By Lan Nguyen
The Chinese Historical Society of New England hosted a talk and book signing with John Jung, author of “Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain” on Nov. 18. Jung, a former psychology professor at the California State University of Long Beach, was born to immigrant parents who ran a laundry business in Macon, Ga., during the early 1900s.
Jung and his family were the only Chinese people living in Macon at the time. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a historic piece of legislation which prevented Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States, the Chinese living in America risked deportation if they were found to be laborers. As a result of racial discrimination and limited job opportunities, many Chinese families operated laundry businesses, ironic because there were no laundries in China. Consequently, the laundryman became a symbol for all Chinese people.
According to Jung, Chinese laundrymen were often isolated and “the target of derision” and disrespect. The situation was made worse when a white woman was found murdered and stuffed in the steamer of a Chinese man’s apartment. The event demonized Chinese men who were subsequently seen as a danger to white women.
Despite being tormented and mocked, Chinese laundrymen endured these hardships for the sake of providing for their families in America and back in China. The laundry business gave them security and also taught their children a good work ethic, which they carried into adulthood. Jung worked in his father’s laundry business and was unaware of what a vacation was. When Jung was 15 years old, the family moved to San Francisco, where they acquired a home with an operating laundry business on the lower level.
Ultimately, Chinese restaurants and groceries became alternatives to running laundries. Laundromats eventually replaced laundries. The business also declined when the older generation of Chinese immigrants either passed away or retired and returned to China. Rather than continue the laundry business, these immigrants’ educated children found themselves with better job opportunities. This brighter future for the next generation was what led Jung to conclude that laundries were “tickets to gold mountain.”
Jung is also the author of “Southern Fried Rice: Life in a Chinese Laundry in the Deep South,” “Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton: Lives of Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocers” and “Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants.”
This post is also available in: Chinese