“CHINESE LAUNDRY. Sone & Chong have opened a Laundry under the Mutual Relief Ins. office. All work will be done promptly and in first class order. Collars and Cuffs a specialty. Make them look like new” (The Wellington Enterprise, 12-10-1884, pg. 5).
I have wanted to write a post on this topic for quite a while, but struggled with how to present it. My research into the history of my house, and Wellington in the nineteenth century, has been a pastime I have undertaken for enjoyment. I am not here to stir up controversy, but at the same time I have no interest in rewriting or sanitizing the past. I have always tried to be honest about the limitations of the sources I am working with–most of which are secondary–and point out inconsistencies in the written record whenever I see them. That having been said, I enjoy reporting the stories of people that lived in this town, but are not memorialized on plaques or in publications. People like Noah Huckins. People like Wah Sing.
I should begin by saying that Wah Sing is not his actual name. I do not know what his given name was, but here are some of the ways in which he was recorded in the very few printed pieces in which he appeared: Waugh Sing; Thomas Chinsing; the Chinese Laundryman; ‘John;’ the laundryman; Our John Chinaman; John Chinaman. I will refer to him as Wah Sing throughout this post, for consistency and clarity, but also because the one photograph that I have of his laundry–shown above–features a sign using that name.
I have no biographical information about Wah Sing beyond anecdotal evidence relayed by local historian Robert Walden; he knew the man slightly but had some unfortunate personal biases that are evident from his writings. Not knowing the man’s actual name, I have no way of tracking down his burial place, though Walden claimed he died in Cincinnati. Always a tenant and never the owner of the building where he operated his laundry, Wah Sing does not appear in the Wellington corporation tax records (at least, not that I have found). I have seen him in the newspaper only once, in connection with an unfortunate incident that illustrates the difficulty of his life in Wellington. Ironically, the fact that there is so little to go on makes me want to tell his story–as best I can–that much more.
The first mention of a “Chinese Laundry” in Wellington appeared in the Enterprise in 1884. Given the lack of care that the paper showed in printing unfamiliar foreign names correctly, I have no idea whether the proprietors were, in fact, called “Sone & Chong.” I also have no idea whether Wah Sing was connected to that first business. Robert Walden wrote three consecutive columns about the laundryman in 1954, and he noted that, “His predecessor in that location [the basement of the Wells building] was a young Chinaman named Charley Lee. Charley could speak English and was Americanized in many ways. On Sundays, when the weather was pleasant, he would wind his three long pigtails well under his Derby hat and, dressed in a long black coat with a flowered vest and bell-shaped trousers that flared at the bottom, golden-headed cane in hand, would strut about the streets with boys of the town who thought he was about the last word in style. He did not stay long and left no further impression on me” (Robert Walden Notebook, #A117). Was this earlier operator of a laundry connected with the “Sone & Chong” business? I have no way of knowing at present.
According to federal census data, in 1880 there were just twenty-six people born in China who were living in the city of Cleveland. By 1900, that number had increased to only ninety-four, in a city that had some 382,000 residents (the seventh largest municipality in the United States at that time). This surprising lack of growth in the Chinese population is due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The act initially prohibited all Chinese laborers from entering the U. S. for a decade, but was renewed in 1892 and then made permanent ten years later. It was not repealed until World War II.
The act was passed in a climate of racially-motivated intolerance toward Chinese immigrants, who were perceived to be taking jobs from American citizens. It not only stopped all immigration from China for six decades, but also made it very difficult for Chinese people already in this country to visit their homeland and then return to the U. S., a piece of national policy that directly impacted Wah Sing, as we shall see. Given the size of the overall Chinese population in this country in the late nineteenth century, it seems remarkable to encounter multiple Chinese individuals in a small, rural community like Wellington. Wah Sing also had a cousin in Cleveland and a brother in Painsville.Wah Sing operated his first recorded laundry in the basement of what is now known as the Wells building. (The Wells family purchased, renovated, and put a new facade on the structure in 1929.) It stands at 107 Public Square. It was immediately adjacent to the American House, and evidence suggests that at least some of his workload was generated from travelers staying at the hotel. Walden noted, “The back yard of the Wells building and the southeast portion of the American House were enclosed by the same high board fence. It separated these two properties from the alley in the rear. A wire clothesline fence was extended from the laundry to the fence so Waugh would hang his wet clothes to dry” (#A117). The fence and yard are visible in the map detail above.
As I mentioned, Walden produced three articles about Wah Sing. (He always spelled the first name “Waugh,” so for readability I will transcribe his quotations verbatim.) He attempted to fill them with humorous anecdotes, but to modern eyes the stories are not so amusing. They seem to tell a tale of regular teasing almost to the point of abuse. Walden related one incident of a man connecting an electric battery to the wire clothesline, for the express purpose of giving Wah Sing a mild shock. For reasons he didn’t explain, Walden and his wife were in “an upstairs window” watching as the laundryman touched the line and received jolt after jolt. “What he said probably was unprintable, but being in Chinese we had no translation, excepting through the intensiveness of his antics. Someone upstairs laughed. Waugh looked up and probably grinned, for then he understood that his friends up there were having fun with him” (#A117).
Perhaps, if this were an isolated incident, it might be a harmless practical joke. But Walden immediately followed with a story of a woman offering Wah Sing a hot green pepper to eat at Bowlby & Hall’s grocery store. His physical distress is presented for comic effect: “Mis Doty, get a doctor! Get a doctor quick. Belly burny like a helly!” Walden later poked fun at the laundryman’s supposed ignorance by relating an anecdote about Wah Sing attending the Methodist Church–after repeated pleas from a local woman who wanted “to save him from the burning”–and asking after the collection, “What’s the matter with that Jesus Christ? Him always broke” (#A118).
The most obvious act of exploitation that Walden related was one he claimed to witness personally. While leaving his own laundry, he observed a woman entering with a bundle of clothing. “‘Waugh,’ she said without any preliminary, ‘I want them tomorrow without fail. Understand?’ The Chinaman made no response nor indicated that he had heard. The young woman walked out of the room. In the doorway she turned and again demanded, ‘Understand?'” After she left, Wah Sing explained to Walden that the woman carried over washing from American House clients two to three times each week, and never paid him a cent for any of his work (#A118).
I have found only one piece in the Enterprise about the life of Wah Sing in Wellington. At least, I am assuming it is about him, because the paper referred to the subject by five different names, all of which were racially charged. Late one spring night, William Gulde and Clinton Wadsworth–their names were printed consistently–beat and robbed the proprietor of the Chinese Laundry. The article describing the assault was oddly titled, “Celestial,” a term used in connection with Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century, because China was traditionally known as the Celestial Empire. “Chinsing [i.e. Wah Sing] has the reputation of being a very quiet man and would do nothing to harm anyone and their unceremonious departure at that hour of the night from the business room of an inoffensive foreigner and the condition of his person and room will be a hard matter for the boys to explain away satisfactorily to an intelligent public” (3-18-1891, pg. 5).
After the American House was demolished in 1902, Wah Sing apparently relocated his laundry to a wooden building on the east side of North Main Street, the former home of the Star Bakery. The structure no longer exists; it was condemned after a massive fire destroyed the adjoining business block in 1915. (The brick building presently occupying 206 North Main Street is dated 1941 on its facade.) The details of his life become even murkier from our vantage point. Walden wrote that Wah Sing left behind a son in China, who wrote to him in English and had been planning to come to America to attend school. “Waugh, we understood, was saving every penny he could for this boy and to return to China himself” (#A118). But with the tightening of travel restrictions after passage of the Exclusion Act, that dream was no longer possible.
Wah Sing grew old and lonely, and as a consequence began to drink and gamble. The timing of his decline is unclear, but according to Walden’s recollections he was still alive until at least 1915. “For years of toil and saving, the mystic cord of love had bound him to his old home and son in China. Once he had returned there for a visit, but it was obvious now that it was broken or too attenuated to draw him back again. Because of the Chinese exclusion [sic] Act, he could not bring any member of his family to America had he so desired and he chose not to go back there himself” (#A119). Walden claimed that Wah Sing died in an opium den in Cincinnati. I have no way of checking the truth of this, at least at present, and do not know what year he died or how old he was. Or even his real name.
I find the image at the top of the post so evocative. The sign is tiny, microscopic in the larger scheme of things. Wah Sing is nearly impossible to see in the street-level view of Wellington life. He is literally subterranean. But if one takes the time to investigate, it’s impossible to deny that he is there.
UPDATE: I was able to locate Wah Sing in both the 1900 and 1910 federal census records for Wellington. (He was listed as “Sing Wah” in one of the documents.) Though there are contradictions between the information provided by each listing, it is intriguing nonetheless. The 1900 census states that he was born in October 1854, making him about 45 years old at that time. It noted that he emigrated to the U. S. in 1878, so just before the Exclusion Act passed, when he was about 23 years old. He spoke English, but could neither read nor write; it is unclear whether this means “in English” or “at all.” Ten years later, the census takers listed his race as “mulatto” and his age as 59, about four years older than the earlier census suggested. Under the category of years married it seems to say “78,” which makes me wonder if this was the year of Wah Sing’s marriage, just prior to leaving China. In 1910, he was apparently renting a house on what is today East Herrick Avenue, and his occupation was “Proprietor [of] Laundry.” Ten years on, he still could not read or write. This later census recorded his emigration to the United States as occurring in 1880, and if he was truly 59 at the time of the enumeration, he would have been about 29 when he left home, rather than 23. In any case, well more than half his life was spent away from his family and friends in China.
PLEASE NOTE: I added a follow-up post about the trial and conviction of the 1891 laundry assailants here. More importantly, I subsequently uncovered additional information that proves some of the assertions in this post to be incorrect. That post can be found here.