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Vol. 71/No. 42      November 12, 2007

Book tells of fight against racism
by Chinese launderers in N.Y.
To Save China, To Save Ourselves: The Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance of New York, by Renqiu Yu. 253 pp. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. $26.95 paperback.

This book tells part of the hidden history of Chinese American struggles against institutionalized racism and class oppression, tied to the fight for China’s self-determination.

It focuses on the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance (CHLA), founded in 1933 to represent thousands of Chinese laundries in the New York area in order to oppose a proposed city ordinance that would have driven virtually all Chinese hand laundries out of business. That local law, which had the support of white laundry businesses, would have been a major blow to the Chinese community that depended on the income from those Chinese laundries.

Author Renqiu Yu tells the story of Chinese immigration in New York from early colonial times. He describes how in the 1870s Chinese laundry workers were used to replace Irish women workers who went on strike at a Passaic, New Jersey, steam laundry. On learning why they were used as replacements, the Chinese workers also struck, fighting for better wages.

Yu explains how Chinese immigrants, facing restrictions on jobs and other racist obstacles, were forced to become small laundry owners and workers. In New York they founded the CHLA because the organization that claimed to represent all Chinese immigrants, the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association (CCBA), acted on behalf of the wealthy merchants in New York’s Chinatown at the expense of the exploited majority. The CHLA emerged as an effective defender of the small laundry owner-operators, and CHLA membership quickly grew despite red-baiting and factionalism by the CCBA.

This struggle took place during a period of labor radicalization when class battles erupted in the United States and internationally. Yu ties it to events unfolding in China at that time, and he notes the influence of the Stalinized American and Chinese Communist parties on the CHLA and those around it.

His account shows that there was not unanimous support for Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (KMT) among Chinese Americans, as portrayed in other accounts. The CHLA campaigned vigorously in support of the fight against the Japanese occupation of China. This was in contrast with the KMT’s refusal to wage a consistent fight against the imperialist occupation and its focus on attacking the Chinese Communist Party and workers movement. The CCBA was torn between its loyalty to the KMT and community sentiment against Japanese occupation.

The CHLA remained involved in struggles through the 1950s, when it faced FBI surveillance and interrogations against some of its members.

This book tells an important part of working-class history and the contributions of Chinese American workers.  
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