Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Lone Chinese in Early Grinnell

In late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, Chinese immigrants suffered considerable discrimination and abuse. The Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 aimed to minimize immigration from China at exactly the time when colonial powers were busily carving up China into various spheres of influence. By that time cities like San Francisco and New York already had sizable Chinese immigrant populations, but in small towns in the American Midwest, Chinese residents were rare. To European immigrants tilling the plains the "yellow peril" was mostly an abstraction, but to Chinese immigrants the "white ghosts" around them must certainly have reminded them of the "foreign devils" who had occupied much of China and monopolized the opium trade.

Yet, in many of these midwestern towns, worlds distant from China, one or two Chinese took up residence, establishing what became the original stereotype of Chinese immigrants—a Chinese laundry (Chinese restaurants came later). One of these laundries arose in Grinnell, Iowa as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth. Today's post examines the brief history of Chinese laundries in early Grinnell.
Advertisement from 1878 Grinnell Directory
Across the nineteenth-century in young prairie towns like Grinnell, getting clothes clean was a lot of work: washboards, outdoor clothes lines, and heavy irons all made for slow and difficult laundry days. And if city streets were often muddy and littered with horse manure (as they were in Grinnell), clothes got dirty fast and often. It is easy to understand, then, how a laundry business might arise.
1898 Sanborn Map of Grinnell, west side of Main Street,
showing 915 and 927 where Grinnell's first Chinese laundries operated (the forner street numbers appear above)
The 1878 city directory—Grinnell's first—knew only one laundry business—"City Laundry" at the corner of Fifth and Main—but that same directory knew ten women who identified themselves as laundresses, an indication, perhaps, of the demand and the persistence of conventional clothes washing. The next directory—1894—identified two laundries—the C. O. D. Laundry (on Broad and Fifth) and Bing Lee's laundry at 915 Main, the first Chinese laundry in town. The 1900 Grinnell directory repeated the advertisements of the C. O. D. Laundry (whose name was now qualified as a "steam laundry") and again listed a Chinese laundry. In 1900 Grinnell, however, it was not Bing Lee who operated it, but Jim Fong. The new Chinese man in town advertised his laundry at 927 Main Street (the same block as Lee's had been), where he probably absorbed some of Lee's former customers.
Laundry listing in 1900 Grinnell Directory
No Chinese laundry is recalled in the 1905, 1908, or 1910 Grinnell directory.  The C. O. D. Laundry continued to operate in these years, changing hands several times, but maintaining its hold on business. In 1908 the Grinnell Laundry at 1030-32 4th Avenue opened, and directed much of its advertising toward college students.
Grinnell Herald July 29, 1913
Into this Grinnell business environment in mid-1913 came Kim Fong, "a celestial of high degree," as the newspaper quaintly put it. Fong set up business in the basement of the Monroe Hotel Annex on Broad Street (south of Commercial), where he worked and lived until spring 1920.
Photograph (ca. 1919) looking north on Broad Street, with Monroe Hotel Annex (left) showing its awning
Early twentieth-century Iowa knew more than a few Chinese laundrymen. According to John Jung, the 1900 US census counted 75 China-born Chinese in Iowa, and all but one—a student—operated a hand laundry, at least one of which could be found in 50 of Iowa's 99 counties. Ten years later the census counted only 54 China-born Chinese in Iowa, 48 of whom worked in hand laundries spread out over 26 Iowa counties (Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain [n.p: Yin and Yang Press, 2007], p. 69). Although there was some ebb and flow among the Chinese laundrymen in Iowa, almost everywhere the men who operated these laundries were the only Chinese in town (ibid., pp. 70-71).
John Jung, "The Historical Importance of Chinese Laundries," Presentation to Portland Chinese Student Scholarship Foundation, May 5, 2013 (, slide 15)
Most of Iowa's Chinese laundrymen had originally immigrated in order to join in the search for gold in California or to be part of the work teams that laid track across the North American continent. But as American legal and social restrictions against Chinese tightened in the late nineteenth century, some of these men moved east, embracing the laundry business—not because they had learned it in China, where in fact at the time there was no commercial laundry business, but because their presence in this modest, marginal branch of the economy did not excite the same resentment among white Americans as did mining and other occupations.
We know little about the Chinese men who operated a laundry in Grinnell. Bing Lee (1863?-1952?), who owned the original Grinnell Chinese laundry in the 1890s, left town before any census asked his history, but he seems to have landed in Marshalltown where the 1900 US Census found him partnering with Fooke Woo at a laundry at 6 South First Avenue. Although his partner was married (but had left his wife in China, as was common among Iowa's laundrymen), Lee was single and said to be 37 years old. He reported having arrived in the US in 1880, and therefore probably had been engaged in some other work in the American West before he came to Grinnell. In 1900 he told census officials that he had filed papers to become a US citizen, so it may be that the Bing Lee who died in San Francisco in 1952 was the same man who once operated a laundry in Grinnell.

Jim Fong, who ran the second Chinese laundry in Grinnell, is also hard to decipher from the records. For one thing, there were so many Jim Fongs in early twentieth-century Iowa that it is difficult to know if any of them had been in Grinnell. For example, one finds a Jim Fong in 1900 in both Oskaloosa and Clarion City; in 1905 in Guthrie Center, Pocahontas, and Alto (here "James" Fong); in 1910 in Storm Lake; and in 1920 in Nevada.

Kim Fong (1865?- ), the third Chinese to conduct business in Grinnell, was not yet living in Grinnell in 1910, because that year's census does not include him. By late 1912 Fong was living in Toledo where he had opened a laundry in the basement of the "Infirmary." At that time Toledo could boast fewer than 2000 residents, whereas Grinnell had a population of more than 5000, which probably explains why in summer 1913 Fong moved to Grinnell.
Toledo Chronicle, August 7, 1913
Said to be 50 years old in 1915, Fong reported having been born in China around 1865. Described as "yellow" by census officials, Fong claimed the ability to both read and write, although he probably meant that he was literate in his native language rather than English—a 1917 newspaper article remarked that Fong had to communicate mainly by signs as he did not speak English (Grinnell Register, August 27, 1917). Like many of his countrymen who operated laundries in Iowa, Fong was married, but lived alone, his wife presumably left behind in China.
Card for Kim Fong from 1915 Iowa Census
The 1915 census card also reports that Fong had lived in the US for twenty-two years, which would mean that he immigrated in 1893 (the 1920 US census form said 1894), but he told the census-taker that he had been in Iowa only two years which was not strictly true. No later than December 1912 Fong was advertising his Toledo hand laundry (Toledo Chronicle, December 5, 1912). But by summer 1913 Fong was operating his business in Grinnell. That fall he began advertising in the college newspaper.
Advertisement in Scarlet and Black, October 15, 1913
Like most of his fellow Chinese laundrymen, Fong resided within his business quarters. No photograph of his premises survives, but it is likely that his laundry was organized in a way that mimicked his fellow Chinese laundry operators. A counter close to the door provided entrance for customers and a place to receive and dispense the laundry, and behind that the work spaces necessary for washing and pressing the laundry. A modest bunk and kitchen would have occupied the rear of the space, and might—or might not—have been made private with a curtain (Jung, Chinese Laundries, p. 132; Paul C. P. Siu, The Chinese Laundryman [NY: New York University Press, 1987], pp. 56-68).
Inside a Chinese Laundry (John Jung, The Historical Importance of Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain [], slide 5).
Thanks to the kindness of Unity Point GRMC CEO, Jennifer Havens, I recently visited the basement of the former Monroe Annex hotel, and there located what I believe was Fong's place of business. At the south end of the building was a room that opened onto stairs that emptied out onto Broad Street. The basement room showed signs of an  old tile floor, which would have been effective in protecting against the moisture that the laundry generated. Alas, no Chinese characters and no irons or other devices remained to attest to the room's former use.
Stairs from basement of former Monroe Annex Hotel (2020 photograph)
Living and working in modest, underground quarters and cut off by language from everyone around him, Fong must have led a lonely and difficult life. As Paul Siu noted, the Chinese laundryman was "a sojourner, an individual who clings to the heritage of his own ethnic group and lives in isolation" (Siu, p. 138).  If in big cities like Chicago or San Francisco he might take some leisure in the city's Chinatown, in small towns like Grinnell there was no Chinatown—there was little more than work.
..A lifetime spent sorting, soaking, boiling, washing, scrubbing, rinsing, starching, drying, ironing, pressing, folding, packaging, collecting and delivering could break the health of even the strongest worker...It required tremendous mental endurance and extreme patience (Jung, Chinese Laundries, p. 126, quoting Ban Seng Hoe).
There were no other Chinese in Grinnell until Entang Hauecheng Hou arrived in September, 1914. Hou was the first of a series of Chinese who came to study at Grinnell as part of the Grinnell-in-China program. But none of these Chinese had come from Guangdong province where the great majority of Chinese immigrants had originated. Kim Fong himself had likely come from this region, as the name is strongly associated with Taishan villages. Almost certainly, therefore, Fong spoke Cantonese; how many of the Grinnell-in-China students did is hard to guess.
Grinnell Review vol. 10 (October 1914):7
But Fong did develop some connections in Grinnell, as a 1917 newspaper report indicates.

Headline to article in Grinnell Register, August 27, 1917
According to the Grinnell Register, in late August 1917 Fong hosted "several friends at a magnificent dinner" at "his home and place of business...under the Annex hotel" (August 27, 1917). The occasion was the arrival in town of Fong Soon, a nephew who, Fong said, would soon begin school in Grinnell. It seems unlikely that Fong Soon did begin school here, however, for I found no other evidence of this young man's sojourn in Grinnell.

Three Grinnell townsmen were the only guests at the dinner: Rev. E. W. Cross (1885?-1939), then pastor of the Grinnell Congregational Church; Harry Wilkinson, who was said to be working for the Grinnell Register then; and "G. H. Heiser," the newspaper said, a man who had formerly sold cars for. T. J. Smith (1861-1918) Auto Company. It must be, however, that the third guest was George H. Hiser, who in 1915 erected the automobile garage just to the south of the Monroe Annex hotel—immediately adjacent to Fong's business—where Smith located his auto dealership. Hiser's name can still be seen inscribed in stone above the doors of the building.
Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, February 3, 1915
How Fong got to know these men is a mystery. Both Hiser and Smith would have been next door to the Monroe Annex, and therefore likely ran into Fong often. Rev. Cross's church was only a block away, but what would have brought him and Fong together is harder to imagine. Even more difficult to understand is how these townsmen managed to befriend Fong. Given the language difficulties, we must assume that the friendship with Fong never achieved any genuine intimacy, but Fong, in his physical and social isolation, must have been glad to exchange a few laughs and the simplest conversations. By this time Fong had been in Grinnell almost four years, so this limited roster of "friends" highlights how lonely Fong's life must have been.

At any rate, Fong clearly pulled out all the stops to entertain his friends. The evening's menu included, the newspaper announced, birds' nest soup, chicken chop suey, "and other Chinese meat dishes foreign to the English language." Rice, "cooked only as the Chinaman can prepare it," was also on order, as were "fruits and nuts from far away China, tea of the richest flavor," all topped off with American cakes.  How the guests learned this much is a mystery, because "Although in this country for seventeen years, Mr. Fong speaks little English and it was necessary that he make himself understood...wholly through the sign language." Fong's newly-arrived nephew was no help: he "speaks no English."
Fong seems to have left no other footprint in the town's records until early 1920 when owners of the Monroe Hotel Annex announced that they would undertake a serious remodeling, obliging Kim Fong either to move or close his laundry. In a boxed advertisement in the Grinnell Herald, Fong reported that he was closing his business "forever," and advised customers to hasten to collect their laundry.
Advetisement in Grinnell Herald, March 16, 1920
Although Fong used the hotel's remodeling to explain his decision, it seems likely that other vectors were also driving him out of business. After the development of steam laundry machines around 1900, the hand-laundry business in America came under increasing pressure. Able to deal with larger quantities of laundry and turn it around faster, the steam laundries could under-price the hand laundries, even if their service was harder on garments. Moreover, associations of power laundry operators attempted to drive their Chinese competitors out of business, arguing for special taxes, restrictions on working hours, and by publicly accusing the Chinese laundries of unhygienic conditions (Jung, Chinese Laundries, pp. 75-89).
Des Moines Register, March 24, 1920
Strong racial overtones penetrated the public campaign against Chinese laundries. For instance, an article from the Des Moines Register (March 24, 1920) complained about the "oriental methods and...primitive hand labor" of Chinese laundries, cynically described here as "Mongolian." According to the report, "the modern laundry plant, with its up to date equipment and American business methods," was quickly driving out "the little Chinese shop with its Asiatics stooping under baskets of laundry." In its place, the writer argued, "American ingenuity and Yankee business instinct" will prevail.

I found nothing quite so boldly racist in Grinnell, but the belittling of Chinese was certainly present. For example, when the Scarlet and Black (March 20, 1920) published Fong's announcement about quitting his business, the newspaper could not resist adding an aside that made fun of Chinese pronunciation: "Ketchee allee same China-In-Grinnell Leview of Leviews, eh Kim?" Elsewhere Chinese laundrymen encountered assaults, robberies, and other violence that depended upon racist values. Fong Lee, who operated a laundry in Williamsburg, had to fight off a customer who tried to retrieve his laundry without paying, threatening Lee with the lead end of his cane. When Lee pointed a pistol at the man, "the intruder left without his linen" (Ottumwa Weekly Courier, May 27, 1902). In 1923 Nevada, Jim Fong and his family endured firecrackers thrown into their laundry (Nevada Evening Journal, June 20, 1923, p.3). Worse things happened elsewhere.
Toledo Chronicle, March 20, 1913
Fong managed to keep his Grinnell business alive, despite the increasing pressure from rivals who employed more modern machinery. As his regular advertising in the college newspaper confirms, Fong enjoyed special access to that part of the town's laundry market, perhaps because of the detachable collars and cuffs that were a standard part of "white-collar" men's wear. We know from one of Fong's advertisements in Toledo that he entertained this part of the laundry business, and it seems likely that the college personnel contributed heavily to his income.

But by 1920 many Chinese hand laundries had closed, yielding to the various pressures that they had felt since the late nineteenth century. Grinnell posed its own challenges to Fong. In 1920, for instance, Horace (1877-1959) and Louis Ent (1883-1952) announced that they were erecting a new laundry just east of the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway tracks on Third Avenue. Describing the new business as "modern in every respect," the April news story reported that "most of the new and latest machinery" had already been ordered (Grinnell Herald April 30, 1920). This news appeared some six weeks after Fong announced his closing, but he may well have learned of the Ent brothers' plans as he considered his own future.
Advertisement in Grinnell Herald April 6, 1920
Moreover, the development of the washing machine and plans to market it to every home pointed to still rougher competition for Fong. Right down the street from Fong's business the Grinnell Washing Machine Company had set up its factory in 1909, so that even before Fong opened his business in 1913 the threat to the hand laundry business was visible. And newspaper advertisements in 1920 pointed out that the latest model, the Laundry Queen, "will do all the work of washing, rinsing, blueing, and wringing out of three separate tubs—it does ALL the washing." For business reasons alone, then, Fong thought it prudent to close up shop.

I found no evidence to explain where Fong went when he left Grinnell. By this time, many of his fellow-Chinese laundry operators had abandoned the US to return to China. It seems likely, therefore, that Kim Fong, too, closed his business and, after a two decades absence, returned home to China, there perhaps to relay to friends and relatives his impressions of a small town in the middle of the North American continent.


  1. Dan-Thank you for another very interesting story! Even in the 1960s I still used to give out my laundry, until we bought a house and a washer/dryer. Never had ironed sheets since then!

  2. A wonderful post with rich detailed documentation and empathy for the isolated Chinese who operated hand laundered a century ago in small town Iowa.

  3. Wonderful bit of hidden history--hard to dig up, but a definite treasure.