To research Jewish life in small town America around the turn of the 20th century is to examine the prerequisites for building community in unlikely places—people, opportunity, and tolerance. To research Chinese life in these same places is to see how the laws restricting Chinese immigration specifically undermined each of these factors, confining the Chinese who were already here—in many cases, who were brought here to build the transcontinental railroad—to inescapably bleak lives.
The Atlanta spa shootings in March and subsequent attention to anti-Asian hate crimes got me thinking about a person long on the margins of my research who was caught within these constraints: Joe Wah, Homestead’s longest-serving Chinese laundryman. Joe was born in China around 1871 and likely immigrated to California as a teenager. What he did initially in the U.S. and how he made his way east I cannot uncover. In the earliest record I have for him, Greensburg, Pennsylvania called him “our laundryman” in late 1885 (Greensburg is 21 miles SSE of Homestead). Four years later, Homestead’s newspaper introduced him as their new Chinese laundryman—at least the fourth since 1883—in an uncomfortable article reflecting the prevailing racism of the day (sic throughout this and all following newspaper quotes).
The new washee has an English vocabulary of about six words, and his efforts to dictate his advertisement…was both amusing and painful, and during the process our “ad” man learned about 29,000 of the 7,000,000 words in the Chinese vocabulary after they learn a dozen English syllables. If Joe does what he promises in his advertisement he will not need to start an opium joint. 1
Surprised to find Chinese people in America’s most famous steel town? Never imagined that at least three of the witnesses to the Battle of Homestead in 1892 were Chinese? A few months after the strike failed, when times were especially bleak, the Homestead newspaper explained a novel holiday to its depressed townspeople for the first time: Chinese New Year. The paper interviewed Joe, who explained that Chinese people celebrate their new year,
“Just like Amelicans do. Have a goode time. Gette dlunk and have lots of funne.” He said in China they celebrated the event with much joy and he felt homesick for his Oriental abode whenever the day comes around. He missed the Chinese women very much, but he rather liked “Amelican” girls. 2
He appeared frequently in Homestead’s newspaper as an object of mockery: his accented English, his short temper when provoked by children and his cowardliness when by adults, his susceptibility to being robbed, his alleged opium addiction. All the same, he became an accepted part of the fabric of Homestead’s life. “Joe is a good law abiding chinaman and meddles in no ones business,” the paper defended him after an incident in which children harassed him. When he brought traditional Chinese New Year presents to his customers and business associates, including the newspaper’s staff, they noted, “Mr. Wah well understands and appreciates American habits and has a good business reputation.” An 1894 advertisement of his contained the names of twenty-one customers—all leading residents of Homestead—who “[recommended] his work as strictly first class.” Sometimes the paper referred to him as “the Chinaman,” but they certainly knew who he was. 3
Acceptance, however, never meant inclusion. Joe ran his own business, but he was never welcome in any of the town’s businessman organizations or businessman-led charitable or patriotic efforts. His laundry became one of the town’s oldest businesses, but it was never honored as such. He became one of the town’s longest residents, but again, he was never referenced as such. He never joined a fraternal group. Jewish people and their businesses could cross these lines. Joe and his laundry were kept apart.
The long history of isolating Chinese people in Homestead, like everywhere else in the U.S., ultimately had the effect of omitting their stories from the narratives we tell about the past. But by examining the lives that Joe and his fellow laundrymen led, stunted in ways few ever understood, we can examine to what degree we have or have not internalized the lessons of this painful chapter in American history.
History of Chinese People in the U.S. and Western Pennsylvania
The first wave of Chinese immigration to the U.S. began in the 1850s. These early immigrants were primarily impoverished young men attracted by the Gold Rush and fleeing the British-backed Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60). The majority came from rural villages in the southeastern coastal province of Canton (Guangdong) and in particular, more than half from the county of Toisan (Taishan, Xinning). From the beginning they provided cheap labor in the West, sending home their wages to their families. Their work ethic led the railroad to send recruiters to China to bring back thousands more “coolies.”
As their reputation for hard work, low wages, and quiet habits spread, and especially after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, some began to travel east and south, anxious to get away from the discrimination and vigilante violence prevalent in the West, which had escalated from protests and legal restrictions to expulsions, massacres, and one of the largest mass lynchings in U.S. history. 4 Some Chinese laborers were hired in large groups for other projects across the U.S., but not in Pennsylvania’s mills and mines, as Eastern industrialists had learned from the experience in the West not to risk the backlash of hiring Chinese people. (Instead, they sourced cheap labor from Eastern and Southern Europe.) 5 For men looking to leave contract labor, the only work available was in areas considered undesirable by white people‚ like gardening, farming, cooking, domestic service, and most especially, laundry, because it required minimal capital or English fluency and avoided working for a white boss.
Chinese people first entered the laundry business in the West, filling the void created by the dearth of women on the frontier. Further east they found cities where crowded housing conditions made it difficult for housewives to do their own washing. In Western Pennsylvania’s rapidly expanding mill towns, filled with lots of single men and lots of air pollution, Chinese laundrymen saw opportunity. Wah Lee, who arrived in Homestead in the late 1890s, took a path that was probably representative.
He has been in this country a great many years. He was among those who were brought over to build the Northern Pacific R. R. He has been in every big city in the United States. The last was Chicago, which he says is “velly too wickit.” 6
From at least 1883 on, Homestead was never without a Chinese-owned laundry, and Chinese laundries always far outnumbered white-run laundries. By 1900, every significant town in Western Pennsylvania had a handful of Chinese men in their midst, all working as laundrymen. “By a strange intuition the Chinese pick out the prosperous places,” explained the Homestead newspaper in 1899, when the town’s industrial expansion multiplied the number of Chinese laundries from just Joe’s at the time of the strike to six by 1900. “Perhaps you are not aware that we have a Chinese colony in our midst. Well we have.” 7
Naturally, the Laundrymen’s National Association pushed back against the incursion of Chinese into their profession, but laundry quickly became nearly synonymous with Chinese. The connection became so ingrained that decades later the Homestead newspaper joked that the “washee tickee”—the Chinese-language laundry claim check, so-called to mock the laundrymen’s accented English—was the “national emblem of the Chinese.” 8 Whether they were wanted or not, their service surely was. Wah Lee reported that the Chinese laundrymen were all “velly much plenty busy…he man he wak in he mill he kickee lak heli if he no gettee laundee on Siundee.” 9
(It’s worth pausing to note that this trope of “replicating” Chinese immigrants’ accents as a source of humor, which we’ve seen a few times so far, was far more pervasive for the Chinese than any other group. You’ll see also that newspapermen relied on slurs to refer to them—Chinaman, Chink, Celestial 10, heathen Chinee, washee—a level of disrespect that was also uniquely applied to them. Other groups took their turns as the target of the newspaper’s disparagement, but never with such unrelenting contempt.)
For those of us who know the story of Eastern European steelworkers in Homestead, this history might feel relatable — young men setting out on their own to support families back home, settling for low-ranking work in industrial centers, enduring nativist prejudice. What is supposed to happen next is family reunification, community formation, and the slow expansion of opportunity. This is not the story of Chinese people in Homestead. There was no family reunification. There was a reason why they were confined to the long hours and exhausting labor of washing clothes. There were constraints that kept them all men, mostly unmarried. All of these anomalies stem from the extreme prejudice of the day, which manifested itself in social and economic segregation that not only limited the possibilities for Chinese people in the U.S., but was also codified into legislation that restricted their movement and community-building.
From the beginning, Americans saw the Chinese laborers as an economic and moral threat—economic because they were willing to work for low wages, and moral because their unfamiliar customs appeared as uncivilized or worse. A series of economic crises in the 1870s magnified long-standing fears about the jobs Chinese men were taking from Americans, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law to significantly restrict immigration to the U.S. The very name “Exclusion Act” focuses attention on the people being barred from the country, singled out from among all the world’s immigrants to be denied America’s opportunities. But the Exclusion Act also impacted Chinese people already legally here. To me, this exclusion feels like the real cruelty of the Act.
As a direct result of the Exclusion Act, Chinese people in the U.S. were unable to build families or communities like other immigrants. There were just 110,000 Chinese in the U.S. when the Exclusion Act took effect. Fewer than 5% of them were women, the result of the earlier Page Act of 1875 that blocked the immigration of Chinese women by assuming they were all prostitutes unless proven otherwise. 11 In larger cities, Chinese people congregated in Chinatowns, ethnic enclaves where they were surrounded by fellow countrymen who shared their language and culture. Isolated immigrants like the ones who settled in Pennsylvania’s mill towns, however, had no hope of scaffolding community, as other such immigrants could, by bringing over family members or persuading their friends. From 1900-1970, then, the Chinese population dispersed across Allegheny County remained in the hundreds, most of whom lived in Pittsburgh’s two-street Chinatown. Only 5-10% of Chinese people in the county were women—again, almost all in Pittsburgh. 12
While some observed with curiosity the unusual demographics of the Chinese community, no one agitated to reverse the laws that created these conditions. Instead, many people, including heroes of the labor movement such as Samuel Gompers and the AFL, successfully pushed for more restrictions and better enforcement of existing ones.
Possibilities for Chinese Men in Homestead
Homestead appears fairly representative in terms of the possibilities for any Chinese person in any mill town. By my estimation, there were never more than a dozen Chinese living in Homestead at a time, all men, almost all born in China. They never could develop much in the way of family life as other immigrants could. Some left behind wives and children when they came to the U.S., and some came to the U.S. as single men and went home to marry, returning without their new wives. Neither group had hope of bringing their families to the U.S. as other immigrants did. Instead, they lived alone or in arrangements matching their employment, with only a few exceptions: Joe Wah lived with his brother for a time, Wah Lee lived with his son, Yee Get You had a ward (the Exclusion Act permitted students to enter), and there were a few uncle-nephew or cousin pairings. 13
Almost all worked as laundrymen. From 1902 on there was usually also a restauranteur running a “chop suey joint.” Most had saved the money to own their own businesses. They all lived where they worked. Besides the few restauranteurs, students, and Mon Chung, “the famous Chinese second baseman of the Homestead Steel works baseball team,” who was the son of rich parents and worked at the steel mill for a couple years in the 1910s “for experience” (even then the U.S. was well aware that China was trying to replicate their steel industry), Chinese men entered Homestead as laundrymen and left as laundrymen. 14 The grueling, monotonous work of washing clothes was all that they knew. Mill towns like Homestead offered no other possibilities for them.
The social opportunities for Chinese people in Homestead were as confined as the economic. Their regular interactions with their customers showed them how few bothered to look past their pidgin English, “pajamas,” and pigtails. 15 Isolated from their neighbors, they could socialize only with other Chinese people (though some had relationships with the white clergy and teachers of the Chinese Sunday Schools in a couple Pittsburgh churches, who taught them to “see the light,” as “devout Christian” Wah Lee described it, and offered the only English language instruction available to them). Homestead’s Chinese were lucky to be close to Pittsburgh’s Chinatown, where a concentration of countrymen and ethnic businesses brought them ease in familiarity and a wider circle of friends, all from the same region in China. Unwelcome in Homestead’s fraternal groups or businessmen’s associations, they found Chinese-only versions of these groups in Chinatown, whose businesses stayed open until 2 AM to accommodate how late mill town laundry men kept their shops open. 16
Observers associated them with two pastimes, neither of which white Americans would tolerate. Their go-to substance for unwinding wasn’t whiskey, but opium, which led to the country’s first drug control legislation against a substance that previously had not perturbed Americans. Similarly, Chinese card and dice games were perceived and prosecuted as gambling. Their relaxation, then, always ran the risk of being raided by the police. Even when they gathered just to socialize with each other, they faced accusations of being secretive and clannish.
For single men, romantic companionship was hard to come by. Almost no Chinese women were available, and when a white woman took up company with one of them, scandal invariably ensued. In 1907, for example, when police discovered a young woman from Homestead in the room of a Chinese man in Pittsburgh—she had turned to him, her former employer, when she ran away from home—he was “ordered to forfeit $25 or to serve 30 days in the workhouse and the girl was remanded to jail to await an investigation.”
A couple years later, a policeman noticed another young woman from Homestead repeatedly visiting a Chinese man in Pittsburgh. The policeman caught them together at 2 AM; she was hiding in a closet, he in a “large box of rice,” where he almost suffocated. The man “was charged with keeping a disorderly house (ed: a place where boisterous or obscene behavior takes place) and the young woman was charged with visiting a disorderly house. The Celestial and the girl were each ordered to forfeit $50 or to serve 30 days in the workhouse.”
Such romances were rare. There were anti-miscegenation laws preventing intermarriage with Chinese in some states, although not Pennsylvania. Social norms, however, were enough to prevent most American women from returning the affections of a Chinese man, and the law found ways to punish those who dared transgress. In 1924, a Chinese man who had briefly lived in Homestead killed himself over unrequited love.
Yee Fung, “the sad-eyed,” has smoked his last opium pill, has dreamed his last dream…
He met an American girl, who smiled on him for the gifts he lavished on her, but who jeered him when he proposed marriage.
Clasped in his arms, as he lay on the rude cauch in his room was a pair of slippers, believed to have been the last gift he purchased for the white girl who had jilted him.
Not for nothing did the Chinese Sunday School in those years employ young women as individual instructors for each man who attended. 17 Nevertheless, between immigration laws and social prejudice, effectively all the Chinese men in Homestead had to live as single men.
Living in the U.S. under the Exclusion Act, Chinese men in Homestead had limited economic, family, or social opportunities. What had begun decades prior as casual racism had been codified into norms and boundaries that held the Chinese apart from their neighbors. There was no hope for change when both sides largely accepted the status quo. But the full extent of immigration restrictions and anti-Chinese prejudice that was baked into that status quo, however, made their conditions especially precarious.
The Full Impact of Restrictions and Prejudice
First, even before the Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants had no pathway to citizenship unlike all other immigrants. 18 Although significant efforts were made at times to educate and Americanize Eastern European immigrants, no one bothered with the Chinese—they were permanent aliens, nothing more. Starting with the Geary Act of 1892, which extended the original Exclusion Act, they had to carry residency permits, which were mandated for no other immigrant group. In Homestead, most of the Chinese men initially ignored the deadline for obtaining residency permits, protesting, “This government breakee the law. You thinkee the China government likee that?” The newspaper concluded that “they appeared to be in high spirits over the matter, however, thinking it would not amount to anything.” 19 They were wrong. Without residency permits they could not obtain a reentry certificate to return to the U.S. if they ever left, and even those with permits were not assured of reentry, because the certificates were not consistently honored.
A poignant incident a decade after the Geary Act took effect highlights the risks, when Wah Lee, one of the few Homestead men to ever live with a son, lost him to pneumonia in 1903. Because Chinese culture strongly encouraged the burial of Chinese people in their home villages, Wah needed to “secure the services of [a white] American [citizen] for the purposes of taking the remains” back “to escape the trouble always experienced.” 20 Later that same year, Ching Yue, a laundryman with businesses in Braddock and Wilkinsburg, who had returned to China to visit his parents, was held in Hong Kong when the immigration inspector refused to allow him to return to the U.S. His Chinese friends and the pastor of the Chinese Sunday School had to intervene. While the point of the Geary Act was to identify and deport Chinese immigrants who could not prove they had entered the U.S. legally, effectively it locked in even legal immigrants, since a man who left the U.S. to visit home risked being unable to return to the business he had built to provide for himself and his network of relatives.
Finally, social norms within the U.S. not only kept Chinese people apart, but also made them acceptable targets for ongoing abuse from white and Black people alike. In fact, most of the times that Chinese people ended up in the Homestead newspaper, it was to report an altercation in which they were victimized. These incidents from 1893-1908 were probably only the tip of the iceberg of the regular harassment they faced.
- A drunken man “staggered into one of the laundries on Seventh Avenue and began to raise havoc with the Chinamen.”
- “Some very bad boys have been hanging around [Joe Wah’s] laundry for some time, calling him names and throwing stones.” The newspaper reported this incident because this time Joe chased one of the boys, attracting a crowd. Judging by other laundrymen’s recollections, incidents of kids throwing stones at laundries and even dirty snowballs at drying laundry were likely routine.
- An unnamed “Celestial…was attacked by [a customer] with a knife who cut his finger and also made a slight wound in the abdomen.”
- “Within the past six weeks every Chinese laundry in the town has been robbed at least once, and the one on Seventh avenue three times.” It was well-known that Chinese immigrants did not trust banks and hid their money at home.
- A year later, another round of “frequent robbings of the Chinamen of the town.” Yee Joe Lee “[profited] by his former losses” and only had $5 left for the robber. Thirty years old, Lee was one of the newer laundrymen who had been recently attracted by Homestead’s turn-of-the-century expansion.
- A couple months later, he was assaulted. He “is said to be badly used up, but no one could see him today.”
- “Sam Wah, a Chinaman who keeps a chop suey joint…has his troubles almost every night, and last night in particular was eventful…The trouble in the chop suey establishment arises after the saloons close…his patrons after eating the soup, hide the china. The loss of the chinaware makes the chinaman sad.”
- A month later, “the Chinese restaurant was the cause of another melee last evening, and as the result Joe Wing, one of the proprietors of the place, received several broken ribs by being hit with a club.” Their restaurant did not last much longer in Homestead.
- “A boy had thrown a base ball through the window of [Yee Hoy’s] laundry.” As before, this incident was reported only because Yee Hoy retaliated by choking the boy he believed to be responsible. (The boy was fine; Yee Hoy was arrested.)
- Young men “became boisterous in [Yee Toon’s] chop suey restaurant and among other disorderly things threw the pepper and salt shakers around the room.” Toon was 27 and born in California. He had originally opened his restaurant in the same, seedy part of town as the previous restaurant, though after a couple years he could afford to relocate to a prime block on the main business thoroughfare. He closed up a couple years later.
- “The laundry of Sam Mack, Chinaman….was damaged by fire this afternoon…The fire being located in a Chinese shop there was considerable curiosity in the crowd and the Chinamen were made the butt of many jokes and laughs.” He also only lasted 4 or 5 years in business in Homestead.
- A police constable entered Yee Toon’s “Chinese restaurant early this morning and ate a lunch. He then started to leave without paying for what he had eaten and the Chinaman made an effort to collect the money, following the constable onto the street…[the constable] then placed the Chinaman under arrest…[and] entered a charge of disorderly conduct.” Eventually the constable was arrested as well.
The worst incident in Homestead that I came across happened in October 1924, when a man came in to ask Lee Wah, 50, for his laundry and “struck [the laundryman] over the head with a blunt instrument” when he “turned to look for it.” Lee had been in Homestead a quarter-century at that point, another arrival from the turn-of-the century industrial boom, and had lived alone all that time. He was “found an hour later lying in a pool of blood…[suffering] from a fractured skull, face badly beaten and swollen and he has several cuts on the back of his neck and body.” It appears he recovered after a month in the hospital. He ran his business in Homestead for another decade, closing up sometime during the Depression along with most of Homestead’s Chinese laundries. 21
The Homestead newspaper, besides selectively narrating the lives of the town’s Chinese residents, provides one additional insight. The consistent tone and word choice of the articles likely reflect the general lack of respect afforded them. Their small numbers and their confinement to jobs that white Homesteaders weren’t taking kept them safe from the large-scale anti-Chinese violence and legislative harassment happening elsewhere. And yet, every lone Chinese man was exposed to daily indignities, ranging from teasing to physical abuse, that we are left only to guess at.
The mill towns of Western Pennsylvania may have been fertile ground for Chinese men to earn a livelihood as laundrymen, but they did not give them much else. With the Chinese Exclusion Act and its successor legislation, they couldn’t grow their communities in the U.S. and returning home posed a risk. They couldn’t integrate into existing communities, and they couldn’t build families. For decades Pennsylvania’s mill towns had small, aging, male-only groups of Chinese that never grew. Together, they led narrow, exhausting lives and weathered abuse at the hands of their neighbors. And yet, with family networks in China depending on them, they stayed.
Of the dozens of Chinese men who passed through Homestead, I found exactly one who pieced together a more rounded life, though it took him until old age to get there—Yee Get You. The difference maker for him was that he was born in 1883 in San Francisco, making him an American citizen from birth (though it took a Supreme Court case when he was a teenager to confirm that birthright citizenship applied to Chinese people). 22 Like most Chinese in Pittsburgh at that time, he was a Yee from Toisan. He came to Homestead at some point before 1915, sometimes living there, sometimes living in Pittsburgh’s Chinatown, but always working for one of Homestead’s Chinese laundries.
During his early years in Homestead he took two steps towards cementing his future. The first was that he went to China at age 32 to marry. This trip may have been his first time in China, and he probably spent much of his adult life saving money to pay for it. 23 As an American citizen, the Chinese Exclusion Act did not apply to him, so he could leave the U.S. confident he would be permitted to return. But the Exclusion Act applied to his new wife. After a year in China, he arrived back in the U.S. alone. He was greeted at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco by an overzealous immigration inspector who found hookworm in half the passengers’ feces. Yee paid for the treatment and was held for three weeks. 24
Traveling to China to marry was not unique, but the other step Yee took during this period was: he acquired real estate. In March 1919 he and Joe Wah together spent $8,400 to purchase property in a prime location on Eighth Avenue just a few doors down from Half Bros., Homestead’s biggest department store. Joe moved his laundry to this location. Then in July 1919, with the help of a mortgage, Yee alone spent another $3,750 to buy property farther down Eighth Avenue and opened his own laundry there. In the western states where the Chinese were most numerous, alien land laws specifically targeting them prevented them from owning real estate. No such restrictions existed in Pennsylvania, but it was extremely rare for Western Pennsylvania’s Chinese residents, even those who ran their own businesses, to purchase property. The building Yee bought had two storefronts at street level and second-floor apartments, enabling Yee to earn income from rent in addition to his laundry to save money faster than the typical laundryman.
A mishap befell his building five years after he purchased it. When the adjacent lot was excavated in July 1924 to erect a new building, the side of Yee’s building collapsed, badly damaging his laundry, the tailor shop renting the other half of the building, and the upstairs apartments. The whole building was roped off, and Yee had to turn away all his customers. “No Washee Even With Checkee,” joked the headline of The Pittsburgh Post, twisting the usual slur to explain Yee’s predicament. The man who owned the adjacent lot claimed he had warned Yee that his building lacked a proper foundation. Yee claimed that an overzealous steam shovel ripped out the building’s support. On top of the lost income, repairing the building was likely a long and costly setback. 25
The articles about the building collapse indicate that Yee had ties to other Chinese laundrymen in Homestead. Friends were not family, though. In 1922 he took on guardianship of an eleven year-old boy named Wong Pee, newly-arrived from China, who was likely a relative. As a student, Wong entered the U.S. despite the Exclusion Act. Because young Chinese were so rare in the Homestead District—this young man was the first Chinese student in the Munhall school district, and previously there had been one other Chinese student in Homestead in the 1910s—the paper took special notice of his arrival. “Wong or Pee or whatever way they call ’em in China, took up his studies in Room No. 1 this morning and ’tis said he is a very bright youth…now he is ready to roll up his sleeps and study while his guardian rolls up his sleeves and does the washings.” 26
By the end of the decade, Yee had saved enough to return to China for a 1-2 year stay with his wife and first child. Come 1930, though, he was back living alone in Homestead, once again separated from his wife and now three children.
In late 1931, Yee made plans for a third trip to China, selling the property he jointly owned with Joe Wah to another Chinese laundryman to raise additional funds. This time he spent two-and-a-half years in China. Perhaps it was just as well he spent the worst years of the Depression in a country that was little affected by it. When he returned in the summer of 1934, as the U.S. was finally turning the corner, he was accompanied by his nineteen year-old son, William, who entered the U.S. both as a student and as an American citizen through his father. They entered the U.S. through Canada because the immigration service at the border was far less strict than at the San Francisco port. Despite his age, William attended Munhall High School for a time.
Yee was not the first Chinese man to bring a son to Homestead, but with his wife and now four children living through the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), he was not content to rest with only a partial family reunification. He traveled to China for a fourth trip in the fall of 1939, leaving the laundry under William’s control, and returned in the spring of 1940, once again through Canada, with two more of his sons, Wee Hong, 13, and Sheck Woon, 12. Wee Hong graduated from Munhall High School in 1950 and went onto college. Sheck Woon joined his father’s laundry. By this time Homestead’s Chinese laundries had dwindled to just three—Yee Get You’s, Joe Wah’s, and Tom Yee’s—and with the closure of their laundries, most of Homestead’s Chinese residents had left. Pittsburgh’s Chinatown had also shrunk substantially. 27 There was little left in the way of local Chinese companionship or culture for Yee to offer his sons.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, when China became an American ally in WWII, although the discriminatory quota system then in place set the number of visas for Chinese immigrants at a near-useless 105 per year. Meanwhile, the defeat of Japan gave way to civil war in China (1945-1949). The next son, 16, departed Hong Kong alone in December 1949, just two months after the Chinese Communist Revolution, which closed mainland China. He arrived at the port with an affidavit from his father, but nevertheless, he was detained until he could prove he was the son of a citizen. I cannot trace how Yee’s wife got out, but by the early 1950s, Yee and his family were together in the U.S.
Nearly four decades after he arrived in Homestead, Yee Get You had the satisfaction of living with his wife and children and even twin granddaughters born in 1955. Of the dozens of Chinese men who passed through Homestead, Yee Get You was the only one who fully reunited his family, though it took him until he was almost 70. He lived another eight or nine years, dying in 1959 of heart failure.
The victory of reuniting with his family in the Homestead District was dubious. Five of Yee’s grandchildren spent part or all of their childhoods in the Homestead District, but it was not easy being the only Chinese children a parochial mill town. Sheck Woon ran the laundry with his wife after his father died—his young sons folded shirts after school—but it closed for good in 1972 when he, his wife, and his three sons left. They were the last of their family to relocate to California, preferring to live where there were much larger Chinese communities with more possibilities for them. No one in the third generation of Yee Get You’s family was a laundryman. His building became nearly worthless, like most of Homestead’s real estate in those difficult years as the steel industry collapsed.
The end of Yee Get You’s laundry and the departure of the extended Yee family matched the changes happening all over Western Pennsylvania. The old Chinese community was gone. By this time, the both the Exclusion era and quota system in the U.S. were long over. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 instituted a preference system not tied to national origin, but to considerations like family reunification or special skills. Within the next ten years, the Chinese American population in the U.S. almost doubled and transformed into a community centered on upwardly mobile families whose parents were increasingly educated and working in white-collar jobs. In Western Pennsylvania they settled in Pittsburgh and its suburbs, bypassing the declining mill towns altogether.
The changes came too late for the Chinese laundrymen of Homestead. Joe Wah may have returned to China to marry around 1910, but it does not appear he ever had a wife or children in the U.S. He worked well into his 70s, an age where most other men were enjoying their retirement. I believe he died in late 1948, but I’m simply not sure. Beyond his laundry, there is very little information about his life.
And yet, I have some biographical details for him because he arrived at a time when the town was fascinated by all its new foreigners. This initial curiosity quickly calcified into disinterested stereotypes, and most of his fellow laundrymen arrived and left scarcely noticed. In the end, the story of Homestead’s Chinese community that we’re left with is one of absence: absence of the trappings of community every other minority community was permitted to develop, and absence of information to fill in the lives that they were able to lead.
While the Pittsburgh region currently has a sizable Chinese population, today’s community is discontinuous with what came before. Stories of Pittsburgh’s former Chinatown surface from time-to-time—most recently when a historical marker was approved earlier this year after three previous attempts over a decade—but few recognize that the people who sought refuge there could not live in community the way we associate with other immigrant groups. Now, as we finally seek to address the bigotry and racism that the Asian American community has long faced, we owe it to America’s first Chinese immigrants to remember that they led lives of enforced loneliness, caught between cruel immigration policies and the same urge for a better life that inspires all immigrants.
Decades ago, the Exclusion era ended without any kind of public reckoning with the massive harm it inflicted. When we pay attention today to the experiences of Joe Wah and Yee Get You and the many men like them, we begin this long-overdue process.
Deepest gratitude to Yee Get You’s grandson Danny Yee for sharing family information, as well as to Chinese American genealogist Grant Din for lending his insight. Thank you to Mark Fallon for the unexpected discovery of the photo with Tom Yee’s laundry in the background (as you’ve now seen, the only clear photo of any Chinese laundry in Homestead). And thank you to Lina Goldberg and Renée Carl for reviewing multiple drafts of this essay.
Propelled by the coverage of anti-Asian hate crimes in March 2021, I drafted this essay in April-May 2021 during the ongoing closure of the National Archives due to COVID-19. As a result, this essay is based on documents I have been collecting since 2014, augmented by already-digitized records I located online. When the National Archives reopens, I hope I can discover more dimensions to the lives of these men than I can at present.
- Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain, by John Jung
- The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation, by Paul C.P. Siu
- “‘No Tickee, No Shirtee’: Chinese Laundries in the Social Context of the Eastern United States, 1882-1943”, by Joan Wang. PhD dissertation, Carnegie Mellon University, 1996.
- “The Chinese in Pittsburgh, a Changing Minority Community in the United States,” by Chien-shiung Wu. PhD dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1982.
Photographs of Pittsburgh’s Chinatown and the Chinese Section in Homewood Cemetery
The Local News, November 9, 1889. Previous laundrymen were documented only in newspaper articles and advertisements. Wah’s time in Greensburg is based on a December 25, 1885 article in The Indiana Democrat, quoting the Greensburg Argus. ↩
The Local News, February 20, 1893. Coincidentally, fall 1893 was the first time when the paper explained the Jewish New Year. ↩
The Local News, 4/3/1893; The Homestead News, 2/6/1894, 2/14/1894 ↩
This recent article, The Forgotten History of the Purging of Chinese from America, provides a decent overview to this history. The most notorious expulsion took place in 1885 in Tacoma, Washington, when all the town’s Chinese residents were forced to leave. Its success inspired many imitations. The most notorious massacre took place the same year in Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, when vigilantes massacred at least twenty-eight Chinese miners. The mass lynching I mentioned took place in 1871 in Los Angeles. Twenty men and teenagers were killed, mostly by hanging. This map gives an overview to the more notorious incidents that happened in the West.
Since first publishing this article, readers emailed me about a sundown town that wouldn’t let Chinese on the streets at night, and another town that wouldn’t let Chinese on the streets during the daytime, resulting in an entire below-ground town where they lived and worked! ↩
One rare exception—which led to protests—was the employment of a few hundred Chinese people at the Beaver Falls Cutlery Company in the early 1870s. A couple other such examples are prominent in the recounting of Chinese American history, but in number they are a drop in the bucket of all the times the Eastern industrialists turned to foreign labor or strikebreakers. What we see in all three incidents is that the presence of Chinese workers antagonized the existing workers much more than foreign whites did. ↩
Homestead News-Messenger, February 10, 1899. ↩
ibid. The growth of the number of laundries is inferred from the city directories and 1900 census. The limited availability of running water and the poor quality of the water even in the nicer neighbors may have also helped the town support more laundrymen than otherwise. ↩
The Local News, March 17, 1888. The Messenger, August 2, 1924. The first Chinese laundry in Pittsburgh dates to the mid-1870s, and it may have even pre-dated white-owned laundries (Wang, pp. 35-36). In Pittsburgh the patrons of Chinese laundries were wealthier white families. It is not clear who patronized Homestead’s Chinese laundries, though one clue is that they were located in the poorer parts of town. ↩
Homestead News-Messenger, February 10, 1899. ↩
Taken from “Celestial Empire,” a poetic name used by Chinese people for their country, but in English used in a pejorative way. ↩
Before the Chinese Exclusion Act, This Anti-Immigrant Law Targeted Asian Women. Scholars believe that the real motive behind the Page Act was to prevent the growth of the Chinese population. ↩
These numbers are primarily taken from censuses—though the percentage comes from the Chinese section of Homewood Cemetery—but a comparison of censuses and contemporaneous sources suggests that Chinese people were significantly undercounted because of their immigration status, maybe by as much as two-thirds (Wu, 29, 96-7)!
For more on Pittsburgh’s Chinatown, see Inn to the past: Downtown Cantonese restaurant points back to city’s vanished Chinatown, What Happened To Pittsburgh’s Chinatown?. and Was there an Asian influence in Pittsburgh’s history? Based on my inquiries, there does not appear to be any material in the Heinz History Center’s Library and Archives about this community. Pittsburgh’s old newspapers include many fascinating articles detailing their activities—from the perspective of prejudiced, confused outsiders, alas. I also found a couple dissertations, listed at the end, about this community’s history. ↩
It’s hard to know to what degree the reported relationships were accurate, though, since Chinese immigrants commonly posed as “paper sons,” subverting the Exclusion Act by purchasing fraudulent documentation that named them the blood relatives of American citizens. A study on Chinese in Pittsburgh suggests that most were paper sons (Wu, p. 25). Another strategy was “paper partners,” in which a man passed himself off as a merchant, permitted under the Exclusion Act, by posing as a partner in an eligible business.
Even with this paperwork, arrivals had to be extensively coached to pass lengthy interrogations by immigration inspectors, who compared their testimony to earlier interrogations of relatives, in an attempt to find cracks in the immigrant’s purported identity. There are even documented cases of inspectors visiting the businesses of immigrants to confirm they were shops and not laundries! ↩
Mon Chung referenced in The Daily Messenger, December 21, 1914 and The Pittsburg Press, April 8, 1914, p. 16. Numerous articles over the years in the Homestead newspaper noted the tours of visiting Chinese officials. Already in 1912 the Homestead paper warned that “China will successfully dispute with the United State for the iron and steep supremacy of the world…the peril from China is real and already has begun to be felt” as China already had “a modern steel plant in full operation,” which was exporting steel to the Pacific coast (The Daily Messenger, February 13, 1912). ↩
As a sign of submission to the ruling Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, Chinese men had to shave the front and sides of their head and braid the rest of their hair. Without a pigtail, a man would be sentenced to death, so even men who left China had to keep their braids if they wanted any chance of returning home. Naturally, San Francisco twice passed laws that mandated that prisoners have their hair cut as a way ensuring Chinese men obeyed the law. It took a Supreme Court case to strike down this law.
This dynasty was overthrown in 1912. The few photographs I have of Homestead Chinese men, which all post-date 1912, show them wearing Western clothes and haircuts. ↩
Homestead News-Messenger, February 10, 1899. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 10, 1936, p. 17. The businessmen’s associations, called tongs, gained a negative reputation during the gang violence of the 1920s Tong Wars, which were widely covered in the newspapers. ↩
The family and residence information gleaned from a careful review of city directories and censuses. The three examples of interracial couples sourced from The News-Messenger, February 8, 1907; The Daily Messenger, July 16, 1909; and The Messenger, January 16, 1924. Information about the Chinese Sunday School is from The Gazette Times, September 29, 1909, p. 1. The Sunday School tried to change to group instruction after the murder of Elsie Sigel, a Chinese Sunday School teacher in New York City, by a Chinese man. The Chinese men then stopped attending. In 1936, one of these students offered a different reason for why he stopped coming; he said it was the female teachers who stayed home, suddenly fearful of their students, and he was offended (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 10, 1936, p. 17).
After 1907 American women who married foreigners lost their citizenship, and American women who married Chinese men were then subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act themselves.
Wu noted the strategies by which Chinese men in Pittsburgh coped with their lack of family life; apart from the obvious reliance on sex workers, one man “was said to have been involved with two nuns” (Wu, 100)! ↩
It was the Naturalization Act of 1790 that limited naturalization to “free white persons,” preventing Chinese and other people of color from becoming naturalized citizens. The 14th Amendment, ratified 1868, corrected the situation for those of African descent, but the Chinese had to wait 84 more years. ↩
The Homestead News, May 5, 1893. The law they referred to is the Burlingame Treaty of 1869 between the U.S. and China, which permitted unrestricted Chinese immigration to the U.S. and promised fair treatment of Chinese immigrants in return for U.S. trade opportunities in China. The Exclusion Act violated the Burlingame Treaty. The Chinese men correctly predicted that one of their own would challenge the constitutionality of the Geary Act, but he did not succeed (see Fong Yueting v. the United States).
An earlier extension of the Exclusion Act, the Scott Act of 1888 abruptly made it impossible for laborers abroad to return, despite having Certificates of Return. Twenty to thirty thousand laborers were stranded. This act was retaliation against China for refusing to ratify a treaty to restrict immigration on their end. ↩
The Pittsburgh Gazette, March 27, 1903, p. 3. Wah was wealthy enough to hire someone. For most people, the Pittsburgh-based Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association temporarily buried people and took responsibility for sending their bones back after a few years. ↩
All quotes pulled from the Homestead newspaper. The first set: 3/22/1893, 4/3/1893, 6/3/1893, 10/22/1898, 10/7/1899, 12/12/1899, 6/14/1904, 7/7/1904, 8/11/1904, 1/14/1908, 6/1/1908, 7/1/1908. Note that the dates come in clumps; I get the sense that the newspaper had intermittent bouts of fascination with the Chinese punctuating their general inattention. Note also that many of these men are not traceable before or after their time in Homestead, likely due to a combination of carelessness is recording their names and the commonality of all these names in Western Pennsylvania, not to mention the larger country. The October 1924 near-murder: 10/13/1924, 10/14/1924, 10/15/1924, 10/17/1924, 11/14/1924. ↩
United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898). While there is no reason to believe that Yee Get You misreported his birth, it is notable that after the San Francisco earthquake, many Chinese immigrants started to claim that they were born in the U.S. since San Francisco’s birth records had been destroyed. ↩
“[To save money for a trip home,] you needed more than a thousand dollars at least. It took about twenty years to save that much money, or at least ten or eight years” (quoted in To Save China, To Save Ourselves: The Hand Laundry Alliance of New York, p. 25). This quote probably pertains to the 1930s or 40s. The trip may have been easier in 1915 when Yee first returned, but these challenges surely apply to his subsequent trips. Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain relates poignant stories of Chinese returning home as heroes, hiding the truth of their lives. ↩
These early years were pieced together through his October 1915 passport, 1916 arriving passenger disposition entry, September 1918 World War I draft card, and 1920 Homestead census.
Grant Din, an expert in Chinese American genealogy, helped me to understand the hookworm situation. He explained that it is believed that some doctors did this intentionally to try to keep more Asians out. ↩
The Pittsburgh Post, July 22, 1924, p. 3. 7/22/1924, 7/23/1924. For more on this slur, see “No Tickee, No Washee”: Subtleties of a Proverbial Slur, by Wolfgang Mieder. ↩
The Messenger, 1/4/1922 ↩
Wu, 134. ↩
Thank you for bringing to our attention the heartbreaking stories of the brave Chinese people who came here for opportunity, only to be cruelly treated in ways that will shock the conscience of every one of your readers
The double tragedy is the ignorance of so many of us to what was happening. We ignored the racial slurs while we dined on Saturday nights at the Tea Garden on Kelly Street in Homewood. We properly were outraged at what was happening in Selma while not even thinking of the treatment of those of Asian heritage who were also among us.
I am guilty. But my eyes are now open.