A well-loved establishment that has been a part of the close-knit community in San Mateo, California for almost a century and a half, has recently closed its doors, marking a bittersweet end of an era. After 140 years in operation, Ching Lee Laundry, the oldest Chinese-owned laundromat in the United States has made its final farewell to its loyal customers on Saturday.
Longtime patrons came to visit and say goodbye to the shop that has, for generations, been run by the same family. Bearing gifts and stories, visitors filled the old laundry place which generated an emotional vibe for the owners’ family members.
Jack Yee and his wife Evelyn, Ching Lee’s third-generation owners, are now both 87 years old and with Jack’s delicate health, the family decided it best to finally close the shop.
“It deeply saddens me that this era is ending,” Jacque Yee, the couple’s daughter told NBC News. She herself has helped managed the shop with her father for 30 years.
It was indeed an entirely different era when Ching Lee Laundry opened in 1876, a time when Chinese immigrants were “excluded from virtually everything.” Jacque Yee’s great granduncle used to travel by a carriage drawn by horses to pick up laundry in San Francisco.
While tens of thousands of Chinese had already migrated to California by that time, the Yee family was able to settle in suburban San Mateo — when the population was just 932.
By the late 19th century and going to the early 20th, the laundry industry had been operated largely by Chinese immigrants. Faced with some anti-Chinese sentiment of the time, however, many Chinese businesses were challenged by local laundry owners.
“The older generations really endured hardships to make their way,” Jacque Yee said. “Over the years, we’ve had so many windows broken by people throwing bricks, and people yelling, ‘C*****, go home!'”
Yet Ching Lee has endured for generations, a testament to how far Chinese immigrants have come, overcoming alienation, poverty, segregation, discrimination and bigotry to become Americans. With the family’s perseverance and dedication not just to the business itself but also to the community it has been part of, the laundry shop which literally translates to “victory” in Cantonese, has ended its run on a victorious stance.
In its final hours before the shop finally closed its doors, loyal customers who have frequented the place for years remained in its tiny waiting area, expressing sadness that Ching Lee will be gone for good.
“I’m in mourning,” said Therese Ryan a regular client since the 1970s. “I just can’t believe this is happening. Thank you for all of the memories.”