The Strange Case of the Chinese Laundry
In 1886, Sheriff Hopkins entered the Yick Wo laundry in San Francisco . The sheriff had a warrant for the arrest of the owner. The warrant said he had broken the law. A San Francisco ordinance said that all laundries had to be operated in brick buildings. The Yick Wo laundry was in a wooden building, and wooden buildings were more vulnerable to fires. But there was one problem: of San Francisco's 320 laundries, 310 were in wooden buildings. Most of the laundries240 of themwere owned by Chinese persons. During the Gold Rush, the men who flocked to California needed to get their clothes washed. Traditionally, in Europe and America, women were expected to wash clothes. So most of the miners wouldn't wash their own clothes. But Chinese men would.
Racists are haters, and the racists hated the Chinese. They got mean-spirited laws passed to try to put the Chinese launderers out of business . Sheriff Hopkins arrested almost all the Chinese owners of laundries in wooden buildings. He arrested only one of the white laundry ownersand she was a woman! Seventy-nine white men who ran laundries were not bothered by the sheriff. The Chinese launderers got together and sued the sheriff. The case was Yick Wo v. Hopkins, or as it is called Yick Wo v. Hopkins. Law students today study that caseit's importantbut most don't know that there never was a Yick Wo. Sheriff Hopkins assumed that the man who owned the Yick Wo laundry, and fought for his rights, was named Yick Wo. Actually, his name was Lee Yick. And he fought for his rights.