ELKTON — After reading a regional columnist’s story about “the Chinese on Lower Delmarva in 1900,” I recalled a long ago conversation with a couple of elderly Elkton residents.
In particular, I remember two individuals, a businessman and a printer, talking about meeting the first Chinese resident of Elkton as youngsters, when a laundry opened here. The recollection of that conversation about earlier times and the recent piece about the newly arrived resident in Delmar, caused me to do a little digging into the subject here.
Born in China about 1874, Lee Hok Wing immigrated to the United States in the 1880s or 1890s. He came to Cecil County in 1892, starting a new life here, washing clothing for townspeople. The Cecil Democrat reported in November of that year that a Chinese laundry had opened in the Parker building on East Main Street, an area that is opposite the current county courthouse.
Lee had a business partner, Lee Yeun (or Lee Yawn), working with him in 1900, according to the census. His World War I draft registration card notes that he was born on Aug. 20, 1873, and at the time of registration, he had married Francis Wing, who also lived with him. Francis died in September 1925, and the couple didn’t have children, according to her obituary.
Chesapeake City also had a shop, according to the census. Joseph Lea, a laundryman and head of the household living in the canal town, operated that business. He had been born in China in 1855.
In the second half of the 19th century, some 300,000 Chinese came to America. Many arrived, searching for gold in California, but they also worked at the laying of railroad track and service jobs. They did work that was traditionally women’s work in the U.S. and, in time, a few of them ended up in Cecil County and elsewhere on the Delmarva Peninsula.
Many of these individuals, isolated and far from the Chinese communities in large cities, started working in small town laundries, establishing them in places all over the nation and across Delmarva. Last week, while I was listening to Dan Tabler, 89, a retired newspaper editor from Queen Anne’s County talk about his memories of Centreville’s history, someone in the audience discussed the laundry in that Upper Shore town. There are also reports of the entrepreneurs in Salisbury, Cambridge, Princess Anne and elsewhere.
The businesses were small — the work being done by hand to a large degree, requiring only the most basic equipment, such as an ironing board. In the bustling little establishments, soiled clothing was washed in large kettles of boiling war, strung out to dry, and ironed, probably using cast irons that required heating on the stove. This type of enterprise didn’t require much capital, just the willingness to work long, hard hours.
Dressed differently, adhering to different customs, and facing the stereotypes of the time, the Chinese laundryman surely stood out on the rural Eastern Shore. Their language and command of English must have been so very exotic here at the turn of the 20th century.
When he and his partner came to Elkton, they “wore queues (a braid of hair worn hanging down behind),” wrote F. Rodney Frazer in Parts of Elkton as I Remember it In 1918.
“If you felt like a good chase, yell in the door, ‘Ching Ching Chinaman Eats Dead Rats,’ and he would be after you with an iron in his hand. Wang soon cut off his queue. His partner did not stay long,” Frazer wrote.
Automation changed things as the 20th century moved along, and the first commercial, local laundry to compete with Lee was Mac’s Laundry on West High Street. It was established by Howard McGlintock in 1935, according to Frazer.
“Laundry was collected and delivered, and they employed men and women,” he wrote.
Chinese laundries continued until the late 1940s, when home washing machines, dryers, laundromats, and new fabrics reduced demand. The changing technology had its impact too, as new steam technology was believed to more effective and the hand laundry usually had to charge more to cover operating costs. Whatever the case, the laundryman’s business dwindled, little by little.
Local people patronized Lee’s laundry and it continued until near the time of his death. He passed away on July 26, 1949, at the age of 75, the burial taking place at the Elkton Cemetery. There were no survivors, and his wife had predeceased him. He apparently had no children.
Over time, Cecil County saw waves of people from many different countries leave their old country and settle in neighborhoods here, seeking out new lives. Those included Irish, Italians, Greeks, Ukrainian, Spanish, Asian, Jewish and more immigrants. They all have a story waiting to be documented, as these new settlers came to new homes in the northeastern corner of Maryland for a range of reasons, struggling to master a new language, and familiarize themselves with a new culture and ways of living.
To some large degree, the history of the settlement of many of these groups hasn’t been examined and is a subject that deserves more attention locally.