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Chinese Launderer

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Two Wongs will make it white.

"The Chinese laundryman does not learn his trade in China; there are no laundries in China. The women there do the washing in tubs and have no washboards or flat irons. All the Chinese laundrymen here were taught in the first place by American women just as I was taught....The reason why so many Chinese go into the laundry business in this country is because it requires little capital and is one of the few opportunities that are open."
— Lee Chew, Chinese American businessman, 1903

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.

Laundry was also seen as "women's work" and thus Chinese men were viewed as less threatening to white American masculinity if they took up this line of work. However, the association of Chinese men and laundry contributed to the emasculation of East Asian men. Even though the vast majority of Chinese-Americans today do not work in laundries — a stereotype of East Asians being more "feminine" than other races remains.note  By the 1930s, New York City had around 3550 Chinese-run laundries, proudly displaying "Hand Laundry" signs to show their commitment to traditional methods.

Thus this trope was born: Chinese characters in Western media (when they show up at all) would often work in laundering services. 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).

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.

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, though many laundries remained in Chinese American hands as another precedent, United States v. Wong Kim Ark, established that people of Chinese descent born in the US are natural-born citizens of the US.) 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 appallingly high number of troop-deaths from wounds and disease. 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.

Subsequent technological and social developments like the advent of the at-home washing machine have seen the decline in the trope, though it does continue on with Chinese characters (and Asian characters more broadly) owning and operating their own laundromats and dry cleaners. Characters who live in metropolitan areas, where small apartments don't typically have a washer/dryer included, will still be shown heading to their city's Friendly Local Chinatown to drop-off and pick up their laundry or dry cleaning, for example.

In most fiction, the Chinese launderer is a Funny Foreigner, spouting pidgin English (occasionally including the stock phrase "no tickee, no shirtee") and clashing with customers over the amount of starch in shirts with Asian Rudeness. 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. Not to be confused with Chinese money laundering; That's more of a thing that The Triads and the Tongs do.


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  • In a famous Calgon water softener commercial, a Caucasian customer would ask laundry owner Mr. Lee how he got shirts so white, to which he would respond "Ancient Chinese secret." Then his wife would address the camera in a beautifully American accent:
    Mrs. Lee: My husband — some hotshot! Here's his ancient Chinese secret...
    At the end of the ad, she blows his cover:
    Mrs. Lee: (shouting) We need more Calgon!
    Customer: "Ancient Chinese secret," huh?
    • Deliciously spoofed on an episode of MADtv (1995), 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 Abercrombie and Fitch in 2002 had two stereotypical Chinese cartoon men with the slogan "Two Wongs can Make it White".
    • A reference to a racist political slogan of yesteryear, which was used to promote 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.
  • A Brazilian ad for washing powder had a Japanese launderer advertising his own place (the phone he lifts is that of the manufacturer).

    Comic Books 
  • 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).
    • 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 restaurants. 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.
    • One of the Visual Puns involved the construction of a Boom Town. All the buildings had horizontal signs on their fronts, and the tiny space between a general store and a saloon is taken by a very narrow building, with its sign only fitting vertically... so a Chinese man takes it over as a laundry, filling the sign with Chinese characters.
    • The most important example is Ming Lee Foo, a minor supporting character and a friend of Lucky Luke.

    Films – Animation 
  • An American Tail: The Mystery of the Night Monster: A Chinese laundry gets attacked by the titular "monster".
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire: According to his backstory, Vinny actually became obsessed with explosives after witnessing the Chinese laundromat next door to his family's flower shop exploding due to a faulty gas line.
    Vinny: Blew me right through the front window. It was like a sign from God. I found myself in that boom.

    Films – Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A Stealth Pun in The Dark Knight: Lau, a member of the Chinese mob, works for Gotham criminals as a money launderer. Interestingly, coin laundromats have been recognized as an effective means to launder money due to them being cash based businesses.
  • Referenced by Jack Nicholson in his most racist scene in The Departed.
  • Everything Everywhere All at Once: Evelyn and Waymond run a laundromat together. The film's plot begins as the pair are about to visit the IRS due to a problem with paying taxes on the business. The film ends with Evelyn back in the laundromat a week later, though things are ultimately going better for her this time around.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In Miss Mend, Vivian Mend gets a job working at a Chinese laundry after a lockout at the factory leaves her out of work.
  • Payback: The Triad is using a big, industrial laundry located in the Chinatown as a front for their money laundry - the heist Porter and Val performed together was about stealing the cash shipment.
  • The Seven Year Itch: Richard Sherman's dress shirt was torn once when he sent it to a Chinese laundry service.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Yen Sun, the girl Doc falls in love with in Young Guns is the daughter of a Chinese launderer.

  • Patrick Bateman, the titular American Psycho, takes his blood-stained clothes to a local Chinese dry-cleaner.
  • In non-fiction travel memoir Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, Nellie Bly praises "what Orientals can do in the washing line," and notes that six hours is enough for one to get a load of laundry back.
  • The business directory in The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide includes the Agatean Soft Soap and Laundry Company.
  • One The Dana Girls novel involved a Chinese launderer.
  • The title character of the story "The Deed of the Deft-Footed Dragon" by Avram Davidson.
  • In The Laundry Files, The Laundry takes its name from the fact that it was run out of the apartments above a Chinese laundry during World War II.
  • In the Colleen McCullough novel The Touch, upon emigrating to Australia from Scotland and being given a tour of her wealthy new husband's home, Elizabeth Kinross is embarrassed at the idea that men will be tending to her laundry—there was a substantial Chinese immigrant population in Australia at the time of the book's setting—but agrees after she's assured that the practice is very common.
  • Francie Nolan takes her father's shirts to a Chinese laundryman in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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 who 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 Craw’s, er, CLAW’S sidekick says “The spy ring is just a front. It’s the laundry that brings in the real money.”
  • The Doctor Who episode "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" features a Chinese Laundry, justified by being set in Victorian London. At one point, a villain is smuggled inside a house by being hidden in a laundry basket.
  • 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.
  • Peaky Blinders starts with a from inside a Chinese laundry shop. The owner is on good terms with Tommy Shelby, helping him arrange a publicity stunt in that scene. The shop is visited a couple more times in that season, one time it's shown that they cater to the richest and most powerful men in Birmingham and then it's revealed that they run a brothel in the back.
  • Daredevil (2015). In ".380", Daredevil goes looking for Madame Gao's drug operation and finds her operating out of an industrial laundry in Chinatown. Given the amount of Yellow Peril tropes she's based on, the reference is likely deliberate.
  • An episode of Call the Midwife features the immigrant family whose business handles the maternity home’s linens, as part of the show’s general pattern of showing how the patients of the week fit into the interconnected community of the East End.
  • In Living Color! In the "Wrath of Farrakhan" skit, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan beams aboard the starship Enterprise and claims its crew are suffering from racial discrimination. When Captain Kirk denies this, Farrakhan asks Mr. Sulu an Armor-Piercing Question. "Who does the laundry around here?"

  • 1930s-40s British ukelele whiz George Formby had an entire series of songs about a Mr. Wu, who started his career in a laundry ("Chinese Laundry Blues") but later moved on (thanks to World War II) to being an air raid warden, and then being in the military.
  • Touched on in Matthew Wilder's "Break My Stride":
    I sailed away to China
    In a little row boat to find ya
    And you said you had to get your laundry clean

    New Media 

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Mock Duck from Krazy Kat. (He also does a sideline in fortune-telling.)

  • 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.

    Stand Up Comedy 
  • John Pinette jokes about the reaction of stereotypical Chinese buffet owners to his large appetite. He recounts one owner claiming their business has changed to a laundry to try and get rid of him.
    "No buffet here! We dry clean now. I take jacket, be ready on Tuesday. Now go!

    Tabletop Games 

  • 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.

    Video Games 

    Western Animation 
  • Archer: The entrance to ISIS is in an Indian laundry that features the same sort of employees and jokes as a Chinese laundry.
  • Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers: In the five-part pilot, Fat Cat goes to a laundromat to see a pair of Siamese cats about a fighting fish.
  • Classic Disney Shorts: In the 1932 short The Mad Dog, one of the townspeople that panics over the "rabid" Pluto is a stereotypical Chinese duck who carries a laundry basket on his head. He drops the basket as he runs inside for cover, and the laundry runs in after him.
  • Family Guy: The episode "Tiegs for Two" has Peter getting into a bitter feud with a Chinese laundryman, inappropriately named Mr. Washee-Washee, by accusing him of losing one of his shirts.
  • George of the Jungle: A Super Chicken segment featured a villain called Shrimp Chop Phooey, who ran a literal money laundering business.
  • Looney Tunes: In the Daffy Duck short China Jones, the character Charlie Chung (played by Porky Pig) is believed by China Jones (Daffy) to be a plainclothes detective. He turns out to be a laundryman, and he wants Jones to settle a "small matter of large bill", the picture ending with him wielding a club as Jones is forced to Work Off the Debt.
    Daffy: Confucius say, "Can't squeeze blood from turnip."
    Porky: Oh, yes. Also say, "B-B-Better you press shirt than press luck."
  • Minoriteam: Dr. Wang runs the team from a laundromat.
  • Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: In "Mystery Mask Mix-Up", the gang borrows a steam press from a Chinese laundry to create a steam screen against Zin Tuo's minions.
  • TV Funhouse: The second "Wonderman" short has him facing off against a launderer named Mr. Wong. Wonderman kills him and takes over the dry cleaner so that his alias can have sex with a woman he rescued.
  • Wheel Squad: Sheeba is a Chinese launderer, but he doesn't show the typical stereotypes that come with the trope. He once taught martial arts on the side.

    Real Life 
  • 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; Korean-run laundries are particularly common on the U.S. East Coast (e.g. Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia as well as New say nothing of northern New Jersey, where there are so many Koreans in southern Bergen County that a common insulting nickname for Fort Lee is "Fort Rhee").
    • 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, though.


Video Example(s):


China Jones

Confucius says can't squeeze blood from turnip, and better you press shirt than press luck.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (7 votes)

Example of:

Main / ConfucianConfusion

Media sources: