The two buildings sit directly across from each other on Canal Street. The first, 191 Canal, is located at the same address as the prewar tenement that once housed the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance of New York City, an organization of Chinese American laundrymen founded in 1933. The second, 196 Canal, was formerly home to the Chinese Hand Laundry Association of New York City, a laundrymen’s group started in 1934 as a direct rival to the Alliance.
Both of the organizations owed their existence to a 1933 attempt by the Board of Aldermen to pass a laundry ordinance that would have put most Chinese-owned laundries in the city out of business. Dennis Mahon, an alderman close to white laundry owners who viewed the Chinese businesses as their worst competitors, wrote the ordinance and pushed for its passage. More New York Chinese worked in hand laundries than in any other sector of the economy (restaurants were the other major occupation in the community), so the ordinance would have been disastrous for them.
Regardless, the city’s Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), which claimed to represent and defend all Chinese Americans in New York, demanded the laundrymen pay a fee in order for the CCBA to assist them. The laundrymen were incensed, because they already paid the CCBA a yearly “registration” fee that the organization required from all Chinese-owned businesses in the city.
A crusading newspaperman, Y.K. Chu, criticized the CCBA’s move in the newspaper he edited, the Chinese Journal of Commerce (Shangbao). With Chu’s help, the laundrymen organized the Alliance and successfully fought the ordinance without the CCBA’s help. Frightened by this independence, and the threat it posed to the CCBA’s power and fee-collecting ability, the organization used many tactics to undermine the Alliance. Among other things, the CCBA tried to stop the Alliance from incorporating and got the local courts to slap an injunction on Y.K. Chu’s paper. Finally, the CCBA encouraged and probably bankrolled the creation of the Association in 1934.
The Association never succeeded in attracting the Alliance’s loyal members. Still, discord over the increasing leftism of core Alliance leaders pushed many centrists in the group to quit it by the late 1930s. This strengthened the more radical voices in the organization. In 1940, the now smaller but more ideologically homogeneous Alliance founded its own newspaper, the China Daily News, with the quiet help of the Chinese Communist Party. The new paper published from an office at 105 Mott Street, just across the street from the Alliance office.
The China Daily News proved popular in the community, competing with several other papers–including the Chinese Journal of Commerce, which the Alliance’s old champion, Y.K. Chu, still edited. In 1946, the success of the Alliance and its paper enabled it to purchase outright the 191 Canal building.
However, the Cold War proved to be the leftist group’s undoing. In 1949, the Alliance and the China Daily News openly celebrated the founding of the People’s Republic of China. A year later, when the PRC entered the Korean War against the United States and the other United Nations forces, PRC sympathizers faced persecution. The Alliance and its newspaper did not escape US government scrutiny and punishment. In 1952, the Justice Department charged the China Daily News and its staff with violating US law by printing ads for PRC banks, and instructions to Chinese Americans on how to circumvent the “Trading with the Enemy Act” to send remittances to family members in China. Found guilty in 1954, the paper’s manager, Eugene Moy, died in jail a few years later. Other newspaper staff and Alliance members left the US voluntarily or were deported. Those who remained became uncritical apologists for the PRC.
The Alliance by that point had already lost much of what it gained in the previous decades. It sold its building in 1951. The CCBA and other groups in the community organized a boycott of the China Daily News, which newspaper vendors now feared carrying. FBI agents hounded subscribers. The paper struggled on, but only with the help of leftists across the country, who donated to the organ’s defense fund. The China Daily News persevered, maintaining a small circulation all the way until 1989, and the Alliance lived on as well. But the latter could not survive the long decline of the hand laundry industry in New York City and the death of its elderly members. The Alliance and its journal no longer exist today.
Although the 1950s persecution of the Alliance served the purpose of the Association, the conservative group did not fare that well either. It seems to have faded away after 1950. By then, its building had been taken over by the new American Legion Kimlau Post of Chinese American veterans. The Kimlau Post still occupies the old Association building today.
Sources: Renqiu Yu, To Save China, To Save Ourselves: The Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance of New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992); the New York Times; 紐約華僑社會, (New York: Chinese Community Research Bureau, 1950); Wu Jianxiong, 海外移民與華人社會 (Taipei: Yunchen Culture Press, 1993); Leong Gor Yun, Chinatown Inside Out (New York: Barrows Mussey, 1936).