Chinese Laundries

Most of the Chinese men who came to Newfoundland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries opened laundry businesses. In this period, laundry was an arduous chore, done mainly by women in their own households. They had to heat water on the wood or coal stove, and then spend hours scrubbing the clothes by hand. Occasionally local washerwomen would take in other people's laundry, but their operations were small. Although the new Chinese laundrymen washed clothes by hand, they had both the space and the labour to handle higher volumes. Laundry owners would often pay the Chinese Head Tax for new immigrants, who in turn would work for them for several years to pay back the debt. Moreover, the new Chinese laundries offered their services at reasonable prices. By the early twentieth century, Chinese laundries were commonplace throughout the downtown neighbourhoods and Chinatowns of North America.

In St. John’s, the first known Chinese laundry, Sung Lee and Company, opened in 1895 on the south east corner of New Gower and Holdsworth Streets. Within a few years, other Chinese men began setting up laundries in the row houses of the working class areas of downtown St. John's. In 1908, the city directory listed eight Chinese hand laundries. By the early 1930s, the number had grown to over twenty. Chinese laundries continued to be part of St. John's neighbourhoods well into the 1960s.

Chinese laundry