Laundry 洗衣

Written by: Lenka Rabatinova and Zhaoping Zhen

Edited by: Dr Vivienne Lo and Rosa Kurowska

Revision Date: Monday, 28 October 2013


From New York to Birmingham the Chinese laundry has become a stereotype for popular images of the Chinese diaspora in the twentieth century. However, despite having a marked influence on UK popular culture and British hygienic traditions, the history of the Chinese laundry in the UK has been neglected in comparison with academic studies of the phenomenon in America. Laundries were a significant context for the experiences of the earliest settled Chinese populations in the UK and can provide an insight into their working conditions. This article will introduce the history of the Chinese laundry from the late nineteenth century through to the industries eventual decline eighty years later. Through newspaper articles, oral histories and archival material we will look at the working conditions of the Chinese laundry workers and their experiences in this industry in London.

The Nineteenth Century

In the last decades of the nineteenth century a few Chinese laundries began to appear in London. Chinese sailors often struggled to get jobs on ships and received lower pay than their British colleagues. Laundry work provided a safe alternative to the precarious nature of life at sea and became a popular option for sailors who wanted to settle on dry land. It was relatively easy to set up a laundry and only a little English was needed for transactions. In the early twentieth century many seamen began to move into the laundry industry.1 The role offered an on-the-job training in new skills suitable for the UK market, for example British traditions of hand-washing and ironing.2 These skills became extremely valuable when establishing hand laundries across the UK, for example in Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff, Newcastle upon Tyne and London.

In 1877 The York Herald reported that a Chinese Laundry was soon to be opened in Holland Park, a comfortable West London location in Kensington.3 This was perhaps the earliest Chinese laundry in the UK. At this time the Chinese launderer was not perceived as a threat:

John Chinaman will not arrive here as a competitor in the labour market proper. He offers his services as cook, houseman, and washerman…. And an opportunity for displaying his talents in this direction is shortly to be given by the erection of the Chinese laundry in Holland Park. The building has already been began … John is said to have a rather unpleasant habit of squirting the starch over the linen with his mouth; but this could scarcely be any objection with us, who permit far worse operations in regard to the things we eat, much less to whose we wear.4

In 1881 another laundry was opened in Fulham by a man of Chinese origin who had been living in the UK for a long time. Like many Chinese sailors in this period, he had become a naturalised British subject through marrying an English woman.5 Many Chinese laundries were run by ex-seamen and their British wives, and this trend was to continue into the next century. There is also evidence for the construction of a Chinese laundry in Newington in 1884.6

However in 1878, just one year after the first laundry had opened in Holland Park, British attitudes towards Chinese launderers had begun to shift. This was in part fuelled by the influence of contemporary racist and protectionist American attitudes, and came from a fear of Chinese workers replacing the British in the workplace. 

If once implanted in England we shall never be rid of his pigtail and pigeon English, until our own workmen are starved out.7

Despite this rhetoric, Chinese workers were also perceived as more efficient than their local counterparts. Drawing comparison with San Francisco laundries, this journalist went on to describe how, at a laundry in Notting Hill:

A group of ladies, most of them possessed of artistic and literary fame, have seized upon the opportunity, and founded a grand national laundry, where your linen may be washed Chinese fashion—at half the price demanded by the drunken, careless washerwoman of the back streets of London—by the first –rate special artists.8

These early launderers were pioneers of the industry in London. Although they faced some hostility, this would increase in the twentieth as the Chinese laundry became a British staple.

The Twentieth Century

In 1901 the first officially recorded Chinese laundry opened in Poplar, and during the next decade another thirty Chinese hand laundries were established in London.9 The first decades of the twentieth century saw great growth in the Chinese laundry industry, as well as a corresponding rise in local hostility to the Chinese workers in these businesses. Indeed, this first laundry in Poplar had barely opened its doors when it was destroyed by angry locals. In 1900, a newspaper claimed that Chinese laundry business met difficulty in America while being allowed to grow in London which lead to a stronger hostility from Englishmen against Chinese labour.10 The Morning Post in London went further claiming that the Chinese cheap labour would not only displace the British laundry workers, but also affect the profits of the steam laundry companies.11

Acute housing shortages and direct competition for jobs continued to effect relations between Chinese settlers and the local population in the London docks. The persistent hostility towards the Chinese minority resulted in attacks on another Chinese laundry in Poplar in June 1919. Following rumours that a demobilised British soldier had been refused accommodation in a nearby shared house which was occupied by Chinese and English families, A crowd burnt the house and destroyed the furniture. The British wives of the laundry workers living there were rescued by the police.12 Similar attacks occurred in Cardiff the following month during the Transport Workers’ Strike of July 1919, when 33 Chinese laundries were attacked by rioters in a background of growing local hostility towards the Chinese community.13

Nonetheless, more and more Chinese laundry shops were established across the UK as well as in various parts of London. A complaint registered in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1900 about a Chinese laundry in Great Portland Street can give us some insight into the living conditions of laundry workers at the turn of the century.14 The 39 employees of this laundry lived at 8 Windmill Street, Tottenham Court.15 A further report noted that although these workers had signed a three year agreement, according to which they should have been paid weekly, they had not been paid for three or four weeks at the time of publication.16 This was typical of a marginalised minority population whose fear of deportation and of inciting local hostility often prevented them from claiming their rights as workers. These workers claimed that they should be paid from 15s to 25s a week (with the exception of Mr. Ah Mah, who claimed for salary of £3 weekly – the report does not elaborate on the reason for his higher wage, but perhaps he was the manager of the establishment).17 The problem was not solved, and the magistrate decided that the matter should be dealt with by the Chinese legation.18 Unfortunately, it seems that this story ended with the failure of the laundry business and the workers were seen later “wandering about homeless around the quays and docks of the Metropolis”.19

In further editorials, more than 40 Chinese men were reported as working at a laundry in Stephen Street, off Tottenham Court Road in October 1900.20 In addition a Middlesbrough newspaper claimed that 700 ‘Chinamen’ were brought from the USA to work in laundries in 1900.21

Over the next twenty years the proportion of Chinese working in the laundry industry increased, overtaking the seafaring industry in 1921.22 In 1931 the census recorded over 500 Chinese laundries in the UK.23 Although the census figures can provide a guide to the numbers of Chinese working in various sectors in the UK, it only recorded Chinese-born residents in these decades, not British born Chinese or those of mixed heritage. Further to this many migrants (as well as locals) avoided the census takers as they feared deportation, higher taxes or other action.

These figures reflect the fact that many seamen had switched to the laundry industry which afforded safer settled work through which they could support their families in the UK and at home in China. The change of Chinese population engaged in three main kinds of occupations (catering, laundry and seamen) during the first half of the twentieth century, is displayed in the table below and demonstrates the shift from seafaring through laundry work to the restaurant trade.24

  Seamen Laundrymen Restaurant and shop keepers
Year No. % No. % No.
1901 237 61 27 15 -
1911 480 36 351 26 -
1921 455 19 547 22 26
1931 477 25 531 27 17
1951 551 - 20 - 36

Up until the 1930s the laundry industry retained its close ties with the seafaring industry and the docks; however this changed in 1934 when slum clearances destroyed many businesses in Limehouse. Both the laundry and catering sectors became known as “characteristically Chinese” industries in Britain during the inter-war period.25

Chinese laundries were privately owned family enterprises, which provided an opportunity for families to work in and run a small business.26 As such they did not provide work for the native population. This emphasis on running a family business made Chinese laundries more competitive than those run by the British, which did put British women, wives and widows in a precarious position by displacing their work, creating further grievances among locals.27 On a different note, during this early period, Chinese women were not able to migrate to the UK and many single Chinese men ended up marrying English women, who were often also laundry workers and they opened up shops together.28

Despite the hostility and attacks, many Chinese hand laundries flourished while serving the needs of British households, mainly middle class, and businesses during the early twentieth century.

Life In The Laundry

After the Second World War, many Chinese immigrants to the UK continued to find employment in the laundry. Laundries were often set up in houses, with the shop on the ground floor and family living area upstairs, which helped to keep family and livelihood together. Work was hard, fast-paced, manual and laborious, involving long working hours, and the conditions were always hot steamy and frequently dangerous. In order to get a picture of the nature of laundry work in the second half of the twentieth century we will look at two case studies from the London Metropolitan Archives:

Cheung Wong Ying was born in in Kow Kwong and went to Hong Kong because of the war when she was only six. She came to England when she was 20 in 1953 and worked in her husband’s laundry shop in Wales. Her husband, Zhang Zhen Fu, who was born in 1893 and was sent to UK in 1911, set up his laundry business with £20 which he won from a Bingo ticket which cost him 60 pence. They had an old fashioned washing machine, but there were still many things to do, like soaking the clothes in water until boiling and adding the washing powder. The laundry opened from 3.00am until midnight. She had to hand-iron many clothes, which was back-breaking work. They didn’t have the electrical iron which was not yet invented. They had to buy 20- 30 bags of coals a week for the ironing. They earned £20 a week from washing clothes, but they told the government that they only earned £15 since they were so poor. Their rent was £1 per week. The average wage for a worker was £2.3 per week. After fifteen years at this work, like many Chinese families, Cheung Wong and her husband closed their laundry and started a restaurant.29

Ling Jie (玲姐) arrived in the UK in 1953, when her husband was running a laundrette in Birkenhead near Liverpool. Their laundrette equipment was limited:

There was a small room for drying clothes, inside which was a cabinet-shaped thing that served as a dryer. We had no electronic iron then. Instead, we used a long iron plunk, which weighed about 8 or 9 pounds, for ironing.

They did not employ anyone, and did all jobs themselves. All their customers were white people most of whom came from the lowest class and were rather poor. As she said:

The clothes that were brought into our laundrette were often very dirty. Some of the T-shirts we washed smelt so bad that I found it hard to bear sometimes. Some folks may have used their T-shirts to clean themselves after toilet!

They didn’t earn much and the weekly turn over for the business was roughly £8. They finally closed the laundry in 1954 and opened a restaurant.30

Galy Leung (梁嘉莉) In the course of the current project, Ming Ai was able to interview Galy Leung. She left Hong Kong in 1964 to study in England. For the first 3 years she lived in the home of one of her relatives. At that time her relative operated a family run laundry-shop. Ms Leung describes the entire sequence of washing:

Customers taking their clothing in to be washed needed to first register their names in the notebook, along with the number of items for each kind of clothing, and then label the clothing. Some clothing could be directly marked on the label with a special kind of ink, while some needed to have a piece of cloth attached for marking on. After registration was compete, the clothing was separated by kind and taken together with other customers’ clothing to the laundry room to be washed. The clothing was washed once with water with a bit of starch added, then went through again with only water.

After washing, the clothing was taken to the drying room, to be dried indoors by the heat of the coal stove, which meant drying wasn’t subject to the weather’s influence. After the clothing was dry it had to be ironed, and if it was a sheet or table cloth then it needed to be pressed. It was mainly in this task that Ms Leung helped. The dried clothing first needed to be sprinkled with water. After being placed in the iron barrels for 3 hours they were ironed. She said every day after school she would spend 3 hours in the laundry shop ironing clothing. She would just roughly iron the back and sleeves and then hand them over to another two tradesmen, that is to say her relative’s nephews, who would iron the sides, corners and other more difficult areas. At the time the irons weren’t electric yet, simply a piece of iron. The gas stove had an iron rack on the outside on which were placed several irons. When the stove was on the irons would also heat up, and could be used to iron clothing.

When ironing clothing it was necessary to sprinkle water over them before using the irons. When the heat of the iron was no longer sufficient it would be put back beside the stove and switched for another iron. As for pressing the sheets and table cloths, they used a rotating wheel with an iron core, heated by burning gas. The sheets and table cloths were put in and then slowly rolled and pressed. This process would be repeated several times. Because the clothing was starched, after ironing it was flat, smooth, and rigid. After the ironed clothing was folded, it would be separated out according to the labels and wrapped in paper, then bound with a string, just like a present, for the customer to come and collect. After payment was made, it was given back to the customer.

Ms Leung remembers that at that time, washing an item of clothing could cost from ‘2 shillings 6’ up to 3 or 4 shillings (2 shillings 6 – 2 shillings and 6 pence. In the past 12 pennies equalled 1 shilling, 20 shillings equalled 1 pound. On 15 February 1971 this was changed to the currency system used today), and washing a table cloth or bed sheet cost around 7 or 8 shillings. At that time her weekly salary was 3 or 4 pounds. The shop’s other workers earned 5 or 6 pounds, which was later increased to over 10 pounds. At the time the shop was doing good business. The customers were mainly from the nearby neighbourhood, where the laundry shop had an excellent reputation.

For more on Galy Leung’s experiences as recorded by this project and to watch a video, please see here.

Post-War Decline

Following the Second World War and the decline of shipping industries, the Chinese population was on the increase and entire families continued to enter the laundry sector.31 However, the Chinese hand laundry industry soon faced decline due to the installation of electricity in houses, innovation and technological change, by 1951 the census recorded only twenty Chinese still working in the industry.32 Widespread laundrettes put Chinese hand-iron laundries out of business and the introduction of domestic electric washing machines forced Chinese laundrymen to look for jobs in other industries. By the 1960s many laundries had been turned into Chinese restaurants.33