The other day, a post on the Delmar Dustpan about “the Chinese on Lower Delmarva in 1900” caught my attention. As I read the informative article, I remembered an old Elkton businessman from the 1960s talking about meeting the first Chinese resident of Elkton as a youngster, when a laundry opened here. The recollection of that long ago conversation about earlier times and the recent piece about the newly arrived immigrants 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, according to www.ancestry.com. 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 “Tong Ben opened his Chinese laundry in the Parker building on E. Main Street,” an area that is opposite the current county courthouse.
The business prospered as “Charley Lee, the Main street chinaman” was doing “good laundry work for the Elkton people at low rates,” the Cecil Whig reported in 1898. And he was “getting to be a regular American,” wearing “American clothes all the time,” while speaking English better than some locals the reporter observed. When someone asked him if he would return to China “when he had accumulated sufficient money,” the laundryman replied: I have a “good enough time here . . . “Just so I have money I can have a good time anywhere, and I don’t have to go to China to have a good time.”
Lee had a business partner, Lee Yeun (or Lee Yawn) working with him in 1900, according to the decennial census. His World War I draft registration card notes that he was born on August 20, 1873, and at the time of registration he had married Francis Wing, who also lived with him. Francis died in Sept. 1925, and the couple didn’t have children, according to her obituary.
In the 2nd half of the 19th century some 300,000 Chinese came to America. Many arrived, searching for gold in California, but they also worked at laying of 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.
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 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 W. High Street. It was established by Howard McGlintock in 1935, according to Frazer. “Laundry was collected and delivered and they employed men and women.”
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. 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 these groups hasn’t been examined and is a subject that deserves attention locally.
This is a list of Chinese in Cecil County as found on Ancestry’s 1900 U.S. Decennial Census.
Joseph Lea, Chesapeake, Cecil, Maryland; DOB Jan 1855; POB: China; head of household; laundryman
Lee Hoke Wing Elkton, Cecil, Maryland, DOB; POB China; head of household;
Lee Yeun, Elkton, Cecil, Maryland, DOB: POB China; partner
Author’s Note: It is unclear as to whether Tong Ben, the man identified by local newspapers as starting the enterprise in Elkton, changed his name to Lee Wing or was perhaps an earlier resident. But by 1900, the census is showing Lee Wing as the operator of the business.
author’s note: genealogical research provided by Jo Ann Gardner.