In the days before the widespread introduction of domestic washing machines, when average family sizes were much larger than they are today, laundry was an arduous chore.
An entire day every week was usually set aside as “washing day”. Bedsheets, towels, heavy-duty work clothes and other bulky items were placed in a large water-filled metal vat known as a “copper”, heated over a fire then scrubbed on a washboard with a bar of laundry soap before being wrung out through an electric or hand-operated mangle. These tasks were routine facts of life until not so long ago; in post-war Australia, my mother and aunts, now in their 80s and 90s, did all their laundry this way, well into their married lives.
The story of laundry is a fascinating part of Hong Kong’s social history. For many years, visitors to the colony who asked if there was a Hong Kong flag were wryly directed to the myriad washing poles that flapped from virtually every window in the city.
Chinese-run laundries have long been commonplace in many parts of the world. Across the diaspora, Chinese ethnic groups took up specific trades and occupations, and laundrymen, as well as carpenters, were mostly Cantonese, from San Francisco to Penang.
Chinese laundrymen were also employed on the merchant vessels of international shipping firms such as P&O, the Glen Line and Blue Funnel Line, which plied routes between Britain and East Asia. For decades, the Royal Navy, too, engaged Chinese laundrymen as part of a ship’s company; recruited directly from Hong Kong, they served all over the world.
Many Chinese emigrant families got a new start in life in the laundry business. A regular clientele was built up through quality of service and attention to detail – or swiftly eroded with loss or damage of garments and less than satisfactory results. This occupation offered an opportunity to an otherwise unskilled worker, and also provided work for members of his family. The more robust could do the washing, ironing and water carrying; folding and packing was undertaken by younger, older or physically weaker family members; and smaller jobs could be delegated to children. A laundry also meant that for newcomers, limited or non-existent English (or whatever the predominant local language happened to be) was not a barrier to eventual success.
Commercial laundries in Hong Kong became popular with families who otherwise did hand washing. Insufficient space at home to wash and dry larger items such as bedsheets, blankets, quilts and heavy garments was no longer a problem. A backstreet laundry would deal with these items efficiently and economically, and return them to a customer thoroughly cleaned and dried.
Laundries remain in demand in cities with high population densities and limited space in residential units, such as New York and Hong Kong. In recent years, as local apartments have steadily shrunk to “nano-flat” and “micro-unit” sizes, using the space occupied by a washing machine for other purposes has become commonplace, especially for those living alone or childless couples. Recourse to a laundry shop a few times a week, as an alternative to purchasing a washing machine, makes spatial as well as economic sense for many.
In older parts of Hong Kong, wooden washboards can still be bought from backstreet homeware shops. The fact that these items continue to be manufactured and offered for sale indicates that some people, at least, still use them.