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Published: 20 May 2023

By Andy Ross

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How Chinese laundries help to tell American stories

During the American Gold Rush shirts were sent to Hong Kong  to be laundered.

Men considered the work of washing shirts to be beneath them at the time and so their washing was sent away, first to Hong Kong and, after a while, to Honolulu. It was in San Francisco that Chinese entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to start new businesses and in 1851 Wah Lee opened the first-known Chinese laundry. 

Many Chinese people suffered oppression and racism in the early days and it was only during the Second World War, when China was needed as an ally against Japan, that tensions began to ease and more opportunities became available to the Chinese communities. Nowadays, as this article relates, the childhood histories of the laundries form an integral part of the lore of the cities in America.