Story and photos by Corky Lee, AsAmNews Contributor
A steady steam of long time customers beat a path to Sun’s Laundry in Manhattan Saturday to say their goodbyes to a friend. After 61 years, owner Robert S. Lee closed his longtime establishment and Manhattan institution of 61 years on Manhattan’s E 14th Street.
A few had patronized Sun’s Laundry for 40 years, most were 20 plus year customers. They brought bottles of champagne, flowers, potted plants & one customer drew sidewalk chalk art entitled, “We Will Miss You”.
Many picked up their shirts, sheets & dry cleaning. One couple brought a shopping cart to retrieve 8 brown paper packages & their dry cleaning. A NYPD officers dry cleaned dress jacket was given to a local superintendent to bring to its owner. A motorized wheelchair customer arrived to retrieve his dry cleaned pants.
Lee immigrated to America in 1959 at a time when only 105 Chinese were permitted entry after the dracanioan 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 during the height of World War II. He purchased the business for $4,300 & paid a monthly rent of $500 ($800 currently) yet grossed $350 weekly. He also got a 99 year lease. Back then his locale in the Lower Eastside was considered a rough & tumble neighborhood.
Since arriving in NYC, Lee has never returned to his native village in Toisan region in China. He hope’s to make that journey after the pandemic has dissipated. He had to shutter his business beginning March 21st of this year & decided that at age 84 & the worldwide pandemic it was time to unplug his 8 pound iron. His immediate & extended family came on his last day to wish him a fruitful retirement.
Chinese owned laundries & restaurants were the main livelihood for this first generation immigrant families in the 19th & 20th centuries because they were chased out of other businesses such as fishing, farming & mining by anti-Chinese groups. At the beginning of the Great Depression of 1929 there were approximately 3,500 Chinese laundries. Yet in 1933 city hall passed a law intended to drive the Chinese out of business. It imposed a $1,000 security bond. A Chinese trade union of sorts was created to legally fight the bond issued after the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, a “representative” non profit, couldn’t account for the $15,000 raised.
Thus, the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance was formed. It raised their own funds & enlisted the services of a Polish Jewish lawyer, Julius Bebozo, who argued the case before an Africian American judge. He lower the amount to $100. Presently there are fewer than a dozen remaining Chinese laundries in Manhattan.
With the advent of polyester clothing in the 70’s these types of garments could be hung dry after washing with relatively wrinkle free wear. That was the beginning of the demise of hand laundries. To make up for the loss in revenue, the Chinese took on dry cleaning garments. Since most didn’t have the room to install new machinery it was farmed out to larger operations, which would pick up & return the garments. The Chinese would add a small mark up to make ends meet. Lee claims Sun’s Laundry still has the lowest prices in his neighborhood.
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