Pity the Chinaman. He left the China of the Manchus and the Mandarins and the longfingernailed dowager empresses to find life in California. Coolie labor, they called him in California. And labor he did.
"Nowadays, the new generation, they don't want to get into laundry business. Too much work. The old generation, they the ones who got into laundry business ... It was probably because it was small investment — some soap, an iron, a little place to hang clothes." Ernest Wong Lee philosophizes behind his Counter at the Wong Lee Laundry. Mr. Wong Lee, about forty or fifty years old, is one of nine family members who work at the brick building on Slate Street below Broadway.
He said he came here about 1940, before World War II.
"Uh, oh, you left China before the war, to escape the Japanese?"
"No, I left San Francisco." The Wong Lee family came to northern California during Gold Rush and and started a small hand laundry.
"The language was another thing," he speculated. It's easy to see his point because it's still a little hard to understand his second-generation English. The stereotyped problem of pronouncing his I's like w's ("wanguage" "wanguage? Oh, language!") But Mr. Wong Lee is very friendly; not a smiling, Cheshire-cat friendliness but an openness that reflects a contentment with his situation.
The location of the Wong Lee Laundry isn't exactly the best for a small business. The buildings across the street are torn down (Horton Plaza Re-development?); two wooden houses next door creak and groan with age. And the U.S. Courthouse kitty-cornered across State Street is scheduled for demolition. Yet Mr. Wong Lee's shelves are full of laundry wrapped in bright blue paper.
"Oh, a lotta people come from all over, some from Orange County, some even from Los Angeles. They don't Come here just for laundry, but they come here when they on business trip." Mr. Wong Lee looks up at the shelves stacked with the blue packages, His hair doesn't have any gray, but his round face wrinkles when he smiles. No tie, but his light green well-pressed shirt is buttoned all the way to the top.
"What's so special about hand laundry, you ask? Look at these shirts,". he points behind the counter at some racks of perfectly-pressed long-sleeved shirts. "Big commercial laundries, they just put shirt in one end of machines and it comes out the other. Here, we put in machine, but we touch up shirt with iron and fold shirt by hand. If he it has wrinkle or miss a button, we fix. Personal attention."
Behind the folding counter counter on which they do touching up with a hand iron. the clothes all apparently through a big press, and aren't washed by hand. shiny metal washers chug behind the big presses.
"Used to be lots of laundries in San Diego. Now only about twenty. Most of arc small, one-room finishing places run by old couple who get washing done laundry and only do the finishing themselves. The Chinese laundry is New North Park. They have machines, like we do, and a lot of smaller places send clothes there, for washing. We're about second biggest, I think."
"Yeah, we're the second biggest, another Wong Lee chimes in. This one (a daughter?) is named Susie. Red sweater and pleated skirt, lipstick, and fingernail polish, no accent: third generation. Two others, an elderly Wong Lee woman and a male Wong Lee about 20, join the conversation, mixing multinational Chinese with English. It must be strong Confucian loyalty that keeps them all working here. Mr Wong Lee says it's only three cents a shirt more here than a big automated laundry, so one can't earn very much money. "I don't know how much longer we're gonna be here," he says wistfully.