Bil Browning

Keeping whites and colors separate: The "U-Washee"

Filed By Bil Browning | February 11, 2009 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: anti-Asian, Chinese stereotypes, Indiana, racism, racist laundromat, Richmond, U Washee

Racism is ingrained in the Midwest; we've normalized it. Take, for example, my earlier post on Tony Zirkle, the Chinese_stereotype.jpgHoosier Republican congressional candidate who spoke at a dinner honoring Hitler's birthday. (He also publicly advocated for racial segregation.) Zirkle lost, of course, but the fact that he had no problem publicly stating his racism - without thinking that others would object - shows just how commonplace overt racism can be here.

One of the best examples is the "U-Washee" in Richmond, Indiana. The laundromat is, literally, built on racist stereotypes of Chinese people and no one gives it a passing glance. It's 1940's era cartoon stereotype mascot, what Margaret Cho calls "feng shui hong kong fooey font," and the extra "ee"s at the end of words in the business's name and posted notices all combine to form one hellish timewarp into a past America most areas have forgotten but we tend to accept as typical - and no one utters a peep.

Amazingly racist signs from the U-Washee and more after the jump. (Click any pic to embiggen.)

Losing Sight of the Past

lost_clothes.jpgWhile Americans tend to think of the South when the subject of racism comes up, the Midwest is no stranger to our own brand of anti-minority bigotry. The Klu Klux Klan was headquartered in Indiana for many years. The former national Grand Dragon, D.C. Stephenson's, home is blocks from mine; he more or less ran our state government in the 1920's. One July 1923 Klan rally hosted by Stephenson in nearby Kokomo drew an estimated 50,000 people.

Bigotry flourished around the nation thanks to Stephenson's efforts. He influenced governors, state legislators and congressmen. It wasn't until he abducted, forcibly intoxicated, assaulted and raped a white neighbor woman who later died that he became a societal pariah. (One witness said her body looked like she'd "been chewed by a cannibal." He was sentenced to life in prison.) No one knows if there were any African-American victims too; they were never considered.

Racism is part of our heritage too.

Don't Get Too Worked Up

so_sorry.jpgThe reader who sent in these photos described his encounter at the laundromat. While he was taking the pictures, another customer walked up to him to ask, "You're not from around here, are you?" It wasn't meant in a threatening manner, but more of a bemused "Well, this is Indiana..." general excuse.

It's often said that one thing Hoosiers fear most is change. We use it as a crutch to continue any bad behaviors we want to tacitly condone. Smoking rate too high? Our citizens are stressed over the economy. Rate of overweight people per capita one of the highest in the nation? It's the diet. No protections whatsoever for gays and lesbians? These type of things take time.

Apparently almost 50 years isn't quite enough.

Rewarding Bigotry

Chinese_reward.jpgAnother interesting aspect to this story is the financial angle. The unemployment rate in Richmond is 9.8%. Very few small businesses are succeeding. The "U-Washee" is entirely built around this racist theme and to remove the associations would cost a small fortune - new signage inside and out, a new name, changed business records with resultant legal fees, etc.

The owner is an elderly white man who's barely making ends meet as energy costs and business expenses have skyrocketed while income has stayed the same. He'll wash, dry and fold your clothes for you for $1 per pound. He provides a service the community needs. How do you wash your clothes if you don't have a car to drive miles to another laundromat? There are three* other laundromats in the city of 40,000 people.

How does the community deal with the issue without cutting off their nose to spite their face in these desperate economic times?

Large Issues to Deal With

big_bundles.jpgConfronting racism is never an easy task. Adding in poverty, employment and basic living issues only compounds the problem. If no one is complaining, why stir up trouble?

0.8% of Richmond's population is Asian according to the US Census Bureau. They're not complaining. The citizens obviously aren't either. A quick Google search for "U Washee Richmond" shows exactly one relevant link - a listing for the pay phone. No other blog posts. No outrage in the newspaper. No protests outside the business.

What right do I have to interject myself in their affairs?

The Stain That Will Not Wash Away

rain_soft.jpgI've not reached out to the "U-Washee" before posting these pictures and commentary. I plan to do it though, because someone has to speak up. I won't demand or threaten. My goal is to help the owner move his business past the anti-Chinese racist stereotypes and not to shut the place down.

Someone has to speak up. Someone has to be first and break the cycle of complacency - the "I'm better than those poor deluded people" theory that too often excuses the continuation of prejudices and vices. Someone has to speak up.

Otherwise this stain will never wash away.

*Commenter AWB has pointed out that two laundries I thought were closed are open. I corrected the number of laundries in the town.


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E-gads! Sometimes I forget that I'm really living in a kind of bubble out here in California.

Your heart is pure, and your mission is right. You've just described how the economics of the business are working against both you and the owner. What if the owner responds that he knows you're right. He sees how his theme is an inappropriate and offensive reminder of days gone by. He simply does not have the resources to change anything about his business right now.

Then what?

I'll bet you could find some art students who would be happy to help make new signs, etc.

And even if it would be too expensive to change business names, I'm sure something creative could be done.

Perhaps a historical/educational perspective on the racist imagery.

Certainly an apology.

Exactly Jay. Sometimes we have to think outside the box. Creative activism can turn a bad situation into something where everyone benefits.

I'm sure you'd find some art students that would opt not to change the theme, as a socio-historical comment. Sweeping racism under the rug doesn't really change peoples attitudes and ideas.

To me these signs don't reflect the truth of Asians at all. In their stereotype, they defeat themselves.

Thank you for bringing this to wider attention, Bil. I also want to commend you on the brilliance of the headline. Sometimes they write themselves, for better or worse, hmm?

I can't claim credit for the title, Dana. I was chatting on IM with the tipster and said I was having a hard time coming up with a catchy title. He suggested "Separating whites and colors" It was awesome so I used it :)

Hubby (Mexican/French), just got to Louisville yesterday to work (from here in No Calif) after storms. He says the whites there 'look funny'. Will ask him about the laundromat!


Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | February 12, 2009 1:39 AM

Louisville has a limited fashion sense and a legacy of...shall we politely call it inbreeding.

Ugh. My partner grew up in Rushville, about twenty miles from there. I'm gonna have to show him this. I can just -see- his reaction, and hear again how glad he was to get away.

Yikes! I now feel better about Fort Wayne. . .

(shaking my head)
There are some parts of Kentucky and my home state in which that business theme would fly as well.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | February 12, 2009 1:07 AM

A Jewish friend of mine sent me a joke recently about why there are no Gentile jokes. We are not that funny and far too polite. :)

Having been to Richmond Indiana I can assert there is no reason to go there and I am surprised they have discovered washing machines anyway. What do you expect from a state that has two cities named "Warsaw?" In the Warsaw of the North I took my grandmother to lunch many years ago in a Chinese restaurant. I met and talked at the table with a waiter who had escaped Vietnam and was thrilled with Indiana and how very free he was in comparison to the life he knew. Indiana is well stocked with Chinese restaurants people love. It was an exotic treat from the 1960's onward and many of these have become true landmarks. As the owner of the laundry is Caucasian I get your point, but in Chinatown it would be a business draw.

Now, if you were to visit Chicago on West Jackson street and take pictures of "Moo & Oink" a Black owned business, or the "Rib Hut" or "Chicken on the Run" (Black chef with a cleaver chasing a live chicken is their logo)you would find similar artwork including Black people, but owned by Black people. This is the difference, I know, but don't we already make enough fun of dumb White people? There are so MANY of them! :)

You can call this institutionalized racism and stereotyping if you want, but it kind of precludes the freedom of a Greek to own an operate a German restaurant and many do. The stereotype I associate with Asians is very hard working people. That could be what the laundry owner is trying to communicate. Our railroads would not have been built in the West without Chinese labor. They have a far higher college graduation percentage than non Asians and the fact that they choose not to live in a dead end town like Richmond is not surprising.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | February 12, 2009 2:13 AM

Oh, and the 32 who are there probably run restaurants. Maybe next door!

And it begins...it's funny to me how people can deny the obvious.

You know I cannot help find this post both ironic and pretntious at the same time.

Here you are chastising a business owner for having politically-incorrect" signs depicting Asians in stereotypical terms, yet you run "A Town Called Dobson" which equates gun owners as fitting a stereotype of all being redneck Klan members?

From my personal experience, the people who I know that own firearms or hunt are not members of a racist, cross-burning, lynching organization with an atrocious past.

"Hi pot, this Kettle, by the way you are black too."

Little Glass houses for you and I?

First, I think your misunderstanding the difference between a legitimate business with a storefront and a cartoon whose entire point is to play up stereotypes to create humor.

A laundromat doesn't have as its primary intention to make you laugh or think about a subject - they're there to get your clothes clean. TCD is a cartoon, which is supposed to be humorous and sometimes scathing commentary on public life. Apples and oranges.

So TCD uses stereotypes to make social commentary. I'm failing to see how or why a laundromat would need to do the same. Would it be OK for KFC to make commercials with white folks in black face talking about how tasty their fried chicken is?

I also think you misunderstand what exactly it is TCD makes fun of. TCD doesn't make fun of all gun owners, it makes fun of the right-wing gun-toting nuts who believe that, above all else, the right to arm yourself to the teeth is the most important freedom we have.

It's the NRA "you'll pry my gun from my cold, dead hands" people TCD makes fun of. I think there's plenty of material there and making fun of beliefs is a lot different than making fun of an entire race of people.

And it just seems that your comment is finding an excuse for blatant racism rather than confronting the problem.

I went to college in Muncie, which is pretty close to Richmond. I didn't see anything that blatantly racist, but I frequently heard racist comments from the locals. I remember once when our landlord was over fixing something, and he was looking out the window at a waiter from the nearby Mexican restaurant and said, "I was lookin' at that MEXICAN out there... I don't like 'em." I basically bitched him out and told him to keep his BS to himself.

I agree with what you said about Hoosiers fearing change. I'm not from Indiana. I'm from the West Coast, and I was brought up with the "straight-shooter" mindset of "Have something to say, and say it like you mean it," compared to the passive-aggressive interactions between people in Indiana.

I found that even people who are politically liberal still have a hostility to change, and I made something of a pariah of myself by being a little too outspoken and blunt. Also, when having political debates with more conservative people, I couldn't help noticing that they had a certain imperviousness to facts and logic -- it wasn't so much about them defending a viewpoint as it was about defending themselves and their worldviews from being challenged in any way.

This post reminds me of part of the Tolerance.org website that showcases racist imagery, past and present. Maybe sent them a note pointing to your pictures.

http://www.tolerance.org/images_action/index.jsp

This information is spreading across the internet, thank goodness. I hope it makes the mainstream news so that the complacent residents of Richmond take a stand against this blatant ignorance and insensitivity. I am interested in what the owners and patrons have to say.

I don't see a problem with this place. I think it's a creative theme for a laundromat.

"Racism is ingrained in the Midwest; we've normalized it."

It isn't just the Midwest.

I live in Monterey, California. Anti-Chinese racism is fully ingrained in neighboring Pacific Grove and has been since 1906.

Every year, Pacific Grove has a Chinese lantern festival. White people dress up in stereotypical Chinese costumes and parade down to the bay with Chinese lanterns. They have a beauty contest in which high school girls dress up like "Chinese princesses" -- complete with almond-shaped mascara -- and the winner is floated out into the bay on a barge.

What most people don't realize is that the "Feast of the Lanterns" was started by the white citizens of Pacific Grove in 1906 as a celebration of the burning of a Chinese fishing village. The Chinese fishing village mysteriously caught on fire and the white citizens looted the village, put on the clothes of the Chinese people and danced in the streets. Then the white citizens refused to allow the Chinese to rebuild. All the Chinese were forced out of town.

The celebration of the burning of Chinatown has turned into an annual festival.

http://www.feast-of-lanterns.org/

There's a great research paper posted online about this.

http://www.startitup.org/c_row/student_reports/Chinese_Rprt_Mendenhall_rev.htm

Summary and Evaluation of Research:

I learned much about Chinese immigrant history in Monterey from this project. As a result, I believe that the Chinese were forced by societal and physical pressure to move from their village in 1906. There is a trail of information to be found in the newspaper articles surrounding the date of the fire. The Chinese were renting land from The Pacific Improvement Company rented land to the Chinese but social and economic pressure continued to be mounted against the fishing village. Although they did not want to leave, they began to make arrangements to move to a Seaside location. When this deal fell through, the Chinese fishing village requested more time from their landlords.

But three months later, their settlement was "mysteriously" burned to the ground. The whites in the area looted the village and did not allow the Chinese to enter or rebuild. Soon local laws were passed making it impossible for the Chinese to inhabit China Point. They moved to MacaBee Beach, where a new settlement was erected, but it only lasted a couple more decades. During this time, more and more laws were passed preventing the Chinese from living and working in the area. Now, it is hard to find out what happened to the Chinese without diving into a historical archive.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | February 13, 2009 3:13 AM

We can and should easily recall WWII and the incarceration of Japanese American citizens while their children fought in the European theater. California has a horrible legacy of specific anti Asian laws because of their own history.

This is about signage in a laundry in an armpit of Indiana that might have thirty Asians in a backward community of forty thousand. The same signage in Chicago's Chinatown, (or San Francisco's Chinatown) would be considered local color, even chic.

Crazy stuff. I can imagine whoever designed the place going through swatches and saying, yeah, that's a nice color, and we should arrange the machines like I laid out in that design, and, oh, what about a 1940 Breakfast at Tiffany's anti-Chinese racist theme? I think that'd go well here.

In this case a sign anyone can buy in NYC must be racist also: You toucha my car I breaka your leg. A hint for Brooklyn Italians?

I'd just like to say thanks for pointing out that racism is alive and well in other parts of the country besides the south. Yes, we have more than our fair share of the religous zealots but as this story points out, outdated stereotypes still exist everywhere in the country.

Am I missing something?

I don't understand why this is offensive...

Most of the laundromats around here are run by Asians too.

The laundromat isn't run by an Asian. The owner is white.

wtffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff

Bil,

Actually, (not to be picky), there are four laundromats in Richmond, IN including the U-Washee

Brookside Cleaners & Laundry?
3400 E Main St, Richmond, IN?

Coin-A-Matic? - Write a review
400 S 5th St, Richmond, IN?

Coin-A-Matic? - Write a review
205 N 6th St, Richmond, IN?


It was my understanding that the Coin-A-Matics are closed now and only U-Washee and Brookside Cleaners were still open.

Tahlib Disney-Britton | February 13, 2009 2:55 PM

Thanks Bill. It's only by shining the light on the darkness of racism that we can see the way toward change. Keeping shining the light.

FWIW, I called, there still open at both locations.

Thanks AWB. I've corrected the post above.

You people never heard of a Chinese Laundry?

Lighten up!

I mean seriously... quit looking for racism around every corner. It's embarrassing unto yourselves.

Imagine the schmuck walking around the laundromat snapping the pictures and then a blog post gets written about it. Oh heavens... Sensitive much? It's racism in your own minds. Try to keep it there please.

I don't know what all the fuss is all about. I mean whenever I wash MY clothes i pull out my chineesee happy horse teeth and queue. And I always use "plenty rain soft water."

That's usually right after I paint my face with geisha make-up, karate chop a plank of wood, stir-fry a dog, and eat flied lice.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | February 14, 2009 5:51 AM

You see, I already said Gentiles aren't funny! :)

Bob Summersgill | February 13, 2009 4:46 PM

This place is actually a fascinating historic relic. It would be great to save all of those signs and business records in an approriate archive. Perhaps funds could be raised to buy the signage from the owner to be used for new signs and a business name change and then donated to an approriate Chinese historical society. Our history needs to be saved, both the good and the bad.

Part of the association of Chinese with laundrymats is that they were legally barred from owning most businesses, other than laundries and restaurants in much of the country for many, many years.

I was born in New York City and you should hear the words people used to describe different cultures. The seniors still have not learned that it is politically incorrect to speak about people that way. It can be quite embarrassing. I personally know that racism and bigotry is still well and alive in this country. Before we moved to Indianapolis, my husband was denied a job because we are Jewish. Lest anyone say "maybe it did't really happen that way" - I will say I was there and saw and heard the whole encounter. Of course this happened in Colorado Springs - need I say more? I never thought something like that would happen to us. The weird thing about this is that the man who denied him the job died of a brain tumor a few years ago. Bad Karma?

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | February 14, 2009 5:41 AM

Annette I have heard it too all the way up along Lake Michigan in northern Indiana. Thank the goddess that I went to public rather than Catholic schools and had a variety of friends. Even in Michigan City there were defined areas where Jews could live when I was a kid.

One excellent professor I had in undergraduate school in the 70's finally left Purdue for Temple University because he could no longer tolerate other PhD's referring to him as a Jew Boy.

chris martin | February 13, 2009 7:29 PM

i think you are a flipping idiot. youre like the people who tried to run howard cosell out of football for calling Charlie Brown a "little monkey" when any one with an ounce of common sense knew he meant it as nothing but a term of endearment. this poor old man who never meant harm to anyone and now you want to run him out of business for a cartoon sign. when are you going to start sentencing people to death for naming teddy bears "Mohammed"? The only difference between you and a true racist is that you channel your hate into modes that you can use to congratulate your high morality while doing harm to innocent victims like this man. You need to learn to laugh with people instead of shouting at them. just to help in case i've offended you, i am a republican, a born Catholic, part french and part german, believe in the Bible and think abortion is murder. that should give you more than enough opportunity to make fun of me, without worrying about having to rise to my defnse like you did the poor chinamen.

"i am a republican, a born Catholic, part french and part german, believe in the Bible and think abortion is murder."

And?....

"without worrying about having to rise to my defnse like you did the poor chinamen."

What poor "chinamen"? the one depicted on the sign? because that's the only one connected to the laundromat...

this poor old man who never meant harm to anyone and now you want to run him out of business for a cartoon sign. when are you going to start sentencing people to death for naming teddy bears "Mohammed"?

I'd suggest you re-read the post, Chris. I advocated for no such thing. In fact, I specifically talked about the damage that running him out of business or big protests would cause Richmond.

As for teddy bears named "Mohammed," I doubt I'll be sentencing anyone to anything. I have no desire to hurt anyone; just a desire to examine some of the racist issues we accept in our society.

just to help in case i've offended you, i am a republican, a born Catholic, part french and part german, believe in the Bible and think abortion is murder.

You're perfectly entitled to your opinion; you haven't offended me. Listing your "qualifications" though, explains a lot about you.

OG,
Your comment is offensive and its text is now replaced by these words. Please read the usage policy for this site.

I wanted to share links to two other interesting blog posts referencing the U-Washee signs. I found both of them fascinating even though they are complete opposites. Pam is, of course, a liberal lesbian blogger. AWB (also a commenter above) is an Indiana conservative blogger.

How can we cleanse our culture of racism?
by: Pam Spaulding

and

The U-Washee Laundromat, stuck in an Indiana timewarp
by: Angry White Boy

Robert Ullmann | February 14, 2009 2:30 PM

If the owner wants to change this, it needn't take much money at all:

Sell the signage to collector(s) of this sort of Americania, the objects which represent all sides, good and bad, of US history. (The Smithsonian has a huge collection of this sort of thing.) Put them on eBay, and you may get enough money to pay for new signage.

As to the business name, all the owner need is to register a D/B/A name ("doing business as") and notify his bank, etc. There is no reason to change the legal title of the business, it doesn't show up much of anywhere. The D/B/A name will cost almost nothing, a few bucks to the town/city clerk for the filing fee.

Robert Ullmann | February 14, 2009 4:10 PM

Oh, I think your title may have originated here:

http://d-squareddigest.blogspot.com/2009/01/idea-for-sitcom-set-in-ku-klux-klan.html

which blog entry should be of interest as well.

I live in Muncie, Indiana and my mother lives in Richmond. I have done laundry at coin-ops in Richmond many many times, but I have never even heard of U-Washee. I was really surprised to stumble onto this blog about an establishment in my hometown. I hope that drawing attention to racism in Richmond, IN can help people to recognize racism wherever they live.

Wow…. Racist stereotypes, bigotry in businesses… Damn you picked a big fish to fry with this one… I mean honestly the Washington Redskins franchise has been fought numerous times over this, same with the Cleveland Indians, and such other major sporting league franchises. And never once have they issued an apology or subjected themselves to the ignorance of some peoples beliefs. If you really want to discuss racism, how about you look within yourself? If you see the word “nigger” spray painted on a wall do you get offended? Really why it is just a mere word, until someone with a bit of racist inside themselves puts forth a meaning to it. Deep down inside you must have a problem with Chinese people to see any kind of racist propaganda in this business… The signs are cute, gave me a chuckle, does that mean I am a bigot? Honestly?

You want to sit here and write a meaningless post about how the world is completely racist, only to incorporate an amazingly racist title to your piece… Keeping whites and colors separate: The "U-Washee" Wow… again I will say it… Wow… Nice one there chief… Not only did you try and point out the racism in a local business towards the Chinese but you even made it clear to drag the “white” and “black” racism argument into it also.. How nice

You had also posted a response to a previous post stating “A Laundromat doesn't have as its primary intention to make you laugh or think about a subject - they're there to get your clothes clean.” But correct me if I’m wrong but haven’t numerous business juggernauts not used cartoon like advertisements to help their product sell? Everything from your breakfast cereal to cigarettes even into soda, cell phone, and Car dealerships? So how can you complain about one locally owned locally operated business for doing what has worked in the business world for years?

Lets just face it your problem really isn’t with the racism in the area, its something to complain about? I might assume you’re a washed up journalist who couldn’t make it in big brothers corporate news stands. So you chose an easier less paying position as in complaining on the internet, and not just complaining on the internet, but trying to cause a fight over something that you know will hit extremely close to home with most humans… Racism, wow next time why don’t you try abortion, or how about cruelty to animals, hell even the ways that our daily use of oil is corrupting the atmosphere?

Nice one chief… I will continue to live in Richmond and drive by the “dishonorable racist laundry mat” as I make my way to work daily and I will continue to get a meaningless chuckle out of your ability to read to fare into things, and to try and make yourself appear to have meaning by damning those of us who try and make a living..

@ phr3ak: Dude, maybe you need to get your empathy checked out. Chuckling at the signs doesn't make you a bigot, but being unable to see why they might be offensive makes you a bit thick, is all.

I'm assuming you're not Asian. But whatever you are, just because you're not offended by it, doesn't mean its okay. Why don't you ask some Chinese people if they think it's acceptable? The signs are a relic of a past age where it was acceptable to perpetuate degrading stereotypes of Asian people, and if they were from 50 years ago I could maybe chuckle at them. But in this day and age, it's just not acceptable.

Fair play to the author as well, he's not getting all nasty or personal about the laundromat's owner or advocating bombing the place, but just wondering if the owner might be brought up to speed what's considered racist these days.

As for the "Keeping whites and colors separate" title, I thought that was pretty clever.

As an Asian man, I wouldn't necessarily call this racism but more racial categoricalism, where every ethnic group is placed in a box and if they don't fit the checklist of the box that the associated ethnic group is associated with then the said ethnic group will not be accepted, and this is one of the categories that Asian people are placed in (along with studios students, etc).

It's funny that those who are writing "get over it" and "stop being sensitive" are the ones who have never experienced any type of real racism...and that one time when you were the only white guy at a party doesn't exactly count.

Pathetic that you can't even put yourselves in the shoes of others to even try and understand that such racial imagery can reinforce racist ideology and racial discrimination against minorities.

Holy cow, I am so surprised that this kind of stuff still exists in America. How very sad.

Thank you for writing the article and opening our eyes.

Nope, it's racist, all right.

If you're white in America, and you don't think this is racist:

1. What the hell do you know about racism? You are a racial and power majority in this country. There's not even racist jokes about white people in general, only certain subsections.

2. Shut the hell up and listen when people who HAVE EXPERIENCED racism talk. I've never flown an airplane, so I wouldn't expect you to take my opinion on how to fly one. Same thing with racism. You don't know what it's like to experience it. Listen to someone who does.

Mingzhao Xu | March 11, 2009 3:38 PM

Talk to the owner/manager and see if you can reason he/she should take it down. COME PREPARED! Historical evidence, popular stereotypes, convince them why this is wrong. BRING people who support your cause.

If not, report their asses to the local newspaper or Civil Rights Comm'n.

if they resist, fight harder....

Nicolas Martin | September 20, 2009 10:37 AM

I dissent from this characterization. I don’t think the laundromat’s Chinese association is racist. Immigrant’s from the same country often start businesses of the same type, and this was the case, from the 1850s, with Chinese immigrants who opened laundries. To quote from an article about Chinese laundries in San Diego:

“In the spring of 1851, a Chinese man named Wah Lee opened the first Chinese hand laundry in the United States. It was in a small, leased storefront and basement in San Francisco. He posted a sign that read: “Washing and Ironing,” and undercut the going rate for washing to “$2 for a dozen pieces”. Wah Lee was immediately overwhelmed by customers. In less than three weeks, he had twenty washer men working three shifts a day. Within three months, dozens of other Chinese hand laundries sprung up all over the city.

Before long, Chinese laundries emerged wherever Chinese immigrants settled; from small mining towns to towns where railroads were being built. By the 1870s, there were Chinese laundries in the large towns all across the country. By the 1880s, there were at least 1,000 Chinese laundries in the city of San Francisco alone. By 1900 most large American cities had Chinese laundries, which employed 75% of all Chinese men.

Chinese immigrants chose to open laundries because it was the quickest way to become their own boss. It didn’t require them to speak much English and it didn’t take much money to start one.”

A century ago seventy-five percent of all Chinese men owned or were employed by laundries!

In our day immigrants from one area of India (often with the last name Patel) dominate the independent hotel industry, and it has been estimated that 90 percent of the nail salons are Vietnamese-owned.

Richmond, Indiana has a sordid history of racial discrimination (see the city’s Wikipedia entry), but this isn’t an example of it.

Except for the fact that a) this laundry has never been owned by anyone Chinese and b) Richmond has never had a sizable Asian (not just Chinese!) population.

This isn't a nod to Chinese immigrant history in the United States. This is a relic from WWII era characterizations of Chinese as laundry workers with buck teeth and pigtails.

Nicolas Martin | September 20, 2009 11:47 AM

Flimsy support indeed for a racism charge. In fact, the pigtail was "a mark of political enslavement to the Manchu dynasty [until the] pigtail was abolished in China in 1911 when the Manchu dynasty was overthrown in favor of the Republic."

Asians in America have suffered grave persecution -- such as the internment of the Japanese by the progressive's hero FDR and the physical attacks on the Chinese in the West -- but this is a tempest in a thimble. It trivializes genuine racism and efforts to combat it. As a person who grew up in Richmond, had a family active in battling discrimination and racism, and who visits Richmond frequently, I know that this is a town where racism still thrives. Focus on the real thing.

Nicolas, nobody's denying the history of Chinese-run laundry businesses (or Vietnamese nail salons or Cambodian donut shops, etc.). That's not the issue here.

The issue is the way the Chinese man is depicted in the signage (yellow skin, buckteeth, stereotypical clothing) and the way the sign is written (broken English, "Oriental" font).

Nicolas Martin | September 20, 2009 5:53 PM

This, unlike genuine racism, is trivial. I look at each picture carefully and I see one tooth, not buckteeth. To see a bucktooth is to see a phantom image. The Chinese of the era, like most people, probably did have inferior dental care and loss of teeth. I do not know what clothes the immigrant Chinese were wearing, but maybe this was characteristic. I have a copy of Jean Pfaelzer's important book about the persecution of the immigrant Chinese, "Driven Out," and some of the drawings show the Chinese in garb similar to this cartoon character at the laundromat.

On the one hand multiculturalists lament that immigrants assimilate and lose their cultural characteristics (dress, food, music, language, etc.); but on the other hand, they object to the depiction of immigrants with those same characteristics ("stereotypes"). No doubt, like all immigrants, some Chinese assimilated more quickly than others, including their style of dress. In California, where there were and are many Chinese, it is likely that assimilation was slower since the immigrants had more Chinese to speak to, and didn't need to learn English to survive. Assimilation is often out of necessity.

Often the term "stereotype" is used as a sneering synonym for "characteristic." No doubt their English, as is the case with new immigrants from many places today, was unpolished. You can still find many old Chinese living in San Francisco decades who speak no English at all. The "oriental" font may have been first used by the immigrant Chinese themselves for all I know. Do you know differently? It is obviously a Latinization of Chinese characters. As for the yellow skin, it is certainly true that it had, at times, some potent racist connotations; but not at all times, and not today. The Chinese of today are a great deal more hung up on Chinese skin color than Americans are. Throughout much of Asia "whiter" skin is considered more attractive. (My own view is that racial classifications are unscientific bunk.)

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the word orient, "originated in Western Asia to describe the parts of the world that were in the 'far east' of their known world at the time." I speak to Chinese people almost every day, and some of them use the term "oriental" and "asian" interchangeably.

The upshot is this. No evidence has been provided which shows that the owner of U-Washee has any animus toward the Chinese. To call him a racist is disgracefully irresponsible. I want to know a person before I impute ugly motives to him. I knew Connie Marker, for instance, who owned a Richmond lounge for many years and refused to serve Blacks until he was forced to. I refused to set foot in the establishment of that racist.

The Chinese have contributed much to America, and have, at times, paid dearly for their differentness. Today, Americans of Chinese ancestry have incomes that are higher than for most other Americans, and are overrepresented at America's best colleges. For the latter they have experienced real discrimination in the form of quotas which limit their numbers. These quotas have been promoted and imposed by liberal multiculturalists, and opposed by conservatives and libertarians, not to mention the Chinese themselves (and other Asian-Americans.) I'm much more concerned about this sort of blatant discrimination than about some silly laundromat signs in a small Indiana town. But then I didn't get worked up over the Frito Bandito, either. My wife is Guatemalan.

By the way, I wrote the section of the Wikipedia entry on Richmond, Indiana which deals with racial discrimination and the KKK. My family was among the very few in Richmond which openly opposed discrimination in the 1950s and '60s, and the police intervened to protect me from racist violence. I plan to move my family to China for several years, if possible, so my daughter will learn Mandarin and appreciate the culture. Anyone who tries to slap a "racist" label will earn a derisive laugh.

George Wang | February 6, 2010 2:51 PM

It's clear that Bil is not calling the owner malicious or hateful. Or even a racist.

The owner is an elderly white man who's barely making ends meet as energy costs and business expenses have skyrocketed while income has stayed the same. He'll wash, dry and fold your clothes for you for $1 per pound. He provides a service the community needs. How do you wash your clothes if you don't have a car to drive miles to another laundromat? There are three* other laundromats in the city of 40,000 people.

How does the community deal with the issue without cutting off their nose to spite their face in these desperate economic times?

It's the business, the signs, and the culture that are racist. They promote stereotypes of Chinese people that aren't representative of who we are. And they allow people to assume they know what the Chinese are like, without really getting to know us with an open mind.

I am the granddaughter of this laundromat's owner (RIP). How would you know whether or not he is "barely making ends meet"? You don't know a DAMN thing about him or his business! And how DARE you make assumptions about what he thinks?? These signs have been there since the 1960's. Everybody around these parts (we "idiotic hoosiers" since you seem to think everyone from Indiana is "racist") have never paid a bit of attention to these signs. They are just there to give information about the machines. No one pays a bit of attention to the actual pictures themselves!! Except YOU!! But then again, if you are not used to seeing something like that, you just automatically assume that everyone who does not agree with you is "racist". I am forwarding this information to the appropriate people. I'm sure they would be interested in your liable.

I don't know why you wrote this articel this way(you make it sound like you have stated facts), but you obviously do NOT know what you are talking about. The owner of U-Washee Laundromat in Richmond, Indiana was NOT a racist by any means. How dare you make statements about the owners financial situation when YOU know nothing about it. All of the articles and information that you have stupidly posted will be forwarded to the appropriate individuals so that they can find the proper way to deal with your untruths that you have stated about the business and the owner. The owner is my wife's grandfather. So before you go shooting your mouth about anyone else, you may want to think about it before you actually do it. Your ignorance has really been shown here.

Nicolas Martin | February 3, 2011 12:54 PM

Robin and Paul,
The debunking of this ridiculous accusation is completed with your posts. You will note that the author offers no remorse or apology. You only offer those if you are capable of shame, which the blogger is clearly not.

If your grandfather is dead than there is no libel. In most states it is not possible to libel the dead.

As long as it remains on the Internet, the foolishness of the original post will remain as a monument, along with our refutations.

wow i wash in that place for like 2 years back in 2006 im not sure if the original owners where the one how give us the service but in no way the act like racist people and i know how that is im mexican, by the way sorry for my bad english.
And i dont really see the racist in the signs, they r not making fun of the chinesse people :s or maybe is just me not searching for the wrong or bad thinks in life..