The Chinese Laundry-Man

Maryann Nunnally, Contributing Writer

Maryann Nunnally

Just before the start of WWII, my father took me with him to the city about twenty miles away.  My brother, who was a year younger than I, was sick, and my mom had the responsibility of a house, the books for my father’s business, and the care of four children, one of whom had serious health problems.  It fell to my dad to keep me out of my mother’s hair.  My two older sisters were in high-school, but I was the one running around giving my mother the added problem of supervising me on top of everything else that fell to her.  Consequently, dad took me with him whenever he could.

On this particular occasion, he said that when his business was finished in the city, he would take me to see something that would be gone when I was an adult.  That was often the theme of the sights that he showed me such as an organ grinder with a monkey, a peanut man who sold roasted peanuts on the street and on this day, an Asian man who worked for the Chinese Laundry.

When we drove up to the laundry, dad parked the car in the parking lot designated for those who were coming and going from the business.  Washing, drying and pressing clothes were the laundry’s specialties, but white business men’s shirts were what the laundry was noted for.    Although it was the middle of the morning, several men were in line in the building and in the window standing on a raised floor was a man who was pressing a white shirt.

Dad pointed out to me the little pot-bellied stove in the space by the man, and several flat-irons heating up on the burner which was bright red from the coal fire beneath the irons.  A very large ironing board was in place in front of the Asian man who was dressed in a white coat and pants.  His dark hair was cut in the shape of a bowl, and as he moved around his hair swung around his face and head.  My father explained that the man was a Chinese laundry man, and his job was to press the clothes that people dropped off to be washed and ironed.

I studied the man very closely and then asked my dad why the man was not yellow.  I had heard that Chinese skin was yellow, but the man had light tan skin and definitely did not have anything yellow about it.  I remember my father laughing as he said, “That is just an old myth that people made up because they wanted the Chinese to look different.  There are no yellow Chinese, only skin the color that your big sisters get when they lie out in the sun.”

Then dad said, “Now watch him very closely.  I want you to see how he presses the clothes.”’

When I think about it now, I know I must have been puzzled because I had seen my grandmother use a flat-iron which she heated on the stove, so flat-irons were not that interesting to me.  But as I watched, the laundry-man took a drink of water from a tin cup that was sitting on the end of the ironing board.  Then, stretching out the white shirt sleeve in front of him, he sprayed the water from his mouth over the sleeve.  Grabbing a hot iron with a cloth around his hand, he slapped the flat-iron down and pressed the sleeve smooth and wrinkle-free.  I was instantly engrossed and delighted.

I knew that my mother damped the clothes when she brought them in from the clothes line, wrapped them up in an old towel and when they were uniformly dampened, ironed them with an electric iron.  I thought how much easier it was to dampen the cloth without having to sprinkle it ahead of time and wait for it to be completely damp before she ironed it.

I could hardly wait to get home to tell my mom all about the Chinese laundry-man who sprayed the clothes by shooting the water from around his teeth.  My mother was not impressed.  She said, “Don’t get the idea that I am going to dampen my ironing by spitting on it.  Mouths have germs in them and even though that is a quick way to sprinkle the clothes, it will never happen in this house.”

I might have been a youngster, but I was savvy enough to know that a hot iron would kill the germs.  However, I did not argue that point, as I knew my mom would never give in to sprinkling the ironing by spraying water from her mouth. What’s more she would quickly tell me not to be a sassy girl, so I decided to wait until I was big enough to press something and try spraying water between my teeth.  That day never arrived because by the time I was old enough to take care of my own ironing, we had purchased a steam-iron which steamed and sprinkled as needed.   Still spraying water from my mouth while I was pressing something has always intrigued me, but I must confess that I hear my mother saying, “Mouths have germs.”  And that is that.