5. Enduring Hardship — Chinese Hand Laundry
Ho King in his central laundry, Winnipeg, 1988; 
photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press 307768
Following the extension of the Canadian Pacific Railway to Vancouver in 1887, many Chinese labourers moved to other parts of Canada to look for work. However, socio-economic discrimination and racial hostility, in addition to a lack of capital and language barriers, limited their opportunities.

Under these circumstances, many Chinese established hand laundries, as a means to earn a living within the existing economic niches of Canadian society. With a majority of Chinese living in poverty, the entire Chinese community was virtually reduced to the lowest socio-economic class of society from around the turn of the century until the Depression years.

Laundry;  City of Vancouver Archives BU.P.403.N387 1 The Wah Chong Laundry, Vancouver, 1884
Courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives

This exhibit recreates the ambience of the Chinese laundries found in large numbers across Canada between 1900 and the 1950s. The display, based on extensive fieldwork, incorporates artifacts from various laundries including those from the Central Laundry operated for many decades in Winnipeg by the late Ho King. It aims to present the laundry within the context of our urban life and ethnic and immigration history.

In the reconstructed laundry, visitors first enter a counter area and then a kitchen area where they can view an original documentary showing interviews with the older generation of Chinese laundrymen and their offspring. Moving into the laundry working area, visitors then discover the difficult tasks involved in the washing and boiling process, surrounded by presses, irons and other tools of the trade. They learn of the hard physical work carried out by the laundrymen in a cramped and steamy environment.

To many of the laundrymen's descendants, the hand laundry is a symbol not only of hardship but of survival, endurance, patience and sacrifice for the future.

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From Coast to Coast

The Fraser River gold rush and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, among other developments, brought thousands of Chinese labourers to British Columbia from 1858 to 1885. Following the completion of the CPR, many of these immigrants moved to other parts of the country to continue to search for their dream of the "golden mountain." Many set up laundry businesses in railway towns and cities east of the Rockies and as far away as Quebec, the Maritimes and Newfoundland. From 1890 to 1950, a significant number of Chinese engaged in this trade. For example, in Montreal in 1921, there was a population of 1,735 Chinese with an estimated 368 laundries.

Sing Lee Wash House, Edmonton, Alberta
Courtesy of Glenbow Archives, ND-3-6226
   Laundry;  Glenbow Archives ND-3-6226

Two factors contributed to the establishment of the Chinese laundries. First, all that was required was a bit of capital and long hours of work, with the owners speaking little English or French. Secondly, the Chinese were discouraged from entering other occupations and were subjected to legal restrictions and socio-economic discrimination. They could only engage in labour-intensive work.

Laundrymen experienced social and family isolation. In most cases, their family members were left behind in China. In an era of racial intolerance and fearful of competition from cheap Oriental labour for jobs, some politicians and trade union groups pressured the Dominion Government to severely restrict the numbers of incoming Chinese, Japanese and East Indians. Head taxes and legislative exclusions discouraged the immigration of family members, and ultimately, the Chinese Immigration Act (1923-1947) barred the admission of all Chinese. The hand laundry thus became essentially a man's occupation. Ho King, for example, the proprietor of Winnipeg's Central Laundry, left China in 1918 and was joined by his wife in 1959 - a forty-one year separation.

The life of a laundryman was very difficult and monotonous. Most of his time was spent washing, ironing, pressing, packaging and delivering clothes and chopping wood. The work was hard, and the income was very low. Apart from their long hours of work, laundrymen made an occasional trip to Chinatown to buy groceries and have a cup of tea or a game of mahjong with their fellow clansmen and friends.

Laundryman;  Glenbow Archives NA-2979-2    Laundryman with a wooden washing machine
Courtesy of Glenbow Archives

With few resources and the denial of opportunity, the Chinese community in Canada was relegated to the low end of the socio-economic ladder for more than half a century. With gradual mechanization from the late 1940s to the 1960s, and with the ageing of the earlier Chinese immigrants, the occupation of laundryman inevitably petered out, but it remains an unforgettable part of Chinese-Canadian history.

This permanent exhibit both captures and commemorates the essence, life and contributions of the Chinese laundrymen. Further along in the Canada Hall, the Pacific Rim exhibit explores the twentieth-century patterns of Asian immigration, socio-economic activities, and contribution within Canada.

Opened: 12 October 2000
Curator: Ban Seng Hoe, Ph.D.