Vanishing Sons:
Chinese Laundry Workers at
1813 Seventh Street, Oakland

(Note: If you're a scholar doing research on Chinese laundries, email me for an Adobe Acrobat version of my thesis. It's about 8.4 MB, a rather large file.)

Artifacts of Chinese origin have always fascinated the historical archaeologist, both due to their ease of identification and representation of an "otherness." Analyses of these artifacts, however, often offer little more than types and numbers of the artifacts. The people who may have used these items seem to be missing. Based on data collected from an early 20th-century laundry in Oakland, California, this thesis proposes to construct a historical narrative of how a Chinese laundry man may have gone about his daily business, and demonstrate that archaeology and history, when properly combined, offer a much more interesting and comprehensive picture of the past.

The bulk of the thesis consists of an introduction, historical data, a review of existing sociological/ethnographic studies, a research design, archaeological data, and a discussion of findings. A 10-page historical narrative, titled "One Day in the Life of John Chang the Chinese Laundry Man," will conclude the thesis. The main character, John Chang, will be based on employees of the laundry at 1813 Seventh Street, Oakland, California. The story will document the life of a representative Chinese laundry man from the moment he wakes up until the minute he goes to sleep, and explore aspects of his work, diet, clothing, living conditions, and entertainment. Who were his customers? What kind of food does he eat? Does he live in the laundry? How does he present himself to the bigger society? Which part of the stereotypical Chinese laundry image do he and the laundry he works at fit into? How does this laundry add to our understanding of the lives of Chinese immigrants in late 19th- and early 20th-century? Many other questions await to be formulated.

Historical, sociological, ethnographic, and archaeological sources will be integrated to prepare a historic context statement for this study. Historical documents, e.g. traveler's accounts, newspaper articles, Sanborn fire insurance maps, census records, and personal journals, from the Bancroft Library, Oakland Public Library and History Room, California State Library, State Archives, Chinese Historical Society of America, and other establishments will present the social context. A review of existing sociological and ethnographic studies will describe the topics scholars have been interested in traditionally and offer their results. The archaeological remains, including that of Chinese porcelain, bluing balls, abacus beads, Chinese inkwell, and any available faunal and floral artifacts, will provide insight into the material culture of the laundry. If specific information on this laundry is unavailable, the historical resources can still render contemporary descriptions of a representative turn-of-the-century Chinese laundry, which is just as useful for this study.

Chinese laundries have been studied in a variety of ways. The goal of this thesis is to demonstrate that the combination of history, sociology, ethnography, and archaeology can be a powerful tool for interpretation. Each piece of artifact has a tale to tell. With the help of all four fields, one can decipher that story and offer a more enriched look into the past.

(Read up on the Cypress Freeway Replacement Project, the basis of this thesis)