during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), they were single; immigration restriction prohibited bringing additional Chinese women or families to the United States.

A Chinese laundry of greater duration operated at 214 Cooper Street from 1889 to 1901. In 1889, Ghe Lee advertised his business as the Camden Courier-Post as "the first good laundry in Camden." City directories subsequently listed the laundry operators at this address as Charlie Tom (1890-93) and Ying Lee (1894-1901). In 1895, Ying Lee and the laundry shared the address with the family of a German cigar-maker. The laundry at 214 Cooper opened while new, grander houses were built next door at 204, 206, and 210 Cooper in 1890. The neighbors who moved into these homes included a retired wealthy couple, the head of a manufacturing firm, and an attorney.

An incident in 1897 provides greatest access to the experience of Ying Lee, the 214 Cooper Street laundry, and the attitudes of Cooper Street neighbors toward the Chinese in their midst. Ying Lee, born in China in 1860, had lived in the United States since childhood. He would have lived first in the western United States, where racism and discrimination prompted migration to other regions. By 1880, at age 20, he was in Philadelphia. By 1894, he was in the laundry business at 214 Cooper Street. Over the door, he displayed a small American flag.

Harassment and vandalism of Chinese laundries was common in Camden, and the rowdiness alarmed and frightened Cooper Street's residents. Their appeals to police seemed to receive little attention. For Ying Lee, a particularly harrowing incident occurred in 1897 when three young men, two white and one African American, threatened him with knives and held him at gunpoint while they searched for money. Thieves had learned that Chinese laundrymen kept cash in their businesses, and in this case they escaped with  $15--not a large sum, but a significant amount for the income of a hand laundry.

The escalation of violence prompted Ying Lee's neighbors to take further steps to try to restore peace to the neighborhood. The problem was not the Chinaman, they told the local press, but the local rowdyism against him. Dissatisfied with the response of local officials, a civil engineer who lived across the street from the laundry, Richard Pancoast, looked across the river to Philadelphia's Chinatown for assistance. He alerted the missionary in charge of the YMCA in Chinatown, Frederick Poole, who visited the mayor of Camden to urge action against laundry violence. To the consternation of local officials, Poole described Camden as a particular problem area in a letter to the Chinese Minister in the United States in Washington. The missionary also called the matter to the attention of the governor of New Jersey, who summoned Camden's mayor to a meeting.

The publicity does not seem to have prompted any particular action on the part of authorities. The next year, however, the Camden Board of Health focused on 214 Cooper Street as an example of unsanitary properties needing attention for the benefit of public health. They cast this as an action against the owner of the property, a local oyster dealer, but their perception would have aligned with then-common associations between Chinese immigrants and disease. The 214 Cooper Street house, according to the Board of Health, "has been a constant menace to health in that community for a number of years." The board ordered under-drainage to reduce risk of typhoid fever and other diseases.

In the wake of the 1897 holdup, Ying Lee's neighbors encouraged him to get a gun to defend himself, but he declined. He remained in business at 214 Cooper Street until 1901, and he expanded to one and sometimes two other laundries in Camden. He was displaced from Cooper Street when the house he rented became part of the property being assembled for construction of a new mansion for a wealthy shipmaster, John B. Adams. Ying Lee may have returned to Philadelphia, where that city's directory in 1904 listed a person by the same name  in the business of Chinese goods at 912 Race Street, in the heart of Philadelphia's Chinatown.

Time period on Cooper Street

1885, 1889-1901

Location(s) - Cooper Street

214 and 220 Cooper Street

Occupation

Laundry Operators

Associated Individuals

(As recorded by Census or Camden City Directories)
Junkee Kwong (220 Cooper Street, 1885)
Hong Sing (220 Cooper Street, 1885)
Charlie Lee (220 Cooper Street, 1885)
Louie Lee (220 Cooper Street, 1885)
Ghe Lee (214 Cooper Street, 1889)
Charlie Tom (214 Cooper Street, 1890-93)
Ying Lee (214 Cooper Street, 1894-1901)
Richard Pancoast (neighbor, 205 Cooper Street)

Sources

Camden City Directories (Ancestry.com).
Camden and Philadelphia Newspapers (Newspapers.com).
Jung, John. Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain. Yin and Yang Press, 2010.
U.S. Census.

Research by

Charlene Mires and Lucy Davis

Posted by

Charlene Mires
Direct corrections to cmires@camden.rutgers.edu

Collection

Citation

“Chinese Laundry Men,” Learning From Cooper Street, accessed November 29, 2022, https://omeka.camden.rutgers.edu/items/show/56.

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