Organizing Chinatown

Organizing and Chinese Exclusion in Chinatown


Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance Members At Bear Mountain Ca. 1930s-1940s, Collection Of Betty Yu

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In the face of daunting barriers and widespread racism, in the 1930s Chinese American workers in Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown demanded improved labor rights, connected with groups in the global anti-imperialist movement, and resisted longstanding, legalized discrimination.

These movements were led by workers in hand laundries, which became the largest and most economically sustaining industry in the neighborhood in the era of Chinese Exclusion. The motto “the Laundry Alliance is for the laundrymen” captured the democratic vision of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance (CHLA).

Founded in 1933 to fight discrimination from City officials, the CHLA arose in urgent response to a bill by the City’s Board of Aldermen that imposed hefty increases in hand laundry licensing fees and citizenship requirements—which most residents were denied under Chinese Exclusion laws. After successfully lobbying to amend the bill, the CHLA grew to 3,200 members by the following year, nearly half of the Chinese laundry workers in New York. From its headquarters at 191 Canal Street, they provided mutual aid, legal services, and recreation.

The CHLA also remained engaged with events in China, largely supporting Chinese communists against Nationalist forces and threats from Japan, which led to intense scrutiny and decreased membership from the FBI by the 1950s. The organization, however, lasted into the 2000s.

With the recent rise in anti-Chinese discrimination and violence amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, histories of repression and resistance in New York’s first Chinatown remain as important as ever.  

Key Events

Global Year    Local
  1882 Chinese Exclusion Act takes effect nationwide, prohibiting immigration from China and denying paths to citizenship for most Chinese Americans in the United States; Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Associated (CCBA) founded in New York the following year.
Civil war in China between Kuomintang (KMT) nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong begins. 1927  
  1933 Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance (CHLA) founded in New York City by laundry workers
  1938 CHLA members march in Manhattan to support China against Japanese invasion
  1940 China Daily News founded in New York, published until 1989 
Chinese Exclusion technically ends when the US and China ally during World War II; quotas don’t change until 1965 1943  
  1952 CHLA members who support the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after communist victory in 1949 are targeted by the FBI and imprisoned under the Trading with the Enemy Act
  1978 Laundry worker and writer Tung Pok Chin publishes the memoir Paper Son, One Man’s Story; his wife Wing Fong Chin goes on to help lead the 1982 Chinatown garment worker’s strike
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