Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 018/Chinese Laundryman Joe Shing
Joe Shing (Chinese Name 周兴, Chinese spelling Zhou Xing, 1893~?) was a Chinese immigrant running a laundry house in Spartanburg, South Carolina, USA, in 1930s. He was represented for the typical Chinese immigrants at that time, who lived in cities, at the low class of society, who conserved some Chinese traditions, remained sensitive to the world, and at the same time struggled to win a place in the USA society.
The South Carolina Writer Ruth D. Henderson interviewed Joe Shing in 1938, in which Joe said that he started to operate the laundry house set up by his cousin, Joe Whot (Chinese spelling Zhou Wo), many years ago. He survived the business and although in a tough environment, kept an “easy-living” life attitude.
Family and Childhood
Joe Shing was born in Polo, Kanton Province, in China in 1893. Joe was his family name, and Shing was his given name. He abided the Chinese tradition to put the family name at front. His family is a typical poor peasant family in 1930’s China, operating the primitive and laborious cultivation, participated by all the family members. They raised cotton, corns and potatoes, but the family could barely afford its own meal and often starved.
He went to a feudalistic private school but quitted after the feudal government that employed the students was overthrown. At that time China had just opened its door to the outside world and Joe’s family for the first time heard of the USA from the missionary. In order to escape from the poor and turbulent China, they put their eyes on the USA, which was described as a “great country where you can live easy and do like you want to” .
Teenager Years in the USA
Joe Shing followed his father’s footsteps by coming to the United Sates under the influence of missionaries.
Joe first arrived in San Francisco at 18, and started to learn English after his arrival. He got his first job as a clerk in a Chinese grocery store, and after three years, moved to Chicago to join his brother’s Coffee shop. After accumulating enough money by this business, he and his brother started a laundry house in Athens, Georgia. After several years of success, Joe Shing received the news that his father past away. Having to financially support his family in China, Joe was ultimately forced to shut down his business.
The War and the Homeland
Joe Shing signed for military for the War of 1917 but did not actually go to the battle. When interviewed by Henderson in December 1938, his homeland China was in war with Japan, a part of the World War II. He was confident about China’s final victory, and had faith in China’s future development.
Joe returned his country three times; the last trip was in 1932. He witnessed the change of China and appreciated them. His cousin Joe Hand (Chinese name “周汉”, Chinese spelling Zhou Han) who started the laundry business with him, came back to the homeland at last, but Joe Shing chose to stay in the America.
Joe Shing operated a laundry house in Spartanburgs, South Carolina, after his previous laundry business was shut down. His Laundry House was small and inconspicuous. The house had two floors and was decorated by Chinese elements. The laundry equipment was simple and crude, and the environment was dim.
Joe employed African American women to help wash and iron clothes. His customers were mainly Asians and African Americans, and his price was approximately 20% cheaper than the other local laundry houses .
The laundry house was also Joe’s home, where he slept and cooked and ate. His living section was separate from the laundry business section; although the two-floor house was small, it was orderly arranged.
Chinese in the USA in 1930s
The Great Depression
The Great Depression was rampant in the 1930s. It was a severe depression in economy lasted from 1929 to the late 1930s. The unemployment was high and people faced the hard time to live. The president Herbert Hoover believed in ‘rugged individualism’, the idea that people would recover by their own, and then the situation worsened . In 1932 President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to stage and enacted the New Deal, using the government’s forces to help recover the economy. The whole 1930s was a time when the USA gradually recovered from the economy recession, and the job competition was fierce. Asian immigrants faced more intense competition than the native residences did, and they mainly took the tiring and dangerous jobs.
The Nativism, an anti-immigrant attitude was popular since 1880s, after WWI. Several anti-immigrant laws (such as Chinese exclusion act of 1882, Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and National Origins Act of 1924) were enacted since 1880s and still influenced the American Chinese in 1930s. The Chinese Exclusion Act enacted in 1882 was specially aimed at Chinese, not repelled until 1943. This act made Chinese immigration to the United States illegal . Asians were not allowed to own land and had no right to citizenship . So Joe Shing, a low-educated man even could not speak English, was probably a stowaway.
Despite the fact that 1930s was the hard time for the recovery from the Great Depression, the nativism made the USA more unwelcomed to Chinese. They lived under pressure and usually in poverty, undertaking the tough and sometimes dangerous jobs, which did not require high-level education. They were especially vulnerable during times of economic crisis . For example, Chinese laundrymen on east coast of the USA saw their earnings decline by about one-half during the depression.
Cling to the homeland
Although most Chinese who came to the USA at that time were escapists from the chaotic and poor homeland, they still maintained their identities as Chinese and remained separate from the whites. Since they were discriminated due to their race, a feeling of alienation raised in them. They recognized themselves as Chinese, and respected the Chinese traditions and often gathered to form a Chinatown , creating a sense of belonging.
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Chang, Kornel S, “ Impact of the Great Depression on Asian Americans” Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. Ed. Robert S. McElvaine. Vol.1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 78
John, J. Newman and John M. Schmalbach,“ The Great Depression and the New Deal”, United States History. Second Edition. AMSCO School Publications INC. 492
Hudson, David L, “Herbert Hoover”, The handy presidents answer book, Visible Ink Press. 330
Lai, Him. Mark, “Teaching Chinese Americans to be Chinese”, Chinese American Transnationalism. ED. Sucheng Chan. Temple University Press. 194
Patel, Samir. S, “America’s Chinatowns”, ARCHEOLOGY, Vol. 67 Issue 3 (2014): 40
- “easy-living” Ruth D. Henderson, “South Carolina Writers Project, Life History”, Spartanburg’s Chinatown, 5