"No tickee, no shirtee!
— Stereotypical phrase, first recorded use in 1886
Prior to the invention and mass production of modern laundry machines, doing laundry was a lengthy, hot, dirty and tiring chore. Naturally, many people turned to professional launderers to get the job done. In The Wild West
, many of these launderers were Chinese in origin. Since they were barred by law or custom from most other occupations, and they were willing to do hard work for low pay, this was seen as a good opportunity by the immigrants. Indeed, at one point, Chinese immigrants operated 89% of the laundries in San Francisco, and had a strong presence in other cities and towns.
Perhaps the most famous real life Chinese Launderer
is Yick Wo, of the U.S. Supreme Court case Yick Wo vs. Hopkins
, which held that a law that on its face was racially neutral, but was applied in a racially discriminatory fashion violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which the court maintained applied to resident aliens as well as full citizens. It's an important precedent.
By the 1930s, New York City
had around 3550 Chinese-run laundries, proudly displaying "Hand Laundry" signs to show their commitment to traditional methods
. Unfortunately, in an effort to drive the "dangerous foreigners"
out of the city, laws were passed in 1933 to among other things restrict ownership of laundries to American citizens. (The laws of the time prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens.) After negotiations by the traditional Chinese social organizations failed, the openly leftist Chinese Hand Laundry Association was formed to fight this discrimination. They did a very good job of it, and of supporting the Guomindang's defense of China
against Imperial Japan
with invaluable medical personnel and aid to reduce the apallingly high number of troop-deaths from wounds and disease. Unfortunately, despite ongoing support for the Guomindang, once the Communists destroyed the Guomindang
in the Chinese Civil War in 1950 the Red Scare
somewhat inexplicably saw the CHLA denounced as a "Communist" organisation and its membership sharply declined.
This trope also exists in the United Kingdom
, and is often associated with the London district of Limehouse, which was home to many Chinese immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (there is little sign of this today, with London's Chinatown having moved elsewhere).
Subsequent technological and social developments have pretty much killed off the Chinese Launderer
as a current stereotype. If they appear in any form nowadays they're likely to either be laundromat owners or dry cleaners.
In most fiction, the Chinese launderer is a Funny Foreigner
, spouting pidgin English
and clashing with customers over the amount of starch in shirts. They sometimes have bit parts in mysteries set in the appropriate time period, due to the use of laundry marks to identify where a piece of clothing has been.
Subtrope of Ethnic Menial Labor
- In Lucky Luke, Chinese people are either launderers or restaurant owners, but the launderers are really ubiquitous. They are the focus of the story once or twice but are mainly peaceful background characters who only want to mind their own business, although they are somewhat obsessed with the cleanliness of people's clothes (just as undertakers are obsessed with people's measurements). Rene Goscinny was accused of Unfortunate Implications once because of that, accusations to which he answered scathingly (and then, as the person protested that Chinese people were always launderers and never mayors, he added a Chinese mayor in a later story).
- One short story features a Chinese man moving to Shanghai Gulch - a town where only Chinese people live - only to find out that he can't work as a launderer as he'd like to, since the town already consists of nothing but 182 launderers and 182 restaurant workers. The town is on the brink of economic collapse since the money just goes back and forth between the two groups, until the main character comes up with a solution.
- A famous Calgon water softener commercial from the 1970s references this, at least insofar as the laundry owners are of Chinese descent.
- Deliciously spoofed on an episode of Mad TV, with Jackie Chan as the laundry owner. When the customer learns the "ancient Chinese secret", Jackie leaps over the counter, beats the stuffing out of him, and says "You tell anyone, you're a dead man!"
- One of the infamous Asian stereotype t-shirts made by Ambecrombie and Fitch has two stereotypical Chinese cartoons with the slogan "Two Wongs will Make it White"
- A reference to a racist political slogan of the yesteryear, which was used in barring Asian immigration to the US and Canada: "Two Wongs don't make White".
- This commercial for Jawbone headsets involves a character citing the stereotype of a Chinese Laundry at length and getting curb stomped in revenge.
- Sid Caesar and Edie Adams accidentally broke through a hardware store wall into a Chinese laundry in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
- A Chinese launderer in Broken Trail becomes the interpreter between the two cowboy heroes and the five Chinese girls they have rescued from indentured prostitution.
- Referenced by Jack Nicholson in his most racist scene in The Departed.
- A Stealth Pun in The Dark Knight: Lau, member of the Chinese mob, works for Gotham criminals as a money launderer.
- Subverted in the 1943 The Batman serial. Due to it being set in World War II, the main villain was a Japanese spy. Thus, one of the clues found is a handkerchief with a Japanese laundry mark. Robin quips that he's never heard of a Japanese laundry mark.
- Yen Sun, the girl Doc falls in love with in Young Guns is the daughter of a Chinese launderer.
- The Seven Year Itch: Richard Sherman's dress shirt was torn once when he sent it to a Chinese laundry service.
- At one point in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mrs. Meers disguises herself as a Chinese laundress.
- The Warrior's Way: Yang takes over the laundry when he arrives in Lode, mainly because that's what everyone assumes he'll be good at. He actually has to learn how to do it from Lynne, the white woman who had befriended the previous Chinese Launderer.
- In the Harold Lloyd film Speedy, during a big brawl between a bunch of thugs hired to rough up Lloyd's character and the locals who come to his defense, an elderly Chinese man comes out of his laundry store and casually burns the ass of every thug in his vicinity with his clothing iron.
- Subversion in the western comedy The Great Bank Robbery, where the town's example of this trope (played by Mako) turns out to be an undercover Secret Service agent.
Live Action TV
- Patrick Bateman, the titular American Psycho, takes his blood-stained clothes to a local Chinese dry-cleaner.
- The title character of the story "The Deed of the Deft-Footed Dragon" by Avram Davidson.
- Francie Nolan takes her father's shirts to a Chinese laundryman in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
- The Laundry takes its name from the fact that it was run out of the apartments above a Chinese laundry during World War II.
- One The Dana Girls novel involved a Chinese launderer.
- The business directory in The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide includes the Agatean Soft Soap and Laundry Company.
- Rare modern example: Used in an episode of Monk, where the Chinese woman who owns the laundromat is able to confirm a vital piece of evidence. Oh, and Monk, being Monk, complains about the way she sews on buttons.
- On one episode of The Practice, Eugene Young argues with his Chinese dry cleaner over a shirt that he thinks has been shrunken. As the exchange heats up, he starts mimicking the man's Pidgin English. As Eugene is black and frequently seen as scary, there's an unsettling "shoe on the other foot" sensation around his perceived racism.
- There was an episode of The Lone Ranger where a Chinese launderer not only had to deal with prejudice from the locals, but some bandits kidnapped his wife.
- The pilot episode of The A-Team had a scene in which Hannibal disguises himself as a "Mr. Lee" and meets with a prospective client at a laundry. Clients in later episodes would mention also having met Mr. Lee.
- Amusingly subverted in that while Hannibal plays Mr. Lee as a stereotypical Chinese Launderer, the episode reveals that the real Mr. Lee is not in fact Chinese.
- Red Dwarf: Curiously, despite being a corporation-owned mining vessel, the Dwarf still has a Chinese laundry.
- Get Smart seems to have a weird obsession with Chinese Launderers and fits them in wherever possible, even if it is just in the background.
- The Doctor Who episode The Talons of Weng-Chiang features a Chinese Laundry, justified by being set in Victorian London.
- Farnum from Deadwood tries to disguise delivery of a corpse in a wheelbarrow full of laundry to chinese pig-farmer Wu.
- The entrance to Special Unit 2 underground headquarters is located in a dry cleaners run by an Asian man. Then a punk with a revolver runs in demanding all the money in the cash register. Every employee (including the Asian guy) then reveal themselves to be undercover cops by pointing their Hand Cannons at him.
- An episode of 1920s-set detective series The Mind Of Mr JG Reeder features a white slavery ring that has its base of operations in a Chinese laundry (though it's actually run by an English aristocrat, who's counting on the authorities, if they trace him that far, to assume that obviously it was the shifty-looking foreigners who dun it).
- In Elementary, Holmes sends Watson to pick up his clothes from a Chinese dry cleaner. He wants to see how long it will take her to figure out that it's actually a front for a drug operation.
- Mock Duck from Krazy Kat. (He also does a sideline in fortune-telling.)
Stand Up Comedy
- In The Goon Show episode "The McReekie Rising of '74", Seagoon poses as a Chinese laundryman in order to infiltrate the Scottish camp and steal their kilts.
- The 1993 musical The Last Hand Laundry In Chinatown was in part "an homage to the struggles of the pioneering NYC Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance."
- The 1876 play Two Men of Sandy Bar by Bret Harte featured a Chinese launderer named Hop Sing, who appears to have been the Trope Maker for the stereotypes associated with the character, including the notorious "No tickee, no shirtee" line.
- This referenced in an inversion in Hairspray: the heroine's mother has a laundry business which is called something like Occidental Laundry (to set it apart from all of the "Oriental" ones.)
- Thoroughly Modern Millie.
- Widow Twankey from various Pantomime versions of Aladdin.
- One of the scenes in Sheer Luck Holmes takes place in a Chinese Laundry, with its own song-and-dance number.
- The Dagger of Amon Ra features a Chinese laundryman named Lo Fat in the game's first act, from whom you get a few clues and a dress. thewatersupply hasn't played the game since middle school; it might have been hilariously offensive.
- The Mount & Blade mod 1866 includes Frankie Luong, a Chinese former laundryman, as a possible party member. In keeping with the common stereotypical portrayal of Chinese laundrymen in Western films, he can't end a sentence without an exclamation point.
- Mr. Wong's Laundrette ("If It Ain't Wong, It Ain't White!") of Grand Theft Auto III. The laundromat plays a minor role in the plot, as its transition from the established Mafia protection racket to a Triad one sparks a mob war between the two sides.
- An Asian, presumably Chinese, laundry owner appears in one mission of L.A. Noire.
- The entrance to ISIS in Archer is in an Indian laundry that features the same sort of employees and jokes as a Chinese laundry.
- Very borderline: In Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers, Fat Cat goes to a laundromat to see a pair of Siamese cats about a fighting fish.
- Dr. Wang runs his Minoriteam from a laundromat.
- According to his backstory from Disney's Atlantis The Lost Empire, Vinny actually became obsessed with explosives after witnessing the Chinese laundromat next door to his family's flower shop catch fire and explode due to an faulty gas leak.
- Mr. Washy Washy from Family Guy.
- One episode of ''Super Chicken'' featured one as the villain, who was running a literal money laundering business.
- A Chinese laundry gets attacked by a robotic "monster" in the fourth An American Tail movie.
- A Chinese laundry appears in the Daffy Duck short "China Jones".
- There's a Chinese Launderer in Wheel Squad but he doesn't show the typical stereotypes that come with the trope. He once taught martial arts on the side.
- Scooby-Doo borrows a steam press from a Chinese laundry to create a steam screen against Zin Tuo's minions in "Mystery Mask Mix-Up."
- The Royal Navy still uses Chinese laundrymen on their vessels.
- For some reason, there's a women's shoe company called Chinese Laundry.
- As stated at the top this has a strong historic basis and is not entirely uncommon to see even today. Further keep in mind that in many cities where renting an apartment is more common than owning a single-family home wash-and-fold service is still prevalent at many dry cleaners as an alternative to doing your own laundry at a laundromat.
- Laundries are also run by Koreans or Vietnamese.
- There also appear to be an inexplicable number of "French Laundries"... not just the well-known restaurant.
- A leftover of the era where Chinese-manned Laundries were common is the Venezuelan saying "Más caliente que plancha de chino", "Hotter than a Chinese man's iron". The "caliente" in the saying refers to angry hot-headness instead of physical hotness, through.