After the Railroad building, no jobs

Once the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1887, Chinese workers needed to find other employment. But due to socio-economic discrimination, racial hostility, lack of capital and their poor knowledge of English and French, this would prove to be no easy task.

Thousands of Chinese workers decided to return to China, but the greater part of them could not afford the cost of the return ticket home. Many were forced to stay in British Columbia, primarily in Victoria and Vancouver.

Some would settle in small towns along the railway line or become gardeners, grocers, cooks or servants (in wealthy white households and ranches), farm workers, or miners in Alberta. Most of these jobs were seasonal and workers had to spend the winter in cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge and Red Deer.

With limited resources and no real prospects, the Chinese Canadian community was relegated to the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder for more than half a century.

Running laundry facilities became the principal livelihood of the Chinese in railway towns east of the Rockies, in Quebec, the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Opening laundry businesses required little capital, the ability to work long hours, and only rudimentary English or French.

From 1890 to 1950, a significant number of the Chinese practiced this trade. In Montreal, for example, the 1921 census showed 1735 Chinese and an estimated 368 Chinese laundries. The life of a launderer was very difficult, monotonous and low paying.

The gradual mechanization that took place from the late 1940s to the 1960s along with the aging population of early Chinese immigrants would inevitably lead to the disappearance of Chinese laundries, but they remain an unforgettable chapter in the history of Sino-Canadians. For many descendants of launderers, the laundry business is a symbol not just of difficult living conditions, but of survival, endurance, patience and sacrifice for a better future.