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Chinese Laundries

The laundry business became competitive in Bismarck in 1877, when two Chinese businessmen, Sing Lee and Sam Lung, opened for business. Since the Northern Pacific Railroad had not yet crossed the Missouri River, the laundrymen came up from the Black Hills, where many of their nationality were serving the new goldfields.

Sam Lung placed display ads in the Tribune that read, “Sam Lung, Chinese Laundry, 4th Street, Bismarck — Gentlemen’s Washings Done at low prices.” Happening across these advertisements, I wondered, were Chinese laundries a common thing in Dakota Territory? Short answer, Yes, they were. But how and why?

There is a fairly extensive literature on the Chinese laundry as a feature in American history, beginning with the first one, opened by one Wah Lee in San Francisco in 1854. Chinese men came to California parcel to the gold rush, and they moved from mining into the laundry business for several reasons: the violent hostility of Euro-American miners, who sought to drive them out of the diggings; the scarcity of women, who commonly did laundry work in other parts of the country; and the reluctance of Euro-American men to work in laundries, with their long hours and hot kettles.

It is sometimes said the Chinese went into laundry because it required little skill. This is patently untrue; pressing men’s garments was highly skilled labor, especially the starched collars. It is sometimes said, too, the Chinese did laundry because of lack of choice. This, too, is ahistorical. All over the American West, intelligent entrepreneurs quickly learned they could make more money mining the miners than by mining gold. The Chinese laundrymen chose to enter a lucrative and accessible business niche.

Which brought them to the northern plains — not in large numbers, but as a known element on whom people depended. There were qualms about the Chinese. The Bismarck press fretted that young men were going to laundries after hours to get opium. In fact, the only reference to opium as an issue with the Chinese of North Dakota I can find is in Grand Forks in 1891, when federal marshals arrested three Chinese men for bringing opium in from Manitoba.

The laundrymen did experience harassment and some low-grade violence — bottles thrown through windows by young toughs, or, as in Devils Lake in 1898, the beating of a Chinese man by three robbers who stole $40 from him. In 1888 the territorial legislature passed a law levying a prohibitive tax on Chinese laundries, but it was struck down by the courts. Notice, however, I keep saying “laundrymen,” gender-specific. After passage of the Page Law by Congress in 1875, nearly all Chinese women were prohibited entry to the United States on ostensible suspicion of prostitution.

With the completion of the railroad network, all the larger towns had Chinese laundries — Minot once had four of them. I was surprised to discover that many small towns also had Chinese laundries. I find them in Oakes, Grafton, Cooperstown, Lidgerwood, Hope, Belfield, Beulah, Northwood, Sentinel Butte, Rolla, and Mohall. In 1890 Lee Gay advertised in the Oakes Times, “Oakes Chinese Laundry. Best Place in the City. Quick and Neat work. Special attention to transient work” — meaning drummers, traveling sales representatives.

Chinese hand laundries largely disappeared with automation after 1930, and the Chinese laundrymen of country towns were forgotten. They were little noticed by the larger community on departure or passing. An exception: Sam Wong, who died of pneumonia in Mandan in 1920. The Pioneer acknowledged Sam Wong as “one of the oldest residents of this section” who, prior to entering the laundry business, had worked as a cook on the Benton Packet line of Missouri River steamboats. What stories he could have told...

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