The Chinese Laundry

Detail of an image taken of Public Square, Wellington, Ohio, between  1892 and 1902. Sign over basement entrance to Wells building reads, "WAH SING LAUNDRY." My thanks to Mr. Alan L. Leiby for providing the enlargement.

Detail of an image taken of Public Square, Wellington, Ohio, between 1892 and 1902. Sign over basement entrance to Wells building reads, “WAH SING LAUNDRY.” My thanks to Mr. Alan L. Leiby for providing the enlargement.

A really marvelous development was brought to my attention recently. The Library of Congress has added twenty years of The Wellington Enterprise to its “Chronicling America” digital newspaper repository. The papers–rather confusingly grouped into three separate holdings–date from 1879 to 1899, and include nearly 900 keyword-searchable issues. Many thanks to fellow blogger and Wellington historian Joshua Fahler for alerting me.

As you might imagine, I immediately spent hours compiling search terms, to see if I had missed anything important in my old-school visual scanning of the issues on microfilm. Optical character recognition can be very spotty with nineteenth-century newspaper print, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many things I was able to locate. I still prefer the more immersive experience of reading the issues sequentially, but the search box is undeniably faster for “clean up” checking of proper names, etc.

One of the first names I wanted to search for was Wah Sing. To cover additional possibilities, I also checked terms such as “John Chinaman” and “Chinese laundry,” phrases often used in the reporting of the time. I uncovered a wealth of additional information about the Chinese laundry in Wellington. The dozen notices that I found disproved some of the suppositions I posed in my previous two posts about Wah Sing. I debated whether to remove those posts, but ultimately decided to leave them intact and use this entry to correct some of my mistakes.

By far, the most glaring error that I made was to assume that, given its rural setting, Wellington most likely had only one Chinese resident during the nineteenth-century. I painted Wah Sing as a highly unusual person, even in the context of Wellington’s fifteen percent foreign-born population, which I have noted several times. But this new information, which in turn caused me to reevaluate the materials I already had in hand, now allows me to report that I can record at least nine distinct Chinese individuals connected with the operation of a laundry in Public Square between 1884 and 1899.

In my original post on Wah Sing, I noted that the first published announcement I have found of a Chinese laundry in Wellington was made by Sone and Chong in December 1884.

By the summer of 1890, the newspaper was making reference to “our enterprising, live and let live Chinese laundryman, Col, Chas. Moon” and commented, “Charley is so different from the generality of his countrymen that he enjoys the respect of all who know him” (6-18-1890, pg. 5). Seven months later, a repeating series of notices announced that an unnamed “we” had purchased “the laundry business of Charley Moon” (1-28-1891, pg. 5).

The next time a Chinese individual appears in the Enterprise, it is in connection with the assault that I detailed in my first post on Wah Sing; I recounted the trial and sentencing of William Gulde and Clinton Wadsworth in a second post. The victim of that crime was referred to by multiple names, one of which was Thomas Chinsing. I erroneously assumed that this must actually be Wah Sing, and wrote the discrepancy off as the discriminatory reporting practices of a time when newspapers regularly used names such as “John Chinaman.” But I now know that Wah Sing did not move to Wellington until nearly two years after this attack.

It was therefore Thomas Chinsing, not Wah Sing, who had a cousin in Cleveland and a brother in Painesville. His brother was a telegraph operator who spoke fluent English and served as a translator at the assault trial in April 1891. There were four separate robberies of the laundry in the previous two years; how many proprietors the establishment had in that period remains a mystery.

In September 1892, The Wellington Enterprise noted, “A new John Chinaman arrives in town about every new moon to take charge of the laundry. It must be that the business doesn’t pay very well, or this place has become exceedingly attractive to them and they are all anxious to come and remain a short time” (9-14-1892, pg. 5). And indeed, in that year I find records of at least two other individuals connected to the laundry. In July, a man named Sing Lee apparently returned from Painesville after an absence of three months, as “the celestial that succeeded him in the laundry…failed to pay up and so John [Chinaman, i.e Sing Lee] came back and took possession” (7-20-1892, pg. 5). Was there a connection between Sing Lee and Thomas Chinsing, given that each had some association with Painesville? I don’t know, nor do I know anything about the “non-paying” individual who ran the operation for that three-month interval.

By October of the same year, the proprietor of the laundry was listed as Ham Yuen in a notice asserting that the business would not be relocating to North Main Street, but would remain in Public Square. And readers of the earlier post will recall that local historian Robert Walden also recorded a man named Charley Lee as Wah Sing’s immediate predecessor, but without giving any indication of what time period he lived in the village.

“The latest celestial to arrive has a new sign, which reads, ‘Wah Sing, Laundry'” announced the paper on December 21, 1892. (Astute readers may note that I have adjusted the dating on the photograph at the top of this post accordingly.) Federal census data indicates that Wah Sing emigrated to the United States sometime between 1878 and 1880–just prior to passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act–and made his way inland from the west coast, arriving in Wellington twelve years later. By 1896, he was contemplating a trip home to China “to visit his wife and children” (12-16-1896, pg. 5). He ran into some trouble with money; both the Enterprise and the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported that he loaned $300 to another Chinese individual who was either away without leaving his whereabouts or had deliberately absconded with the stolen funds, depending on which report you believe.

Whatever the truth of that incident, Wah Sing’s financial issues were somehow successfully resolved. In October 1897, he left Wellington to make the six-week journey home to China, with the intention of remaining away for nearly a year. He left the laundry in the care of his cousin, Gin Gim, and returned as he had promised in October 1898.

I cannot verify the accuracy of Robert Walden’s published memories. All of the incidents that I wrote about in my first post, Walden explicitly described as happening to “Waugh Sing.” Whether he was conflating memories of interactions with multiple Chinese laundrymen, I do not know. What I can say is that the few published mentions of Wah Sing in the last decade of the century may paint a very incomplete portrait of his life, but they do not necessarily suggest someone in total isolation and misery. Obviously Wah Sing was able to visit his family in China for nearly a year. He was noted several times traveling to friends in Cleveland, including attending a celebration of Chinese New Year in the city in 1899. There is evidence of community and connectedness for several of these men, despite the scantiness of the extant written record.

I found mentions of other Chinese laundries operating in nearby Oberlin and also in Newark, Ohio, about ninety miles south of Wellington (near the state capital, Columbus). The article about Newark was denouncing a series of attacks against “a couple of respectable Chinese laundrymen” in that town, in which white patrons were actually hiding explosives in their own laundry. The piece is worth quoting at some length: “And now the industrious foreigners can go on rinsing the sweat from white men’s shirts and perspiring over the polishing board as their lazy persecutors would not if they never had a change of clean underclothing. It is a national disgrace that a well-behaved Chinaman cannot walk a square in the streets of our cities without meeting with staring impudence and hooting insult, even from our well educated school children…Because he has not the bullying propensities of the Anglo-Saxon, and is physically weak, and is quiet, peacable, willing to work hard and to do his work well, he is everywhere imposed upon by our ‘superior race,’ and treated with such want of fairness and courtesy that it is no wonder the observing Celestial is not apt to think well of either the civilization or the religion of this country” (7-15-1880, pg. 2).

Did Wah Sing feel that he was treated with a “want of fairness and courtesy” by his Wellington neighbors? My fear is that there is no way to ever truly know. But then I recall that just a few days ago I though there was one man running the Chinese laundry, and now I know that there were many. That gives me hope that other sources of information may still exist that can offer more insight into this part of our history. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “The palest ink is better than the best memory.” Our collective memory of this small community within our midst may have disappeared, but we can begin to reconstruct the evidence of their presence and thereby deepen our understanding of the true complexity of our shared past.

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4 thoughts on “The Chinese Laundry

  1. John Jung

    Thanks for sharing your new findings that led to your reassessment of the history of Wellington’s Chinese laundry. Thomas Chinsing may have been Thomas Chin Sing (Chinese surnames are almost all monsyllabic. Most of them have a “middle” or generation name (i,e, a name that all male sibs of a given generation share..in this example, possibly Chin. Chinese names are problematic for many reasons, not the least being opposite order of first and last names from English, which led to many reversals. Also the unusual sounds were transliterated in often slightly different ways, Chen and Chin… with the net result being hard to know if we are talking about the same or different person when the spelled name varies somewhat. Another point is that many Chinese were called ‘Charley’ just as John Chinaman was used to refer to a Chinese in a generic sense.

    Even though your research shows there were several Chinese laundrymen in Wellington between about 1884 and say 1901 or so, it is not clear whether there were more than 1 or 2 at any given time., i.e., there may have been a serial progression of 1 being there at any given time, as some died, retired, or moved to another town. As you noted, the town was small and rural and probably could not support more than 1 Chinese laundry. (Did you ever establish whether the laundry was at 2 different locations, first at the public square and later on Main Street?)

    Although not conclusive by any means, the only Chinese to appear in the census files for 1900 was Wah Sing (the 1890 records were destroyed by fire so there is a gap there), Chinese, as well as other people, may have up and moved one or more times between consecutive decennial censuses…thus if a name doesn’t show up in the census for a location, it doesn’t prove that he was never there.

    Your findings are valuable, vividly illustrating the plight of the Chinese laundryman in hundreds of towns across the country. He was often the only one in his area, suffered racist taunts and pranks (there was one Enterprise article about boys bringing dead rats to sell to the (unnamed) laundryman), assault, robbery, and even homicide,,,, not to mention deprivation of family life for most of the early ones.

    Reply
  2. Armchair Historian Post author

    Fantastic comments! Thank you so much for your insights. I have put out a couple of research queries, including one to the NARA branch in San Francisco, to see if I can turn up any more information about Wah Sing. If I have time, I will try to search for some of the other men, as well. I would be very curious to see the “Enterprise” piece about the rats, if you happen to have the citation handy.

    Reply
  3. Armchair Historian Post author

    Hi John, I ran across the “rat” piece in the “Enterprise” last night (5-10-1893, pg. 5). I also found references to *another* set of proprietors of the laundry and in the interests of clarity I will simply add that information into the text of this post later today.

    Reply

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