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.


  1. I saw a link on another blog to your post about Chinese laundries, a topic that I am quite familiar with from growing up in one and now researching and writing about:
    Your comments about the plight of Chinese in general then are quite accurate. If you should have a link or reference to Hop Lee's quote in Public Opinion, I'd love to see it, and the context or purpose of the interview. BTW, I discovered there were about 5 or 6 Hop Lee Chinese in Ohio from 1900 to 1920, and of course, they all ran laundries. ( I assume that the photo you used is not of Hop Lee, but from some archive.)

  2. You are quite right - the photo is of a "generic" Chinese laundry grabbed off of Google, although it dates to about the same time. I have a copy (somewhere) of the quote from Hop Lee in the Public Opinion. Send me your email address and I will try to dig it out and send it. Since I wrote the blog post, I have learned that "my" Hop Lee died in ca1920. I have also talked to a lady whose grandmother was married to one of the other Hop Lees, this one in Columbus, Ohio, just down the road from Westerville....

    1. Hi Alan..didn't see your reply until now...pls send me any info at jrjung at yahoo dot com...many thanks