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. Black people have to deal with the opposite problem where white people viewed them as being more "masculine" than other races.
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 which 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, 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. 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 be laundromat owners or dry cleaners (overlapping with Asian Store-Owner), and they're often Korean rather than Chinese.
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 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...
- Mrs. Lee: (shouting) We need more Calgon!Customer: "Ancient Chinese secret," huh?
- 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 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.
- A Brazilian ad for washing powder had a Japanese launderer advertising his own place (the phone he lifts is that of the manufacturer).
- 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.
- The most important example is Ming Lee Foo, a minor supporting character and a friend of Lucky Luke.
- 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. Interestingly, coin laundromats have been recognized as an effective means to launder money due to them being cash based businesses.
- 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.
- In Miss Mend, Vivian Mend gets a job working at a Chinese laundry after a lockout at the factory leaves her out of work.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Craws, er, CLAWS sidekick says The spy ring is just a front. Its 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.
- 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 homes linens, as part of the shows general pattern of showing how the patients of the week fit into the interconnected community of the East End.
- 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 ChinaIn a little row boat to find yaAnd you said you had to get your laundry clean
- Parodied by The Onion with "Chinese Laundry Owner Blasted For Reinforcing Negative Ethnic Stereotypes", about a second-generation laundry owner with somewhat fractured English who is constantly hounded and persecuted by his community, despite his attempts to make peace.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 1866: A Mount & Blade Western 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.
- One mission in Retro City Rampage has you rob a "Hon's Launder House".
- Spoofed in Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, in which the laundromat in Neo New York is run by an elderly Chinese man.
- A Chinese man with a poor grasp of English does laundry in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. In the Updated Re-release, he's replaced by a hard-of-hearing white guy.
- The player character in the platformer Mr Wong's Loopy Laundry is a Chinese laundryman, who's drawn with a traditional conical hat.
- 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.
- In the Daffy Duck short "China Jones", Porky Pig's reoccurring character turns out to be the owner of a Chinese laudry, who wants Daffy to settle a "small matter of large bill", and the cartoon ends with Daffy having to Work Off the Debt.
- 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; Korean-run laundries are particularly common on the U.S. East Coast (e.g. Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia as well as New York...to 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.