Chinese Self-Employment and Taxes

        Countless numbers of Chinese immigrants lived frugally and saved as much as possible from their meagre earnings as laborers in factories, sweatshops, laundries, and restaurants with the hope that they might someday be able to own their own business.  Even though they risked losing their investments due to competition and/or lack of business acumen, being one's own boss offered a sense of being in control and freedom from often arbitrary orders from employers.
         A generation or two ago, self-employed business owners did much, if not all, of their business transactions on a strictly cash basis, immediate or deferred, and bookkeeping records of income and expenses were easily manipulated to their advantage taxwise.
Joy Young, 1936

    Tax auditors, however, did audit these businesses to try to detect fraud and tax evasion. One defense used by Chinese was 'ignorance' of the American system of doing business. For example, in one case involving the popular Joy Young restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama,  a tax audit based on the taxpayer's bank deposit records revealed that sales tax had been underreported by approximately 40% per month during the audit period of several years.  The taxpayer's attorney invoked a "cultural defense,"arguing that the "Chinese way" of keeping records differed from the "normal"American method and cannot be held to the normal standard of compliance.  An argument against this defense was that as the taxpayer had successfully operated a restaurant since 1919. he certainly knew or should have known he had to keep adequate records for sales tax purposes.

Interior, 1960s

  The case was eventually closed after the taxpayer died during the deliberations. As a rule, sales tax must be assessed within 3 years from the due date but the state revenue office failed to do so in this case.  Hence, the court barred the assessment by the three year statute of limitations unless the Department proved that the Taxpayer filed false or fraudulent returns with the intent to- evade tax.

"Chinese Laundry Kids," CBC Radio documentary

Monday, April 18, 2011  
Chinese hand laundries used to be a fixture in every town and city. They were so common place that the occupation of "laundryman" became synonymous with the Chinese. They were socially isolated, and endured a life of drudgery and racial hostility. CBC producer Yvonne Gall explores the legacy of these Chinese pioneers through the stories of the children who grew up in their parents' laundries.

chinese-laundry-1881.jpgWhy did so many Chinese immigrants turn to owning and operating laundries? 

They were first enticed to North America by the gold rush of the mid 1800's and were later hired to build the railways in both Canada and the United States. But when the gold rush ended and the railways built, the Chinese immigrants were no longer wanted. They were socially isolated and struggled to deal with a growing tide of racism. They gravitated to jobs shunned by the white community, jobs like washing clothes. But hostility and racism persisted and was often expressed in violence and sanctioned by law.

Despite these obstacles, the Chinese laundryman persevered and they endured so that their children would have a better life. 

Reading List

Chinese Laundries:Tickets to Survival On Gold Mountain by John Jung. Published by Yin and Yang Press, 2007. 

Southern Fried Rice: Life in a Chinese Laundry in the Deep South by John Jung. Published by Yin and Yang Press, 2005. 

The Year of Finding Memory 
by Judy Fong Bates. Published by Random House Canada, 2010. 

China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry by Judy Fong Bates. Published by Sister Vision, 1997. 

Enduring Hardship: the Chinese Laundry in Canada by Ban Seng Hoe. Published by Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2003. 

The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation by Paul C. P. Siu. Published by New York University Press, 1987. 

A White Man's Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants 1858-1914 by Patricia E. Roy. Published by University of British Columbia Press, 1989. 

The Oriental Question by Patricia E. Roy. University of British Columbia Press, 2003. 

Chinese Islanders: Making a Home in the New World, by Hung-Min Chiang. Published by Island Studies Press. Charlottetown, 2006.


Racism Can Make A Person "Fighting Mad"

        Racism can have pernicious and enduring harmful effects on its victims, many who may feel 'fighting mad,' but see no remedy. One exception, however, is Leo Fong. The story of his encounter with racism in Widener, Arkansas back in the 1930s, where his immigrant parents ran a grocery store illustrates how a resourceful person can make "lemons into lemonade." At age 7 on his first day of school where he was the only Asian, a group of students surrounded him at recess and made racial slurs. After he returned home, his father asked, “How was school?” Leo replied, “Great! Everybody likes me. They even sang to me.His puzzled father asked, “What did they sing?” Leo replied, “Ching-chong Chinaman.” 

 As Leo recalls: "... father turned red in the face and said, “They don’t like you. Don’t you know they are making fun of your racial heritage? Next day at recess, the playground teacher organized a softball game and I was designated to play first base. One of the kids hit a single and ended up on first base. He looked at me and remarked, “Chink!” Without hesitation I punched him in the nose, knocking him to the ground. The playground teacher grabbed me by the neck, spanked me and sent me to the office. I had to stand in the hall for two days while the other students taunted me. Unlike his cousins who dropped out of school because of racial intimidation, I chose to remain in school and fight."

Thus, began the career of Leo Fong who would go on to become first, a superb boxer, martial arts expert and sparring partner of Bruce Lee,  movie actor and director, and eventually a Methodist minister as he discusses with cable tv interviewer John Robert Cruz.
[Thanks to Ed Soon for information about Leo Fong who was 80 at the time of the video  and still actively teaching marital arts]


"Making" Chinese Family Portraits Before Photoshop

I have seen many Chinese immigrant family portraits that resemble a posed portrait studio shot where everyone is stoically staring blankly at the camera. The parents are seated in the front center, perhaps holding an infant in the mother's lap, and older children or other relatives standing behind or seated on both sides of the parents. I never thought about the logistics of getting all these people together for the portrait, especially when the father might have been working somewhere in the middle of the U. S. or Canada whereas the wife, and most of the family members, might have been living back in the Guangdong village. Some of these family portraits in the earliest days might have been, as suggested in the video with Albert Lee of Halifax, Canada, composite photographs where individual photographs were 'pasted' of merged onto a single photograph! Why didn't I think of that solution?

Early Chinese Laundries & Restaurants in Halifax, Canada

Early Chinese immigrants in the Canadian maritimes, like those in other parts of Canada and throughout the United States, began to open laundries, and then restaurants, in the last decades of the 19th century. The laundries started to give way to restaurants by the mid-1900s, with the greater availability of home washing equipment and the growing acceptance of Chinese cuisine. Albert Lee, who grew up in his father's Halifax laundry, describes this history in the video below.


Chinatown, My Chinatown Part II

"Chinatown" holds a certain mystique and charm whereas "Chinaman" is seen as insulting and demeaning. Yet, both labels share the effect of setting Chinese people apart from mainstream society by focusing on the exotic and oriental associations of Occidental supremacy that have existed for well over a century and a half in North America, and elsewhere outside of China.

In my earlier post on Chinatowns, I examined the romanticized exotic view of Chinatowns held by non-Chinese in contrast to the realistic and harsh view held by Chinese who worked and lived within its confines. Prior to the end of World War II, Chinese in San Francisco, and undoubtedly other communities, had no choice but to live in Chinatown because they were not allowed to buy, or sometimes rent, living quarters elsewhere.  Many lived in cramped quarters, often in cold water flats above storefronts where several families vied for use of communal kitchens and bathrooms.  After World War II as soon as they could afford it, Chinese moved their families away from the slums of Chinatowns to suburban spaces, returning only to shop and dine.

By the 1950s, Chinatowns like the iconic one in San Francisco showed signs that it might die as its residents moved away while urban renewal and freeways demolished parts or entire Chinatowns like those in Detroit and St. Louis. Then a reprieve came over the next several decades as new sources of Chinese immigrants, fresh off the boat (FOBs) with many of them on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, replaced the upwardly mobile American Born Children or ABCs of the second and latter generations.

There has been recent concern expressed in the national media about whether "Chinatowns" were again dying because immigration of Chinese was declining.  If Chinatowns die, it may be not for a lack of Chinese immigrants, but more to the irrelevance to the newer immigrants of the traditional Chinatowns that the Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Bureaus promote.  Whereas the pioneer Chinese immigrants from Guangdong from the mid-19th century up through the 1940s were generally poor, many Chinese immigrants in the last half of the 20th century from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mainland China were well-heeled financially and highly educated.  They had no need or inclination to live in old Chinatowns, often located in the seedy part of town; they could afford to move into Menlo Park, Atherton, Hillsborough in northern California or into Monterey Park, San Marino, Arcadia in southern California.  Nor did they want to shop or dine in the old Chinatowns of the inner city; they created their own new "Chinatowns" in the ethnoburbs that did not bother to create a Chinese-y looking "theme park" to attract non-Chinese visitors.  The "Chinatown" of the San Gabriel Valley, unlike the inner city Chinatowns, goes on mile after mile stretching from Monterey Park and Alhambra through Arcadia and Rosemead to Rowland Heights and beyond.  From all appearances, it does not need, or at least depend on, tourists, for economic success. It is unabashedly Chinese in serving its growing and prosperous Chinese population, the majority of which was born outside of the U. S.

Like the 'good old days,' which turn out not to have been that good after all, "hearts were not as light and life was not as bright in dreamy Chinatown" as the classic song, Chinatown, My Chinatown, would have us believe.  This is not, by any means, to say that living in Chinatown had no redeeming value for its residents. It was a close-knit community, even if imposed from without, and people who grew up within its confines have fond memories and lifelong friendships forged from their common history and experiences. Ample evidence of this affection can be found in a Facebook page of over 1,000 members with nostalgic memories and emotional bonds to San Francisco's Chinatown.  Even though many (most?) members no longer live in the area or even visit it, they have created a "virtual Chinatown"for themselves!

Will the younger Chinese generation develop similar bonds to future Chinatowns? Frankly, I doubt it. Chinese can now live where ever they can afford and their contact with people of other ethnicities is more accepted.  Subtle discrimination against Chinese still lurks but there is much greater freedom for all ethnic groups to form friendships and even marriages that are do not require they be of the same ethnic background.  This is not to say that the younger generation of Chinese will not be interested in Chinese culture, concepts, and values but that they will not have to rely on living in a Chinatown to develop this identity.  If Chinatowns are to exist in the future, they may need to adapt to changing social circumstances.


Sun Yat Sen and Madame Sun Yat Sen in Georgia?

     The three most powerful women in China in the first half of the 20th century, the  Soong sisters, Ai-Ling, Ching-Ling, and May-Ling were in Macon, Georgia around 1910-1913 where the 2 oldest attended Wesleyan College for Women.  Ching-Ling would later marry revolutionary leader, Sun Yat Sen,  May-Ling would marry Chiang Kai-Shek, President of Nationalist China, and Ai-Ling would marry H. Kung, Finance Minister.
     From the wording of the caption below the photograph from the Georgia Archives one might think it was taken in Macon, but the dates, 1920s-1930s, are incorrect (as is the spelling of her name). I doubt that the photograph was taken in Macon even if it is in the Georgia Archives.

In any case, note the caption urges the viewer to "Note their clothing" although it is not clear if this is a positive or negative comment.

"Macon, 1920s-1930s. Sun Yat Sen and Madame Sun Yat Sen. She was the former Chungling Soong, one of three sisters to attend Wesleyan College. She received her degree in 1913. Her husband became the first president of Nationalist China. Note their clothing."

The postcard shows Wesleyan College atop Washington Park.  It is the site of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek's visit to Macon to receive an honorary doctorate in 1943 during her historic visit to the U. S. to raise funds for the war effort against Japan. (There is some irony in this honor because when she was an adolescent in Macon, she was denied admission to a white school on the grounds that she was an "Alien.")
  The buildings burned down sometime later, probably in the 1970s, and the college is now located further from the city center.


Atlanta's Celestial Lottery in 1909

          Chinese, or Celestials, as journalists liked to call them a century ago, were pioneers, running a lottery in Atlanta as early as 1909.
            Of course, those apprehended got jail time. (Atlanta Georgian, Oct. 27, 1909. p. 1)

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