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An Oral History Project of the Chinese in Milwaukee

Places of Their Own

Funded by the Oral History Association, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Boston College’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program, “Places of Their Own” aims to document and share the oral history of Chinese immigrants in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and how they strived for survival and success through family businesses in the twentieth century.

hopkins st laundry by cheung 2012.tiff

Stories from the Community

Hopkins Street Hand Laundry drawn by Elinor Cheung

The history of Chinese immigrants in Milwaukee can be dated back to the late nineteenth century. However, there is limited scholarly research and archival collections related to the subject. By 1900, there were 23 Chinese people in Milwaukee County. Despite the smaller population, these Chinese owned and operated 11 laundry businesses and one Chinese restaurant. By 1940, the number of Chinese laundries and Chinese restaurants grew to 69 and 14 respectively. This oral history project is dedicated to collecting first-hand narratives of Chinese laundries, Chinese restaurants, and Chinese grocery stores in twentieth-century Milwaukee.

 

By documenting oral histories, this project seeks to expand knowledge of Asian American History and provide a base for educators in the State of Wisconsin to develop locally relevant teaching curricula in the State of Wisconsin. On May 25, 2023, the State of Wisconsin held its first public hearing for Assembly Bill 232, which requires the teaching of Hmong American and Asian American history in the state. The current law (Wisconsin Act 31), which was passed over three decades ago, only requires school boards to provide instruction programs regard to American Indians, Black Americans, and Hispanics. This project supports the teaching of a fuller American history of Wisconsin that includes Asian Americans. 

Building on my community networks and the support of the Organization of Chinese Americans-Wisconsin (OCA-WI), I interviewed over 20 community members, Chinese Americans and beyond, who had important stories to tell and yet to find a channel to share. Boston College undergraduate students, Emily Hiltunen, Annie Liu, Rachel Liu, Lucian Mahoney, and Huixing Yu assisted with transcribing the interviews and writing interview summaries. This collection, including interview audios, transcripts, and summaries will be donated to the Frank P. Zeidler Humanities Room at the Milwaukee Public Library for public access. 

 

Map showing Chinese laundries, restaurants, and grocers in Milwaukee from different years (drawn by Lucian Mahoney using ArcGIS online)

Sam Lee Laundry & G. Moy Laundry and Cleaners

Historic addresses: 612 N 5th Street, 2230 N 27th Street

Sally Moy Klatt grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as the child of two Chinese immigrants, Geng Wing Moy and Nancy Chan. Her paternal grandfather, Fong Moy, was born in the United States and was therefore able to bring his son, Sally's father, to Milwaukee in 1934. Sally’s family owned primarily two laundry businesses: one on 5th Street between Wisconsin and Michigan, and one on 27th Street. The 5th Street location was the primary laundry where all the clothes were washed and dried. The 27th Street store was mainly a storefront. Sally’s mother and grandfather ran the laundry until her grandfather’s death in 1953, as her father had a full-time job at Johnson Service Company (now Johnson Controls) for the benefits and additional income.

Hopkins Street Hand Laundry

Historic addresses: 2513 and 2523 W Hopkins St.

Lily Chow Bembenek was born in Milwaukee, the first child of her family to be born in the United States. Her father, Lin G. Chow, owned three Milwaukee laundries at different times from the 1940s to 1960s, including the downtown location at 507 W Wells Street, 2523 W Hopkins Street, and 2513 W Hopkins Street on the Northwest side of the city. The family initially rented the one-story building on 2523 West Hopkins Street. It was a tight space dedicated to both work and family living. In 1953, Lily’s younger brother was born, and the family bought a two-story building on 2513 Hopkins Street. Lily recalled the hard work of running a laundry business and how her parents were constantly working, except for dinner time in the evening. The laundry business mainly had three types of clientele: soldiers who needed extra starch on their uniforms, workers and executives who worked in the factories and offices of the nearby A.O. Smith Corporation, and neighborhood residents.

Norman's Laundry & Dry Cleaning

Historic addresses: 957 N 27th St. and 2333 W State St.

Henry Lee was born in 1952 to Chinese immigrants Norman and Esther Lee, who ran Norman’s Laundry at 957 N. 27th Street. While this was their primary laundry where clothes were washed, dried, and pressed, the family also had a pick-up and drop-off location called Norman’s Laundry & Dry Cleaning at 2333 W. State Street. During the interview, Henry described the manual, hard labor of working in the laundry business. All the employees at the laundry were Black. It was commonplace for people, especially businessmen, to do their laundry at a Chinese laundry if not in their own home or at a commercial laundry. After customers brought in their clothes, his family sorted the clothes, either placed metal tags or marked them with ink, and put them into the big washers. They also used a wringer to get the excess water out of the clothes before drying them. In addition, they had special pressers for shirts and pants. Henry’s mother also mended clothes for the customers. Like many other Chinese laundries, the family laundry had a cooking area in the back to ensure continuous business operation throughout the day. Henry also recalled the layout and details of the laundry. In addition to a stove, there was also a dresser, a couch, a dinner table, and chairs inside the laundry. 

Community
Event

Hosted by OCA-Wisconsin

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Oral History Association

National Endowment for the Humanities

Boston College

Organizations of Chinese Americans (OCA-WI)

Milwaukee Public Library

Milwaukee County Historical Society

 

And many local community members

 

Supported by

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