Sunday, July 18, 2010
Chinese Laundryman in Westerville
Browsing through an old issue of the Otterbein College Tan and Cardinal, I saw an advertisement for a Chinese laundry in Westerville. From approximately 1917 to 1925, a certain “Hop Lee” ran a laundry at 12 North State Street. That conjures up all kinds of images, from the “No tickee, no shirtee” stereotype to laundries as fronts for opium dens. But I’ve married into a Chinese family, so I decided to look deeper.
Unfortunately, Chinese laundries do not lend themselves to research. Chinese immigrant men who ran laundries often were the victims of American mainstream prejudice. They kept very much to themselves, and thus appeared secretive and mysterious to outsiders.
Not surprisingly, Hop Lee mostly defies historical recovery. He was
probably from southern China probably from near Guangzhou (Canton) or Hong Kong. His real name was probably Li. Many a Chinese man adopted the spelling Lee, closer to the pronunciation of Li to American eyes. Or, Hop Lee may not have been his real name. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was still in force, and men coming to this country sometimes used the names of dead relatives or friends who had been granted permission to enter.
The census of 1920 showed a 55 year-old Hop Lee living on Third Street in Columbus, with his younger cousin, Wing Haey (The spelling is probably phonetic). This may not have been the same Hop Lee, which was a common name in the Chinese immigrant community. If it was the same man, he might have commuted to Westerville by streetcar. Most Chinese laundrymen, however, lived in or above their laundries.
As I was just about to give up hope of finding anything more about Hop Lee, I spotted a quotation from him in a 1917 copy of the Public Opinion. Lee was quoted as saying he liked hot weather because it meant more laundry business. Unfortunately, he was quoted in stereotypical Chinese pidgin English, and we can only guess what phraseology he really used.
Whoever he was, Mr. Lee probably worked long hours for little pay. We can guess that he was lonely – the male female ratio among Chinese immigrants was 90% male to 10% female. He left little if any record of himself. But the next time you eat Chinese take-out, you might remember Hop Lee, who may well have been Westerville’s first Chinese businessman.