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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015




Uncovering the history of Elora’s Chinese laundry

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

 

A few weeks ago Bonnie Callen at the Wellington County Archives showed me one of her new acquisitions. It is a laundry price list from Ying’s Laundry in Elora.

Everyone who lived in this area in the 1980s and before will remember Ying’s Restaurant and its genial proprietors, Joe and Betty Law. Those a little older will recall Joe’s father, Law Ying (he died in 1954), who ran the restaurant and before that, the laundry.

I had very little information on Elora’s Chinese laundry. I knew that Law Ying came to Elora in 1921, and that there had been a laundry before that, because one appears on Mill Street on the 1904 insurance map. That was about it.

Like much in history, this subject turned out to be more complicated than it originally appeared. There were at least a dozen different proprietors, and four locations for Elora’s Chinese laundry over a 32-year period.

The first laundry I was able to find was operated by Lee Sung in a portion of the old Commercial Hotel complex on Mill Street (now the building at the front of the Gorge Cinema). This business began early in 1900. It appears on the 1900 assessment roll, and Lee Sung ran an advertisement in the Elora Express beginning in March 1900.

Lee Sung rented these premises from the Biggars, who ran the Commercial. It is entirely possible that washing the linen from the hotel formed the backbone of the business. Lee Sung stayed only briefly. On the census taken in March of 1901 the proprietor is Chun Lee, a 32-year-old bachelor who immigrated from China in 1890.

In 1902 there is a new proprietor and a new location. Ling Chang opened a laundry in an old building on East Mill Street, on the site currently occupied by the tourism office in a building  constructed in the mid 1900s for a hydro substation . He remained for about two years. On one assessment roll the proprietor is listed as Ling Chey, but I suspect this is the same man as Ling Chang. He was followed by Yee Fun in late 1903 or early 1904.

In the summer of 1904 there again is a change. A new proprietor, Charlie Fong (also listed as Charlie Wong) took over the business from Yee Fun and moved to new rental quarters on the south side of Mill Street. Yee Fun had decided to return to Honk Kong, where he had a wife and child.

Charlie Fong refurbished the interior for his purposes, and added electric lighting, at that time supplied from by Dr. Groves’ power plant in Fergus.

Apparently this was a larger operation than it had been previously. The assessment was $450, compared to $200 for the previous quarters. At the time the building was owned by J.J.R. Smith, who ran a grocery store in the other portion of the main floor.

The laundry remained at this location until 1914. Charlie Fong, though, stayed only two years. He was followed by Leap Wing from 1907 to 1909, and then by Charlie Sang. Leap Wing succeeded in having the assessment reduced from $450 to $300.

In May 1914 the laundry moved to its fourth location, on Metcalfe Street and a building that had been used for decades by Sam Webster for his tinsmithing business. The Metcalfe Restaurant is now on this site.

Charlie Sang paid $200 for the ramshackle single-storey frame building. Apparently, Charlie had done well enough in the laundry business that he felt comfortable in establishing a more permanent home. The new premises gave him 30 feet of frontage, and when new equipment was added, his assessment jumped to $650.

Charlie Sang sold the laundry to Ko Wing at the end of 1920 for $200, who five weeks later flipped it to Harry Lau for the same price. In July 1921 Lau sold the property to Law Ying for $400. These prices seem improbably low for a fully equipped laundry at this time, and there may well have been other considerations in the transactions.

With the exception of one sojourn back to China, Law Ying spent the rest of his life in Elora. He was 32 when he came to town. He went back to his home in Hangkow Province in 1929 to see his wife, Yuet Ping. Due to immigration regulations she had not been able to come with him to Canada. He stayed for several years. During this interval his brother Louis carried on the Elora business.

When he returned to Elora in 1931, Law Ying was more interested in the restaurant business, which he had entered before his trip to China.

He sold the laundry property to Dr. W.A. Kerr, who was occupying the building immediately to the north.

Dr. Kerr rented the laundry to Wang Chun and then to Sing Wong. Neither stayed long. In January 1933 Dr. Kerr tore the old building down.

That summer he constructed a new building for his residence and office. This building now houses the Metcalfe Restaurant.

With the exception of Law Ying, we know virtually nothing about these proprietors. Were they all immigrants from China? What were their family circumstances? Why did they come to Elora, and why did they leave? What sort of network of contacts did they have? Were some of them related to each other? I doubt that we ever will be able to answer questions such as these.

The first Chinese immigrants came to North America during the California gold rush. By 1870 there were more than 70,000 in the San Francisco area alone. Discrimination and violence were rampant. Consequently, the Chinese were relegated to businesses with long hours and low pay, such as laundries and restaurants. This association lasted for decades.

The Chinese laundry soon became a fixture in every large centre on the continent, and many of the smaller ones as well. For a couple of hundred dollars or less, a Chinese immigrant could set up a laundry in rented quarters. The hours were long and the work hot and undesirable, but most were able to at least eke out a living.

I have no idea of the profitability of the Elora laundry during its 32 years. The laundry opened at a time when fewer families had domestic help. Some women, usually widows with families to support, also took in washing at this time. These, of course, were the days before electric washing machines.

Sending the dirty wash to the laundry seems to have become increasingly popular in the first decade of this century. From the scant existing evidence, the peak seems to have been the First World War period, when Charlie Sang purchased the old Webster building and expanded the laundry.

By the mid 1920s, Law Ying could see that the days of the laundry were over, and that the future lay in the restaurant business.

These were the years when washing machines first flooded the market, and many households acquired water heaters. Doing the laundry at home became far less onerous.

At any rate, I now have a list of Elora laundry proprietors, though even this must viewed with caution. First and last names are regularly reversed in documents. As well, the name “Charlie” was frequently given to any Chinese man, in the same way that Irish were once named “Pat” and Germans answered to “Fritz.” Even Law Ying is listed as “Charlie” on the 1921 assessment roll.

The laundry list at the archives is one of the few remnants we have of a forgotten local business, and the forgotten men who ran it.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Oct. 9, 1996.

 

Vol 51 Issue 49

 
 

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