One by one, the Filipino bachelors would return from the Alaskan canneries with a pocket full of cash and a duffle bag full of dirty clothes.
Walking into the Re-New Cleaners, they would greet my mother, Puey King Wong.
“Hello mama. I’m back from Alaska,” they would say.
She took pride in her work and cared for these men’s clothes like they belonged to her own family. She would remind them not to drink too much and to save whatever money they did have.
It was the same message she passed on to her two sons and two daughters.
“If you wear clean clothes, no one will ever know you’re hungry.” That was one of her favorite things to say.
My mother is now 101 years old and lives at the Kin On Health Center, a nursing home for Chinese elders in Seattle. With Alzheimer’s, her mind is not what it once was, when she could manipulate an abacus to add up a customer’s bill.
She liked to remind her children she attended Broadway School to learn English for three weeks, then quit to open a hand laundry in Chinatown. Her English was poor, but she learned enough key words to do business with non-Chinese.
“I don’t know when my husband came over to America. He had been here for quite a number of years before he went back to China and married me,” she said, during an oral history interview for the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience years ago.
My father served in the U.S. Army during World War II. “My husband had enlisted in the military and had served. He went to America, then to the Philippines. As the war was coming to an end, he wanted to go back to China and bring me here.”
She kept a picture on her dresser for years. It’s a formal portrait taken in a Chinese photography studio. She’s holding a fan and wearing a Chinese dress.
The other picture that was important to my mother was of the large white passenger ship that brought her to America.
“By the time I came to this country, there were a lot of Chinese arriving here. Men, women and children. A lot of people were coming at the same time.”
She arrived in Seattle in 1947. A year later, she bought a laundry next to the Hong Kong restaurant.
“I bought this (Re-New Cleaners) from a Mr. Wong. Gradually I learned how to run it on my own. I did everything myself. I didn’t have to hire anybody. I didn’t have to look for customers. If they wanted to come, then they came. There were whites. There were Filipinos. There were all kinds of people. At that time most of the customers were Filipino. Business was good back then.”
The laundry was located below the Alps Hotel on King Street in the Chinatown/International District. The Eastern, Bush, Ohio and Adams hotels were nearby. Most of the customers were single men.
As I got older, I helped translate when it was necessary. She did most of the skilled work, while I helped do some ironing, delivered aprons to Chinatown restaurants and carried laundry packets back to the rooms of older residents.
“It was very difficult. I had to take in the laundry, repair zippers, do alterations and iron. I had to do some washing and packaging the clean clothes for customers.”
Using the pages of Chinese newspapers, she would carefully fold shirts and use the paper to keep the shirts flat. The pages would poke out with Chinese calligraphy showing. The laundry would be wrapped in butcher paper and tied with string.
She kept a ledger with customer’s names and signatures. Laundry tickets with numbers kept track of each order.
The days were long: nearly 12 hours a day, six days a week for 38 years. During the summer months, the laundry would heat up, especially near the press.
Raising four children was not easy while running a business.
“It was a lot of work. I had to take care of my children at the same time I was working. One would be in a baby carriage and the other would be grabbing on to my sleeve.
My father ran the Little Three Grand Café. At night he would work as a “hatchetman,” a sort of enforcer in an illegal gambling den. The cops were paid to look the other way.
“My husband passed away in 1968. I was the one who single handedly raised the children.”
Puey King Wong was born on February 11, 1911. My father, Milton Wong, is buried at Lake View Cemetery, where the headstone is also inscribed with my mother’s name, the date waiting to be completed. Someday, my parents will be together again.
Today, there are no Chinese hand laundries like the Re-New Cleaners left in the Chinatown/International District.