By Louisa Lu
Since the turn of the century, Chinese hand laundries have played a requisite part in the larger community. In the days when Asian immigrants were granted easy passage, thousands came to the States looking for opportunities. There were Chinese-owned hand laundries in most major cities of America. Being a business with small start up capital, it was an easy first business to invest in. A Chinese laundry was usually small - about the size of five dining tables - equipped only with an ironing board and a shelf to hold the clean and ironed clothes. Hand laundries reached their peak in the 1890s-1920s. By the 1930s, however, steam laundries and new technology began to dominate the laundry business.
After World War II, unemployment skyrocketed. Americans owned automated Laundromats which replaced many Chinese laundries. Hand labor could not compete with the speed of the machines. People believed that the new steam technology would clean clothes more effectively as well as efficiently. Moreover, hand laundries charged 20 cents a shirt whereas machine-equipped laundries would charge ten cents. The Chinese laundry business dwindled little by little. The Chinese avoided competing amongst themselves and never opened businesses too close to each other. This helped soften the blow, but it could not stop the industrialization of America.
After the war, many Americans started laundries in close proximity to those of the Chinese. By the 50s, most of the 90 Chinese hand laundries in St. Louis had closed their doors, and by the 70s, only the Sam Wah Laundry survived. In the 1970s, most Chinese-Americans had opted for a change in profession from owning laundries to owning restaurants. For the two men in their 80s that owned the Sam Wah Laundry, however, a career change could not be an option.
Gee Sam Wah (One K.) and his brother, Gee Hong, came to America in 1910 from Hong Kong. The British established Hong Kong as a colony for "Diplomatic, Commercial, and Military purposes". The expansion of Hong Kong as an international trading center helped in its role as one of the leading ports of embarkation for Chinese emigrating overseas. Technically, under Qing Dynasty law, emigration was all but illegal. However, it was easy for a would-be
to sneak into the ports of Hong Kong or Macao. Qing Dynasty officials rarely enforced the laws because emigration served as a remedy for the overpopulation of China. Since it was largely ignored, emigration was popular. For those already in Hong Kong, traveling to America was just as deregulated. Thus the Gee brothers were encouraged by their families to emigrate.
They left their families behind in search of business opportunities, starting by learning the laundry business in San Francisco. After agreeing that Chicago was not the right place for them, the two brothers came to St. Louis in 1922 and set up shop. Their uncle, Sam Wah, for whom the laundry was named, had previously owned the business. Gee One decided to change his name to operate business under the title of Sam Wah. Throughout the years, Gee Sam Wah kept in touch with his children (he was a widower) and Gee Hong with his wife and children, but they never had the chance to go back and visit their families. The letters that they wrote often took months to transport, but they never stopped writing. Their customers were loyal since they kept their prices - 20 cents a shirt - the same as they had been in 1920, and only increased to 35 cents per item of clothing later on.
The Sam Wah Laundry stood on 4381 Laclede Avenue in St. Louis city. It was a single-story brick store-front house which served as both business and home to the elderly Gee brothers. The interior must have looked something of an artifact, with its old wooden washtubs, drum dryer, antique hand atomizer, and direct current motor. There was a huge rubber plant that grew along the ceiling, supported by hooks. In the back of the laundry, where the brothers lived, were two sleeping mats next to a gas stove. All the equipment seemed so antediluvian that it was ready to be whisked off to a museum somewhere. Adorning the walls were pictures of all sorts; paintings of Jesus Christ at different ages, a newspaper clipping of Chairman Mao and President Ford shaking hands, 1962 calendars, and a photograph of a hockey crowd at the Checkerdome.
Curiously enough, there was a shrine that seemed to be a meld of eastern and western cultures. The shrine consisted of two imitation jade figures made of green plaster (male and female) joined by a rosary of wooden beads strung around their necks, crosses and other small ornaments hanging from the beads, and a ceramic smiling Buddha in the middle, all within a 3-sided cardboard box with a wire across the open side. It may have been a historical metaphor for the Jesuit incursion into the Celestial Kingdom in the 16th century, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Some combination of Judeo-Christian and Buddhist faith, the shrine allowed to keep the brothers spiritually refreshed.
The brothers worked hard, and even though they were both in their late-80s, they still rose at the crack of dawn and did not cease working until midnight. A neighbor who moved to the street in 1926 recalls the Gees running the laundry back then. Their industrious behavior and polite personalities earned them the admiration of many neighbors and customers. The long-time customers did not need tickets, because the brothers could knew each one by heart. In July of 1978, they had posted a notice that they would close their business on August 7th. Loyal customers came together and formed a group called the "Concerned Customers of Sam Wah". They discovered that Station Partnership of Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corp. owned the building, and that Washington University's West End rejuvenation project would affect the building. In other words, they were going to turn the laundry into a Medical School parking lot.
to part 2...)
click here for the Chinese version
About the author
Louisa Lu is a Sophomore at Parkway South High. She was born in NanJing, China. She is involved with band, track, and the community. She likes art, movies, music and other clich teen stuff.
Louisa Lu wanted to help condense a couple Post-Dispatch articles with materials provided by Missouri History Museum about the Sam Wah Laundry, because it's a part of the St. Louis culture and history that deserves to be remembered for what it signified and not the lot it is today.