Ching Lee Laundry, the oldest Chinese-owned laundry in the United States, closed its doors Saturday after 140 years of continuous operations by the same family.
On its final day of operations, a steady stream of the shop's longtime customers, some who've been coming to Ching Lee (which translates to "victory" in Cantonese) for generations themselves, came to bid farewell. Many brought with them flowers, cookies, cards, and tears.
Ching Lee’s third-generation owners, Jack Yee and his wife Evelyn, both 87, made the decision to close the shop due to Jack’s ailing health, as well as rising costs.
“It deeply saddens me that this era is ending,” Jacque Yee, the couple's daughter who has managed the shop with her father for the past 30 years, told NBC News.
In 1876, when Jacque Yee’s great granduncle opened the doors of Ching Lee Laundry, he traveled by horse-drawn carriage to pick up laundry 20 miles away in San Francisco. By that time, the Gold Rush had brought tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants to California, but the Yee family was among the very first to make their way south of San Francisco, to suburban San Mateo, which was then home to just 932 people.
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Chinese immigrants dominated the laundry business during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Chinese were kicked out of fishing, farming, mining, you name it. They were being excluded from virtually everything else,” John Jung, author of "Chinese Laundries," told NBC News. “Plus, out in the West, there were a lot of single men coming out and they weren’t going to do their own laundry.”
“I’m in mourning. I just can’t believe this is happening. Thank you for all of the memories.”
Reflective of the anti-Chinese sentiment of the late 19th century, a number of laws were enacted to curb the success of Chinese laundries. In 1886, a San Francisco laundry owner tested one of these laws before the U.S. Supreme Court. Yick Wo v. Hopkins challenged a law that forbid laundry businesses from operating in wooden buildings without a permit. The way the law was enforced, however, discriminated against Chinese laundry owners who were rarely granted permits compared to their white counterparts. The high court ruled that a race-neutral law, if administered with prejudice, was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Another legal strategy that affected Chinese laundries was one that prohibited laundries from operating in specific neighborhoods. In 1897, a federal court ruled in favor of Hong Wah, a laundry owner in San Mateo, who challenged such a law. In its ruling, the court argued that property rights “cannot be deprived by the arbitrary declaration of any law.”
Anti-Chinese sentiment in America culminated in the 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The only federal law in history to restrict immigration based on ethnicity, the policy remained in effect until 1943. A 1925 San Mateo phone directory shows that Chow Yee, Jacque’s grandfather, was one of only 13 people and businesses with a Chinese name in the entire city. Like Chow Yee, the other Chinese American residents were engaged in service work — from cooks, to laundrymen to gardeners and grocers.
“The older generations really endured hardships to make their way,” Jacque Yee said. “Over the years, we’ve had so many windows broken by people throwing bricks, and people yelling, ‘C*****, go home!’”
Today, one in five people in San Mateo are Asian American, and many of them work in technology. “There’s a big disconnect between new Chinese immigrants, many of whom are highly educated and wealthy, who don’t relate to the early history of Chinese Americans,” Jung said. “What they may not know is that stereotypes from the last 100 years will still influence how they are perceived today.”
More than history, Jacque Yee said that what was lost today was also a sense of community. Many of her most loyal customers packed Ching Lee’s tiny waiting area in the final hour before it closed its doors for good. As each person came through the door, Yee greeted them by name, asked about their families and their health, and knew the specifics of the stains on their orders.
“I’m in mourning,” said Therese Ryan of San Mateo, who started coming to Ching Lee in the 1970s. “I just can’t believe this is happening. Thank you for all of the memories.”