Ching Ching Chinaman by Wilbur Daniel Steele

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Quite the name for a short story! A friend of mine gave me a compilation of short stories to read by Wilbur Daniel Steele, whose stories stem from the early part of the 20th century in America– at a time where there was little sympathy for Chinese immigrants.

The story is fascinating and the prose are dense and sometimes complicated. I read this story aloud to my husband, (English is his third language) and he found it very hard to keep up with the prose because of their wayward nature.

The Chinese characters speak with an ‘accent’ in the text, which was sort of disturbing to read out loud– I felt uncomfortable reading in a weird, fake Chinese accent induced by writing words they way that Chinese immigrants might pronounce them.

Essentially, the story is about a Chinese laundromat operator who washes collars for white folk in the neighborhood; however, he leaves messages in his native language on the collars– the white folk obviously can’t understand the messages but another Chinese laundromat operator in a neighboring city can! Turns out these two are never washing collars– they’re just giving out new ones and keeping the old ones with messages. A very interesting game of telephone.

And there must be a ‘hanging your dirty laundry’ joke in there somewhere but I am too lame to figure it out.

***Spoiler Alert***

At the end of the story, the laundromat operator announces to his customers that one is having an affair; another is stealing from a friend– turns out he’s the only one who knows the truth about these high and mighty people’s lives. This is the first story that presented Chinese immigrants with some level of empathy– some kind of understanding.



I started doing research into this story and found they turned into a silent film in 1923, called Shadows, which you can see here thanks to the Internet. My next order of business is to watch it!


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