The Chinese Laundryman, a Chicago History Classic

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Restaurant work was one of the few occupations allowed to Chinese Americans in Chicago. Source: 1919 Playbill

The Chinese Laundryman documents Chicago's role in a shameful, largely forgotten, yet quite recent era of American history. In addition to widespread racial prejudice, Chinese Americans had fewer civil rights than other Americans in the time between the Civil War and World War Two. Legal equality was only slowly achieved between 1943 and 1965.

The Chinese Exclusion Acts stripped Chinese Americans of the right to emigrate to the U.S., become citizens, leave the U.S. and return, work and own property. They could be jailed without trial. These and other laws were also applied to Japanese Americans, but since Japan was powerful militarily, diplomatic protests gave Japanese Americans a few more rights.

States and cities passed even more restrictive laws with the blessing of the Supreme Court. Chinese American citizens- could and often were- legally denied the right to vote and discriminated against in education. Indeed, a Chicago ordinance requiring dry cleaners to be U.S. citizens was not repealed until the 1990s. 

In the 1920s, over half the states forbade interracial marriage. Since Chinese female immigration was nearly impossible, this meant that for many Chinese males their only option was to return to China in their old age. An onerous 1922 federal law stripped any woman, white or Chinese, of her U.S. citizenship if she dared marry a Chinese man.

Riot and forced removal of Chinese from Seattle 1886 Source: West Shore Magazine
Riot and forced removal of Chinese from Seattle 1886 Source: West Shore Magazine

Racial prejudice confined many Chinese Americans to Chinatowns in large cities. Even these were not safe havens. Anti-Chinese riots in the 19th and early 20th century killed or drove from their homes thousands in the Western U.S and Canada.

The Chinese Laundryman is a powerful narrative providing firsthand accounts of what this era, particularly the 1930s, meant for Chicago's Chinese Americans. The only occupations open to Chinese Americans in Chicago were running laundries or chop suey shops. Some of the scarce females were forced into prostitution.

The only place men could live was in Chinatown. Laundrymen caught overnight in their often-distant shops were beaten and occasionally killed. This meant long daily commutes in addition to long shop hours. The book's subtitle: A Study in Social Isolation summarizes this hard lonely life.

Search our catalog for other resources about Chinese American History. This post is part of a series on Chicago History Classics.

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