A Brief History of Chinese Laundries in Lunenburg County

This year’s theme for Asian Heritage Month is ‘Stories of Determination.’ In order to learn more about an area of our local history that I’m unfamiliar with, I dug into a couple of our local archives.

Chinese Laundries existed in large numbers in cities and towns across Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. The rise and fall of these family-owned-and-operated laundries was during a part of Canadian history when anti-Chinese sentiment was specifically enshrined in law. 

The Chinese Immigration Act (1885), a federal law, instated a head tax on Chinese immigrants requiring them to pay to enter the country. The tax, which increased from $50 to eventually $500 over the course of its 38-year life, was meant to deter Chinese immigration.

Those who were able to pay and move to Canada for work found themselves with limited options. Between the financial barriers of arriving to a new county (with even less money than you started with) and the discouraging prospect of finding work in a racist economy with restrictions on your employment opportunities and preconceived ideas of your worth, it wasn’t easy to get settled in Canada as a Chinese immigrant.

A hand laundry service required little capital and few staff to get started. 

During this exclusionary immigration period, we know there were still Chinese people living and arriving in Lunenburg County. In the 1908 McAlpines Directory, there’s a listing for a Chinese Laundry operated by Wah Hop on King St. in Bridgewater.

In the same year, there’s mention of Dawson Dauphinee purchasing a steam laundry in Lunenburg and moving it to Bridgewater on the lower side of King St.

(Bridgewater Bulletin, 12 July 1910, Vol. XX, No. 4)

Bridgewater had another Chinese laundry service run by Charlie Hum. It operated in the basement of the George J. Kelly Monument building at 700 King St. A 1927 receipt shows Hum paid $10.00 in monthly rent to George Kelly.

There’s not much known about the laundry business, but Hum also ran the Sanitary Cafe. The restaurant is thought to have started sometime after 1919, the year in which the Bridgewater Bulletin reported that a group of Chinese people had arrived in Bridgewater hoping to open a restaurant, and operated until 1945. In 1938 the cafe moved from its original location to 483 King St.

(The commercial space at 483 King St. is for rent as of May 2023. Photo: Sal Falk)

Unlike the Chinese-Canadian restaurants that popped up around central and Western Canadian communities, it seems Hum’s restaurant only served dishes the local majority was used to. A menu from the 1930s shows items such as bread halibut, stewed turnips and fried sausage with fried egg.

(DesBrisay Museum, Menu, 2015.19.30)

The back of the menu, handwritten in Chinese, is untranslated but could feature other dishes not offered to the anglo customers. 

There was also Tom Lee Laundry in Lunenburg at one point in time. It operated on Cornwallis St. next to the Oxner House. It is unclear how and when Thomas Lee came to Lunenburg — his information does not come up in the Nova Scotia vital statistics. 

These immigrants’ stories are just as much a part of our county’s social and economic history as other settler families. Due to discrimination and exclusionary collecting policies, we have to piece together these histories with the help of oral history.


4 responses to “A Brief History of Chinese Laundries in Lunenburg County”

  1. Alison F Strachan

    There was a Tom Lee who operated a laundry in Digby. Not much info to go on in NS Archives, but what was recorded is at https://archives.novascotia.ca/vital-statistics/death/?ID=84960

    1. Very cool! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Robin

    This is super interesting! Would love to see more articles on the lesser known parts of the history of the South Shore.

  3. Sue Kelly

    At the Knaut Rhuland House on Pelham St, Lunenburg, there is a collar box holding several starched men’s collars with Chinese lettering on the inside ..
    Laundry marks to be sure…maybe for Tom Lee’s Cornwallis Street Laundry…The collars belonged to a Mr. Zinck..fisherman.

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