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This is a contributing entry for We Were Here: Stories From Early Chinatown and only appears as part of that tour.Learn More.

After the railroad was completed in 1885, one of the few jobs Chinese immigrants were permitted to hold was in a laundry, due to the perception of laundry being considered ‘women’s work’ and the exhausting labour required. As a business that required little start-up capital, Chinese-owned laundries quickly became ubiquitous in Calgary. In 1910, there were 23 laundries listed in Henderson’s directory, at least 19 of which appear to Chinese-owned and operated. The work was hard and typically required long days of grueling manual labour washing and ironing by hand. By 1947, all the laundry businesses in Calgary had closed. 

Illustration by Jarett Sitter

Coloured illustrated image of Chinese man with long braid washing clothes in a laundry tub. He is surrounded by bubbles, each with a different image. One is a train, one is a bowl of porridge, and one is a woman.

Dry by Mormei Zanke, read by the author

1887, 8th Avenue Calgary (The First Chinatown) 

I open my eyes. For a moment, I can’t remember where I am. Then the cold hits, and it all comes back. The long days, hundreds of them now, flow through me. The tired body persists. If I need any reminder, I can just look at my hands. Dry, gnarled, cracked, calloused. What would Lanying say about this? She wouldn’t recognize me. But would I recognize her? It’s been five years since I left. I can barely recall her face. When I think of her, I think of her voice—sonorous, melodic. I remember it clearly. It is her firm voice I carry with me every day, the one I hear when I read her letters. The land gave us barely enough this year. We survive on rice and yams. Save our chicken eggs for special occasions. Like Jia’s eighth birthday. She asks about you. I tell her you will come home one day, with gold in your pockets. That makes her smile. Lanying’s last letter is sentimental. Her words wedge into my days like the sun. Usually, she’s short and to the point, to save paper. But this time it’s two full pages. Could it be, she misses me?  

It would never be this cold back in Canton. I never knew cold until I found myself here. And how did I find myself here? The longer I stay in Canada, the longer I forget the reason why. Golden mountain. Prosperity! I was wrong to envision this place in those terms. I hear the sounds of the other men waking. Sighs and groans. The creaking of floorboards. I change into the same wool shirt and pants I wore yesterday. There are a few holes in the elbows I need to patch up. I pass the other men on my way downstairs. They give me sleepy nods. In the main room of the boarding house, the fireplace is lit, a pot of plain juk bubbles away. My stomach turns. I’m hungry. Hoi passes me a bowl of the rice porridge, it’s his turn to make breakfast. Since 1885, there has been a slow trickle of Chinese men who find work in Calgary. But I suspect the $50 head tax has deterred more from coming. And of the men who came before, like me, we have to decide—stay here alone, forever, or go back with nothing to show for the bitter years on the prairies.  

I slurp down the hot bowl of juk and head to Lee’s. After I finished working on the CPR, Lee Chong offered me a job at his laundry. At first it was a welcome change from the hard labour on the railway, but washing clothes is a different kind of work. I walk west down 8th Avenue. The snow is still fresh, and my footprints make a trail of blue ovals behind me. I turn left on 5th Street, walk the short block to 9th Avenue and enter the laundry. Lee has the fire on, already boiling large pots of water. 

“Good morning!” I say.  

“Good morning, Tingwai,” Lee replies. “It’s going to be a busy day. Mr. Wilson already came to drop off his load.” I nod, hang up my jacket on the hook by the door. At least it is warm in here. I get right to work, assess the clothes that were dropped off, and organize them into piles. I fill a wash tub with hot water, sit on a nearby stool, and start with a shirt. First, I soak it in the water, lather in the soap, then rub the shirt against the wooden scrubbing board. I do this for about five minutes, rotating the shirt so every inch is cleaned. The cracks between my fingers sting. I transfer the shirt into another tub of clean water to rinse the soap out. After that, it dries on a rack near the stove. I repeat this sequence for each item of clothing, periodically changing the dirty water for clean.  

Mr. Wilson is one of the few white men who still gives us business. There used to be more, but many have switched to going to larger steam laundries. They are not shy in saying what they think about us. Dirty. Unsanitary. I hear them muttering obscenities, cast glances at us that say, you do not belong. I am not sure how much longer Lee’s will stay in business. It is clear we are not wanted. They will welcome us to build their railways, but now we are barely permitted to wash the dirt from their clothes. Familiar rage takes hold of me, as I scrub a pair of trousers furiously. I pass the day this way: sour, tired, and hungry. We finish at ten in the evening, and I say goodnight to Lee. Donning my jacket, I brace for the cold. Outside it is already pitch Black and I fold my arms across my chest to keep warm.  

It is in these quiet moments alone my mind drifts back to Lanying and Jia. Jia is eight now, I left when she was three. She might have a vague picture of me now but if I stay here in Canada, she will gradually forget entirely. I shudder at the thought. In this darkness, it is easy to wonder if I exist at all. That can happen when you live the exact same day over and over away from your family, the few people who truly know you. On this night, something shifts. Perhaps it is finally just one day too many. I imagine the stack of my days teetering, threatening to fall. In that panic, I make the decision I’ve been putting off. I will go back to Canton. I will walk down the dirt road to my village. I will knock on the door of our house and Lanying will open it. I will fall into her arms and I will promise to never leave again. It is decided. Relief washes over me as I step into the warmth of the boarding house. Hoi tells me there is still some juk left to eat.  

Illustration by Jarett Sitter

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Jarett Sitter