Chinese Laundries in St. John’s

When Chinese immigrants began coming to North America in the nineteenth century, they initially worked in mining and railway construction. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the gold rushes had faded and the railway construction boom was over. Facing discrimination in the workforce that kept them out of higher-paying jobs, Chinese immigrants began looking for other ways to earn a living. Some became servants or cooks in wealthy households. Most, however, turned to self employment, becoming vegetable sellers, merchants, or café and laundry owners.

In this period, doing 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 several years until the debt was paid). Most importantly, they offered these services at reasonable prices. Soon, the Chinese laundry became a familiar a sight in the "Chinatowns" and downtown neighbourhoods of North American cities.

In St. John’s, the first known Chinese laundry, Sung Lee and Co. opened in 1895 on the south east corner of New Gower and Holdsworth Streets. Within a few years, other Chinese men began to arrive, setting up laundries in the mainly working class areas of downtown St. John's. Most of these establishments were located in row houses, indistinguishable from neighbouring dwellings apart from wooden signs with the laundry's name. By 1908, the city directory listed eight Chinese hand laundries. By the early 1930s, the number had grown to over twenty.

Sung Lee Laundry
Hop Wah Laundry
Jim Lee Laundry
Jim Gay Laundry
Soon Lee Laundry
Kim Lee's laundry
Newfoundland Laundry
Snow White Laundry
Last of the Chinese Laundries

Laundries map