When Rod Wong, my close friend in Vancouver who was a fellow psychology graduate student at Northwestern University learned of my interest in finding Chinese who grew up working in a family-run Chinese laundry, he introduced me to Elwin Xie, who grew up working in his parents’ Union Laundry in Vancouver. I enlisted Elwin to contribute a narrative about the history of Union laundry and his experiences working in it during his youth for my 2007 book, Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain.
Little did I know then that this association with Elwin would lead a few years later to his invitation to join him and another “Chinese Laundry Kid,” Chinese Canadian author Judy Fong Bates, to speak about our work at a fund-raising event to support an historic and beloved Vancouver Chinese restaurant, Foo’s Ho Ho, in the old and decaying Pender Street Chinatown. This was a festive event combining excellent talks, camaraderie, and delicious village food fare.
In attendance at this delightful event was Yvonne Gall, a producer at CBC Radio, who was intrigued by what she learned about Chinese laundries. She felt that a documentary program on the history of Chinese laundries would be of interest and contacted me for an interview. A few months later, she actually came to my home in southern California and following the interview, I took her to Los Angeles to one of the few old time Chinese laundries still operating, the Sam Sing laundry, a third generation business in West Los Angeles.
Another person attending the Foo’s Ho Ho event was Judy Lam Maxwell. About 2 years later, she contacted me to invite me to speak at the Chinese American Heritage Societies Conference, in Seattle in April, 2013. My presentation, Why and How A Retired Psychology Professor Became An Historian of Chinese America, gave an overview of my ‘retirement’ venture into researching, writing, and speaking on my 4 books on major aspects of the earlier Chinese immigrants working in laundries, restaurants, and grocery stores. I received many positive comments on the talk (and sold all of the books I had with me). I got to meet several writers, researchers, and activists that I knew by reputation but not in person.
One can not underestimate the power of connections formed from one event such as my participation at Foo’s Ho Ho that may lead to unexpected subsequent speaking opportunities. When I chose to accept Elwin’s invitation to come to Vancouver, I did so because the event sounded interesting and worthwhile. It was not with any expectations that it might lead to other invitations. However, thus far, it did lead to the two worthwhile events described here, and who knows whether it might not lead to even more opportunities in the future.