Davenport’s First Chinese Immigrants

In honor of Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month, we’ve put our minds to uncovering the earliest Davenporters of Asian descent: Chinese immigrants in the laundry business.

This advertisment ran daily in the Davenport Gazette daily from June 26-July 3rd, 1875, the first evidence of a “Chinese Laundry” available in the city:

We found no further information about the location at 115 East Second Street (between Brady and Perry) in the 1870s, or Sam Lee, who offered “All kinds of laundry work done in the best manner.”

The 1882-83 city directory for Davenport introduces Y. A. Lung and the Sing Wah (Wah Sing?) Bros.:

The 1885 Iowa state census for Davenport has both Lungs (Yee, Hen) and Wahs (Sing, James Em, Jo), all males in their twenties, living and working in laundries on Perry Street:

These are local newspaper advertisements from the spring of 1887 for both families’ establishments:

Hen Lee’s laundry at 434 Brady Street had been their competition since at least 1884, when the the first advertisement below appeared (Davenport Democrat, 15 Aug); the second is contemporary with Lung and Wah’s (Morning Democrat, 3 Apr 1887).

The “Chinese Laundry” locations labeled on the 1886 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for Davenport correspond with addresses in the ads: Ye Lung at 317 Perry, Sing Wah at 309 Perry (both on East side between 3rd and 4th Streets), and Hen Lee at 434 Brady (SW corner of Brady and 5th Streets).

These businesses were active from the 1880s through the turn of the century, though it was mostly their misfortunes that made it into the newspapers. Ye Lung’s laundry was robbed on October 26, 1886, and although the report employed several negative racial stereotypes about Chinese Americans (also African Americans and Irish Americans) in describing the event, we do learn that Lung (and perhaps others in the local Chinese community) had not assimilated as far as personal appearance went. It noted that he wore a single braid and traditional dress.

One of Hen Lee’s employees was badly beaten near the laundry in the early morning of September 20, 1896. Luckily for us, the report does provide the names of two Chinese men in Davenport that are not recorded elsewhere: the victim, San Yon, and his fellow worker, Joe Chin. Unfortunately, we have not found further information about either man.

Hen Lee himself appears to have been as much a perpetrator as a victim of crimes in the city. A January 1895 tobacco-chewing “match” between he and his neighbor, cigar maker Theodore Kuehl, escalated into a “shooting scrape.” (Daily Leader, 8 February) Lee pled guilty to “lewdness” before the police court in early April 1903; he had been found with a known sex worker Emma Kranz in a back room of his laundry. (Davenport Morning Star, 3 April) Sam Lee’s objection to being confused with this Han Lee, as reported in the Daily Times for April 3, lets us know that by this time there was a fourth laundryman of Chinese descent in the city; his establishment was located at 514 West Second Street.

Accidents also made the news. The Lung, Wah, and Hen Lee laundries all had their windows damaged at some point during this period. A man was pushed into Ye Lung’s window in July 1889; in December 1891, a man named St. Clair sent a woman named Nora Winston through Sing Wah’s front window with a punch, the result being “to thoroughly ventilate Sing’s place of business.” (Davenport Democrat, 11 Dec ) At Hen Lee’s, in April 1893, a “…howling spring zephyr ricocheted in some mysterious way across the railroad track and smashed the glass, leaving an opening big enough to shove a bale of hay through.” (Daily Leader, 7 April)

We’ll conclude this review of the history of Chinese Americans in Davenport on a positive note, by noting some positive reports, both involving Sing Wah. He was praised by the Davenport Democrat for his contributions to the Art Museum that opened in June of 1882:

Sing Wah was also among the group of Tri-City laundrymen who threw a Chinese New Year party for the First Presbyterian Sunday School teachers in February of 1894 (Davenport Daily Leader, 8 February). This was done in thanks for an invitation to the Church’s Christmas supper.

As always, please let us know if you have additional information on the early Chinese community in Davenport to share!

(posted by Katie)

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