Chinese Laundries in Chester County

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It seemed like the classic immigrant makes good in America story, but life was not easy for the first Chinese residents in West Chester. This is the story of Hop Lee and his nephew Tom Lee.

 Compiling research on the experience of different immigrant groups for CCHS forthcoming exhibit is bringing many fascinating stories to light. Currently, we are seeking photographs of Chinese laundries and the immigrants who ran them.

 For whatever reason, the Chinese found their niche in the laundry business. In the 1896 Boyd’s Chester County Directory eight Chinese laundries are listed in the larger towns of Coatesville, Kennett Square, Oxford, Phoenixville and West Chester. By 1902 there are five Chinese laundries in West Chester alone! As long as men were wearing shirts with starched collars and cuffs, business was good.

 When Tom Lee left China in 1910 just before the communist takeover, he was fortunate to have an uncle in West Chester, PA who welcomed him. 

 Hop Lee came to West Chester in 1881 with a cousin to open a laundry. He already had a successful business in Philadelphia. His path here was not an easy one. West Chester newspapers of the era made fun of his speech. His traditional dress and hairstyle brought stares from local residents.  When local schoolboys threw stones damaging his windows, Levi G. McCauley, Manager of West Chester Gas Co, advertised a $10 reward for the capture of the vandals. He place an ad in the August 7, 1889 edition of the Daily Local News, declaring, “The persecution of this man is a disgrace to the community.”

 Hop Lee’s business not only survived, it thrived. When he passed away his nephew Tom Lee inherited the business, then at 124 West Gay St. West Chester.  In 1923, Tom Lee had saved enough money to return to China to be married. He moved the business to 152 W. Gay Street where the growing family lived in an apartment above the business. Three of his four children were born in that apartment.

 The Daily Local News of June 25, 1949 tells his story. Tom Lee was very proud that all four of his children graduated from West Chester High School and went on to college. His son Frank continued the laundry business at least through 1957. Jacob Lee served in the Navy Air Corp. during World War II and became an electrical engineer under the G.I. Bill. Daughters Fanny and Mary became teachers.

 

CCHS wishes to contact Tom Lee’s children or grandchildren to learn more about his family’s story. Do you know any of these West Chester High School graduates?  Fanny Lee graduated about 1940, Frank Lee in 1944, Jacob or Jake in 1946 and Mary in 1949. 

 Please contact Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist if you have any information.