The Hardships of a Chinese Immigrant Far Away from Home
This is a Vankleek Hill story, 1896 – 1921, where there are few familiar names. I hope you will come on this adventure into the surprising unknown.
This is the story of Wing Lee, a Chinese laundryman who lived and worked in Vankleek Hill. We don’t have many details – how long was he here? what brought him to Vankleek Hill? We know he had the gumption to establish a business that provided welcome laundry services to households and businesses.
Let’s begin his story with some understanding of Chinese immigration to Canada. It is generally known that Chinese labour from rural south China was recruited during the construction of the western section of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia. Exploited as cheap labour, about 15,000 Chinese men had the most dangerous jobs of mining through mountains using explosives. It is estimated that 600 died in landslides and dynamite blasts, and from general maltreatment. On completion of the railway in 1885, the surviving labourers brought their families to Canada to establish a strong Chinese community in British Columbia.
The year 1885 also marks the first Chinese Immigration Act with its “head tax” of $50 per person to discourage further Chinese immigration. No immigrants from any other country ever had to pay such a tax to enter Canada. It worked. The number dropped from 8,000 in 1882 to a mere 124 in 1887. In 1900, the head tax was raised to $100 and in 1903 it became $500 – about $10,000 each in 2020. In 1923, Canada passed the Exclusion Act to deny all Chinese immigration and this remained in effect until 1947. The Chinese men already in Canada, working hard to raise needed funds to sponsor their families, were now officially separated from their families. They could return to China for family visits which was small comfort. Only in 1947, could Chinese immigrants finally become citizens.
Example of a certificate of head tax for a child from China
(Library & Archives Canada)
All immigrant groups feel the pressures of acclimating to a new country and they work to send funds home. However, the Chinese were singled-out and penalized. In 2006, the Canadian government apologized to the Chinese community for the use of the ‘head tax.’
Within Canada, some Chinese men moved eastward after the railway completion. However, until the 1960s there were no significant caches of Chinese culture in other provinces.
During the time of this story, Chinese immigrants were often referred to as “Chinamen,” or “Celestials.” Calling a laundryman, a cook, a gardener – all common occupations for Chinese immigrants – a ‘Celestial’ was racist sarcasm. The prejudiced inference was: ‘Look how far you have fallen.’
I have chosen to tell this story about Wing Lee and the other local Chinese laundrymen mentioned to acknowledge their presence here with dignity. I discovered that for descendants of the Chinese laundrymen, the hand laundry is a symbol not only of hardship but of survival, endurance, patience and sacrifice for the future. That is a solid launching pad.
Wing Lee Laundry, Vankleek Hill
Our story begins with the discovery of Wing Lee’s name in the 1896 accounting ledger for the Routhier Foundry in Vankleek Hill. Homes and businesses heated with wood and coal, and this required the stoves, boilers and pipes made at the foundry. Agriculture required machinery, tools and never-ending repair work. In the ledger, alongside these local purchases, there are entries for the sale of coal.
Throughout 1896, Wing Lee regularly buys coal from Routhier. Who was he, what was he doing, where was he located? I was perplexed by his presence in Vankleek Hill. Our Irish, Scots, American, and French names are easily recognized and connected, and his name was exotic. I discovered a single line reference in a list of “Other Businesses” in the 1978 Centennial publication for Èglise St-Gregoire, Vankleek Hill: “Sing Lee, Buanderie 1904.” Published histories of the region make no other mention of a Chinese presence.
Years later, I came across a February 4, 1897 entry in the McRae & Son Funeral Home Register for Vankleek Hill. The funeral entry reads: “Wehop Chineman” and no other information. I guessed this was a derogatory reference to Wing Lee. It posed more questions.
On another occasion, while at the Ontario Archives, by chance I came across a binder of ‘orphaned’ death notices for Prescott & Russell. At times archivists take on personal projects of assembling obscure records that are left out, or orphaned, from the normal process. Here I located information on the death of Wing Lee: he died in Vankleek Hill at age 43 on February 4, 1897. This is the same date as “Wehop Chineman.” Now I began layering information.
Time passed, and the official 1897 death register for Vankleek Hill appeared online. Wing Lee died of “consumption” which he had suffered from for “6 months.” Under occupation: “Laundry.” He was a laundryman with a business in Vankleek Hill. The physician who signed-off was Dr. McDermid, and Vankleek Hill Postmaster Peter MacLaurin witnessed the entry. For religion, the entry dismally reads: “Heathen,” meaning non-Christian. He may have been Buddhist or Taoist.
Where was his laundry business in Vankleek Hill? Surprisingly, the 1900 Insurance Map of Vankleek Hill provided a clue. The map surveyor entered “Chinese Laundry” at today’s 18 Main Street East, the middle door between the pet grooming at #16 and the real estate office at #20 — for old-timers: Clare Flowers. (see 1900 VKH map detail below)
The puzzle had new pieces. If the laundryman Wing Lee died in 1897, who operated the Chinese laundry in 1900? And how does a Chinese laundry work?
Laundry was the bane of any busy Vankleek Hill household in the 19th century and into the early 20th century. The wood and coal heating systems were dirty systems to live with. Clothing was complicated. Many men worked in Vankleek Hill sawmills, carting, blacksmithing, the flour mill, carriage factories, foundries – none of it ‘clean’ work. On top of that, the Victorian household habits of using table and chair coverings raised the work of laundry to a level unknown to us today.
There were local women who took-in laundry, and Chinese laundries provided an option. What types of clothing were sent to the Chinese laundry? A laundry order checklist from the 1909 Peterborough laundry of Hop Lee tells us.
‘Hop Lee’ Laundry list, Peterborough, 1909
(Library & Archives Canada)
Laundry services were for men, women and children. Shirts are the largest category. Dresses, petticoats, night dresses, underdrawers, suits & pants, pyjama suits, sleeve protectors, cuffs & collars, collars with fronts, aprons, table cloths, tray cloths, sheets & pillow cases, lace curtains, pillow shams, counterpanes, towels and barber’s towels. All by hand: washed, boiled, wrung, starched, dried & ironed then folded and packaged for return.
The life of a laundryman was difficult and monotonous. It was hard physical work in a cramped, and constantly steamy environment which may have contributed to Wing Lee’s consumption. The days began at dawn and ended in the dark. A morning may see work at washing and an afternoon was spent ironing the now treated and dried wash from the day before.
We can understand Wing Lee’s coal purchases because he needed large quantities of hot water year-round. The equipment used in his laundry included large round tanks for water, washing tubs & washboards, wringers, large sinks for starching, clotheslines, various sized ironing boards, irons heated on hot stoves, spray bottles, long table for sorting, folding and packaging laundry. A front counter with shelving to store the finished laundry now in marked brown paper packages. Laundry was inventoried and an abacus used to calculate the charges. It was traditional for the Chinese laundry to have a red outdoor sign.
In 1976, the owner of the last Chinese laundry in Ottawa provided a window on his father’s meagre earnings when he first opened in 1900: “… men’s stiff collars and shirt fronts used to cost two or three cents to be laundered and starched … Even so they took about one-and-a-half hours to do.” (Dave Allston, Kitchissippi Museum, Jan. 19, 2016)
“… men’s stiff collars and shirt fronts used to cost two or three cents to be laundered and starched … Even so they took about one-and-a-half hours to do.”
In the early 20th century, partially mechanized washing machines made their entry. In Vankleek Hill, salesmen and products arrived by train every day. Durant Brothers, E.Z. Labrosse, the McCuaig, Cheney General Store – all promoted the latest in washing machines. You had to be strong to wrestle with these early machines, and the work still took an inordinate amount of time.
E.Z. Labrosse washing machine ad EOR Feb. 2 1920
I looked to newspapers to find out more about Wing Lee and the presence of local Chinese laundries. A more fulsome mention of his death appears in the February 5th, 1897 issue of The Eastern Ontario Review (EOR). “Wing Lee, proprietor of the Chinese laundry here died of consumption early Thursday morning. The remains will be interred here to-day, Friday, but after a year or two the bones will be taken up and sent back to China as is the general practice.”
Wing Lee death, clipping Eastern Ontario Review (EOR) Feb. 5, 1897
This practice is the traditional Chinese custom of secondary burial, where, after a number of years, bones of the deceased were disinterred by organized bone collectors, transferred to a centralized bone house and shipped back to China for reburial in family plots. The mention of this practice in The Eastern Ontario Review suggests there are other Chinese immigrants living in the community.
Chinese laundries make a regular appearance in the Eastern Ontario Review over at least a 20-year period. They exist in L’Orignal, Hawkesbury and Alexandria. I provide here snippets of information taken from classified ads and local gossip reports for Vankleek Hill. You will note that the name “Lee” was common amongst Chinese immigrants. Keep in mind, immigration officials recorded what they ‘heard’ from a language completely foreign to them, and to be efficient it was sadly quicker to issue the same name, again and again.
Wing Lee, laundryman, reminds us there is dignity in work. No matter how humble that work may be, it deserves respect as does the person performing it. He and the other laundrymen who worked here provided our community with needed services, despite prejudice and low wages. Now we can begin to weave their story into the fabric of our community story.
1896: Wing Lee: entries for coal purchase, Routhier Foundry ledger
1897: Wing Lee: his death is reported in The Eastern Ontario Review, Feb. 5, 1897. (see EOR clipping Feb. 5, 1897)
1900: “Chinese Laundry:” appears on 1900 Vankleek Hill Insurance Map located 18 Main Street East. I suggest this is the Chinese laundry of Jim Lee. (see map detail 1900 above)
1901: Jim Lee: “New Laundry. Jim Lee an experienced Chinese laundryman has opened for business in L’Orignal, Ontario. He’s now prepared to do washing of all kinds at very low prices. No chemicals used and satisfactory results assured. Give me a trial.”
Jim Lee ad EOR Aug. 2 1901
1902: Jim Lee: “the local Chinaman” leaves for Hong Kong to visit wife and child. (EOR May 2, 1902) Government required a Travel Registration Certificate with a photograph, list of visible markings, date of return and attestation.
Certificate of Travel Registration 1913 (example)
1917: Chinese laundry: “The Chinese laundry has been moved across the street to McKenzie block next to the barber shop.”
EOR May 4 1917
1917: White Palace: In 1996, Elaine MacKenzie Cornish, age 87, felt inspired by the publication of the 1997 Vankleek Hill Bi-centennial Calendar to send a few memories. She confirmed the existence of this Chinese laundry. She wrote: … “Mr. and Mrs. Poirier ran a small grocery/café (2 iron tables) in what is now the east end of the block. Set back from the street was a log cabin rented to a Chinaman as a laundry. Rent, $3 a month. I accompanied Aunt Lillie (MacKenzie) to collect the rent once.” Elaine is referring to the yellow brick building we know as The White Palace.
1918: Wing Chong: “Will the party to whom I delivered the wrong parcel of laundry on Saturday Aug. 17th please return it to me at once and receive the proper one.”
Public Notice, EOR, Aug. 23 1918
1918: Wing Chong: “I have decided to close my laundry business in Vankleek Hill at once. No more laundry will be accepted. Parties having laundry with me will please call at once and get the same.”
Notice EOR Nov. 1 1918
1918/1919: Wo Loung: “a laundryman of much experience has decided to reopen the Chinese laundry here on January 1st. He guarantees first class work and asks for a trial.”
Mercier ad EOR Nov. 22 1918
1920: Mechanical washing machines for sale (see E.Z. Labrosse ad EOR Feb. 2 1920)
E.Z. Labrosse ad EOR Feb. 2 1920
1921: Jim Lee: “Chinese laundry in old Barber Shop in rear of Grand Central Hotel, Main Street. Family washing, collars, shirts etc. at reasonable prices. Give us a call.” This marks 20 years that Jim Lee has advertised his laundry services. This location is now apartments at 68 Main Street East.
68 Main Street East,
formerly Grand Central Hotel
Jim Lee ad EOR Aug. 2 1921
This was the last available Eastern Ontario Review newspaper entry for Chinese laundries in Vankleek Hill. There is always room for more research and a deeper story.