Institute for Asian American Studies

Research, Education, and Community Building

Chinese Laundries in Massachusetts Oral History Project

The image is of old irons and laundry packages.

The Institute for Asian American Studies (IAAS), in partnership with the Chinese Historical Society of New England, has been interviewing Chinese Americans who owned, or whose parents owned, a laundry in Massachusetts.

From the 1870s to the 1960s, a large proportion of the Chinese American population in the U.S. relied on laundry work to make a living. Shut out from many other forms of employment, Chinese Americans found that working for themselves in the laundries was one of the few options for survival. Up until the 1920s, and into the 1930s, most Chinese-owned laundries were one-man operations. After this time, when more Chinese women were entering the U.S., Chinese laundries were run by families. Generally, the whole family was put to work in the business.

We are grateful to the interviewees for sharing their experiences and hope you enjoy reading about them. For more information about the project, or if you know someone who is willing to be interviewed, please contact Shauna Lo at Shauna.Lo@umb.edu.

 

Tom Chin

Tom Chin's parents owned Chin's Laundry in Charlestown, MA. He is one of nine siblings who all worked in the family laundry. His mother took over running the laundry when his father passed away in 1948.

May Chin

May Chin's parents owned a laundry in Roxbury, MA. She began working as a nurse's aide at age 14-when she wasn't helping in the laundry-and eventually received her nursing degree from Mass General.

Johnny Mah

Suey Hung (Johnny) Mah came to this country in 1939 and worked in a laundry in Peabody owned by relatives. He bought his own laundry in Lynn in the 1940s. Mr. Mah later became a very successful restaurateur.

Gep and Toy Har Chin

Gep Chin and Toy Har Chin were born in their parents' laundry in Peabody in the 1930s. In the 1940s the family moved the laundry to a larger space across the street and installed several laundry machines, including a washer and spinner.

Richard Chin

Richard Chin's family has lived in Brockton for three generations. In fact, his parents lived just a few blocks away from the courthouse where he now presides as a superior court judge. His parents owned Jimmy's Laundry in Brockton, MA from about 1950 until 2000.

Tunney Lee

Tunney Lee, architect and teacher at MIT, grew up in Chinatown. He shared recollections about the lives of three relatives who owned laundries in Massachusetts and Vermont, and about the laundrymen he saw come in to Chinatown on the weekends.

Jean Eng

Jean Eng and her husband bought Eng's Hand Laundry in Poughkeepsie, NY in the late 1940s. Although this project is primarily about laundries in Massachusetts, Mrs. Eng and two of her daughters now live in this state. In addition, one of her daughters, Nancy Eng, formerly was the Executive Director of the Chinese Historical Society in New England, so we have included this interview.

Donna Chin

Donna Chin came to the U.S. with her husband in 1948. They ran Toy Sun Laundry in Somerville for more than three decades. Her four children all helped in the laundry, including Donna Fong who also participated in the interview.

Carl Fong

Carl Fong's parents ran a wet wash in Charlestown in the early 1950s. As a boy, Carl helped to pick up unwashed clothes from Chinese laundries all over Boston in the evening, bring them back to the wet wash for washing, and returned them by early morning for the laundries to dry, iron and package.

James Dong

James Dong's parents took over a laundry at 336 Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury from James' uncle in the 1930s when the neighborhood was predominantly Jewish. James' father began working in a Chinese restaurant in Brookline in the afternoons and evenings after spending mornings at the laundry. James later joined his father working in the restaurant.


UMass Boston Minute

Listen to Shauna Lo talk about the significance of the Chinese Laundries in Massachusetts Oral History Project. Read More