Chinese laundries

83 Gower, site of the John Lee Laundry until 1973

One hundred years ago, downtown’s business-scape was dotted with Chinese-owned and -run laundries, groceries and cafés. The hand laundries, in particular, represented a common source of employment for young men leaving China. The first two Chinese laundries – Sing Lee Laundry on New Gower St. and Jim Lee Laundry on Duckworth St. – were operating by 1900, with others to follow.

Unfortunately, the influx of Chinese men was met with outrage by government and parts of the community. After the opening of a fifth Chinese laundry in the city, The Evening Telegram declared that it was “time some steps were taken to check this invasion of undesirables.”

Following the lead of Canada, the US and other countries, Newfoundland implemented a $300 head tax on each Chinese immigrant in 1906.

William Ping, of the southern province of Guangdong, was sent by his family to St. John’s in 1931 to assume ownership of his uncle’s portion of Fong Lee Laundry on Cookstown Rd. Unfortunately he arrived to find his uncle had gambled away his part of the business, as well as his return fare home. A former schoolteacher, William was forced to work in the laundries. In time he finally took ownership of what would become the last Chinese laundry in St. John’s.

His story is at the centre of the 1988 documentary “The Last Chinese Laundry” showing February 18th at The Rooms.

– Lesley Thompson


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