Chinese Hand Laundries in Alexandria


While hand laundries were not the only employment opportunities that Chinese immigrants found in the United States, the importance of the hand laundry industry for Chinese immigrants, as well as its consistent and overwhelming presence in Alexandria, Virginia from 1900-1949, makes it the key focus of this study.

The widespread development of Chinese hand-laundries came around the 1870s. After the American West had become populated with the influx of Americans and immigrants during the California Gold Rush, racial prejudices began to prohibit Chinese immigrants from participating in mining and other industries. With their remaining options dwindling, many Chinese turned to laundering as a way to ensure survival. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) furthered this trend, causing immigration into the United States to be nearly impossible and ensuring that residency for the current Chinese immigrant population was extremely difficult. In search of a better life, many Chinese moved away from the West to find a place that allowed them uncontested residency and jobs. This relocation encouraged a spread of Chinese hand laundries across the country. The Chinese could establish a niche and hopefully avoid the hostilities that they experienced in other occupations.

The presence of Chinese hand laundries in Alexandria, Virginia from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century stems from the original tide of Chinese immigrants to the West. Between 1900 and 1949, the population of Chinese immigrants living in Alexandria remained small, and the number of laundries remained relatively constant. These laundries provided a niche for the incoming Chinese immigrants and allowed them a small community within Alexandria. Through the use of census data and city directories, one can piece together the presence of Chinese laundrymen in Alexandria, Virginia.

Laundries made up a large portion of the employment opportunities for Chinese in the United States in the early 20th century. While there are accounts of other professions, such as running restaurants or groceries, the majority of Chinese immigrants worked within the laundry business.[1] In Alexandria, this trend is no different. Though there are a few accounts of restaurants run by Chinese immigrants in City Directories and Record Group 85 produced by the Immigration Bureau (later known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service), their existence is almost untraceable.[2] Laundries, on the other hand, were much more prevalent. In mapping the available census data from 1900 to 1940 and the City Directories in five year increments from 1900 to 1945, it is evident that, despite the prejudice Chinese immigrants faced, there is a constant presence of Chinese hand laundries in Alexandria, Virginia. As the table below indicates, until the 1950s the number of documented hand laundries was fairly consistent.


Number of Different Chinese Hand Laundries.

(owned by different people)













The steady number of recorded laundries in Alexandria suggests that the Chinese were able to maintain themselves quite successfully. Census data, however, failed to note many of the Chinese who were found within the city directories; it is likely that the number of Chinese found in the censuses was underestimated.  However, as demonstrated by the map and table above, the population was not large. In fact, it was only in the 1950s that the population made an uncharacteristically large jump; though outside of the period covered by this study, it is important to take note of the increase. Following the Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, Chinese immigrants were once again allowed into the United States though in small numbers. The evidence suggests that the influx of Chinese in Alexandria in the 1950s may have stemmed from changes in federal legislation and increased suburbanization.

Further analysis of the city directories and census data provides evidence that Chinese had formed a lasting community within Alexandria, Virginia. As noted above, the censuses do not account for all of the Chinese in Alexandria; however, from the census data outlined in the table below, a few conclusions can be made.

# of Chinese

Male? 0-19 20-39 40-59 60+ Married?



9 9/9 0/9 8/9 1/9 0/9 2/9 9/9


9 9/9 0/9 4/9 5/9 0/9 1/9 9/9


8 8/8 0/8 3/8 5/8 0/8 2/8


1930 7 7/7 0/7 4/7 2/7 1/7 2/7



8 7/8 2/8 2/8 4/8 0/8 5/8



The first conclusion that can be drawn from the census is that even though the data underestimates the number of Chinese, it still features the basic trends seen within city directories. The population was small, and the numbers were fairly stable. The second conclusion is that the majority of Chinese immigrants living in Alexandria were males. Until the 1940 U.S. Census, 100% of Chinese were men. In 1940, one woman was listed–a wife of one of the laundrymen. By the mid-twentieth century, the community as a whole seems to be aging; only the 1900’s, when the Chinese population was relatively new, shows a majority of men between the ages of 20 and 39. Most notably, however, is the reason that this project’s thesis focuses solely on the importance of laundries for the Chinese community. Out of the total male population accounted for in the censuses from 1900 to 1940, thirty-eight out of forty were listed with occupations relating to laundry work. The remaining two were actually the sons of a laundryman, both under the age of nineteen. When adding the content of the city directories to this evidence, as laid out in the map above, it can be concluded that these young-to-middle-aged Chinese males were establishing themselves in laundries. Whether working in their own laundry or with a partner, these laundries were very close to one another in location, and often remained in business for over a decade. Another trend is the appearance of the same immigrants for decades at a time. For instance, “Charlie Lee” appears in the city directories as early as 1911 and can be found through the 1940s. Though first impressions may result in the belief that it is a different Charlie Lee, the dates and locations seems to point to the same person. Despite what appears to be a confusion of addresses, Lee appears almost constantly from 1910 onwards. It is possible that he was in Alexandria even earlier; however, the only documented Charlie Lee in the census was in 1900.[3]

The name Lee Soon also appears starting in 1900 and can be found through the 1940s. As with Charlie Lee, the addresses constantly change for his business. He is also only found in the 1900 U.S. Census, and none of the dates in the city directories overlap. It is possible that Lee Soon who is listed in the 1940s may have been a different one. According to the 1900 census, Lee Soon was 34. In 1940, that would have made him 74. While working at this age may initially seem unlikely, there are two possible explanations that back the hypothesis that it is the same Lee Soon. The first is that the laundry may have just been in his name, and he employed others to work there when he was no longer able to. The second, and the more likely of the two theories, is that he did actually work in his own hand laundry at age 74. Oral accounts from Chinese immigrants in the mid-to-late-twentieth-century provide evidence that, in many cases, Chinese laundrymen did not have the opportunity to retire and instead worked long, backbreaking hours to maintain themselves well into old age.[4] Other examples of reoccurring laundrymen in city directories include Lee Wah, Sing Lee, Lee Tuck, Charlie Moy, and Moy Nyook. These men were able to establish a community within Alexandria.

Through the use of census data and city directories, it is evident that laundries played a large role in the lives of Chinese immigrants in Alexandria, Virginia. While their community was not large, it remained rather constant as time progressed. The inhabitants were mostly young-to-middle-aged males who worked within the laundry industry and, as demonstrated by the map above, congregated very close to one another in the central business district. Though not all of the launderers stayed, the reoccurrence of those such as Charlie Lee and Lee Soon suggests that, for many Chinese immigrants, Alexandria was “home.” They were able to maintain themselves successfully and, despite their small size, had enough support within the community to outlast what oppression and loneliness they did face.


Chinese Immigrants and Nativism in Alexandria

Author: Erin House

Special thanks to Dr. Moon for her list of Chinese laundries in Alexandria, Virginia that helped to point me in the right direction.


[1] Paul C. P. Siu, The Chinese Laundryman: A Study in Social Isolation, ed. by John Kuo Wei Tchen (New York: University Press, 1987), 1-2.

[2] Hong Tow Moy, Chinese Exclusion Act Files, Box 526, RG 85; Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Department of Justice, New York, NY.

[3] Charlie Lee and other Chinese laundrymen appear at a number of different addresses throughout each decade. It is suspected that the discrepancies were the fault of the directory and do not actually represent the laundrymen moving around every few years.

[4] Ban Seng Hoe, Enduring Hardship: The Chinese Laundry in Canada (Québec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2003), 25.

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