With a vintage red-and-white “Hand Laundry” sign and stacks of clean clothes wrapped in butcher’s paper tied with string, Sun’s Laundry on East 14th Street in Stuyvesant Town harkens back to a bygone era. The small storefront laundry and dry-cleaning service has been operating as a family business since 1959, when the current owner, Robert Lee, opened it with his father. Before that, his father ran a laundry in Boston, where he immigrated from China in the 1930s.
As business at Sun’s Laundry slowed in recent years and Lee has gotten older, he has considered closing the shop. But that decision was accelerated by COVID-19, says his nephew, Robert Gee. For Lee, 84, and his wife, Wai Hing Lee, 76, who works alongside him, commuting to the shop from their home in Elmhurst, Queens, was too big of a risk during the pandemic.
The couple closed the shop in mid-March when the city shut down and only opened it again on August 1st in order to allow customers to pick up any clothing they had left there. After Saturday, it will close for good.
“With stay-at-home, there’s no need for work clothes,” said Gee. “And even earlier than that, the rise of business-casual attire in the workplace has had an impact on the Chinese laundry business because there’s less dry cleaning and less pressed blouses needed for work.”
The Partnership for New York City has estimated that up to a third of New York City’s small businesses will close permanently due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and immigrant communities have been hit especially hard. Laundromats were deemed essential businesses during the pandemic but some still closed, at least temporarily, due to business slowing down or fear of the virus.
For Gee, whose maternal and paternal grandparents both opened laundry services upon arriving in the U.S., the closure of his uncle’s shop is a moment to reflect on the role that family-owned laundries have served in his community.
“We’re very, very fortunate as a family,” said Gee, who works in marketing. “I’m the youngest of six and each of us has done very well for ourselves in our respective careers. We’re very appreciative of the laundromat or Chinese hand laundry business because it supported thousands of families to get them through the tough times.”
Above Lee’s shop, Carol Kostik, a resident, says she moved into the building in 1981 when “it was not the greatest neighborhood” and found him to be a “welcoming and safe face.” In addition to being a customer at the shop, where she would get her sheets washed and shirts dry cleaned, Kostik says Lee would take packages and keys for her and other residents and always kept track of the goings on in the building.
“It does feel like the end of an era with times changing in New York, but Mr. Lee has earned his retirement many times over,” she said, “so we all wish him well.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese immigrants opened laundry services across the country, driven by a variety of factors, including the low startup capital and language skills needed to open laundering businesses, as well as discrimination that barred them from many other types of work. Although some Chinese Americans shifted into the restaurant business when steam-powered laundry machines became available in the 1920s, the laundry industry continued to be dominated by Chinese immigrants for years, with some 3,550 Chinese-owned laundries operating in New York City at the start of the Great Depression. Professional organizations such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance formed in the 1930s to protect the businesses, which were major employers in the Chinese community. They fought back against a 1933 law that sought to drive Chinese laundries out of business by requiring them to be operated by U.S. citizens.
Early on, Gee says, his uncle and grandparents lived above Sun’s Laundry, but eventually, they were able to save up to buy a home in Elmhurst, which the Lee’s still live in today. Their two children have also helped out with the family business over the years, but they had no plans to take it over themselves after the couple retired, as Robert Lee did with his father.
Dry cleaning and laundry businesses have become a less exclusively Chinese industry than they once were, although they are still largely immigrant-owned. One factor in this trend may be greater economic mobility in the Chinese community, which helps explain the wave of Chinese restaurant closures that was taking place prior to the pandemic, as younger generations declined to take over the family business.
Gee says he’s grateful he was able to have a white-collar career, but, “You gotta pay homage to what [the laundry business has] done to help Chinese immigrants over the years and help them acclimate to life in the United States.”