Judging by their last names, the men who climbed into a “large touring car” and left Cambridge, Md. on a Wednesday in late May of 1910 hailed from the upper crust of Dorchester County society. There is a Mount Rushmore aspect to the collection of surnames–Brannock, Hopkins, Hearn, and Willey. All those families loom large in local lore and civic leadership across the centuries.
We are not talking about civic leadership here, at least not yet. What we are talking about is a duckpin bowling team. Those four men were headed down the road to Salisbury as an all-star outfit representing Cambridge in a five-game match against the “strong duckpin team of that place.” The local newspaper published a short story about this expedition. Reading that story from a vantage point more than a century down the road, what leaps out from that article is the name of the fifth member of Cambridge’s duckpin aristocracy: Lee Fong.
How in the world did a Chinese laundryman end up in that car with a Brannock, a Hopkins, a Hearn, and a Willey?
BIG PICTURE: UNWELCOME ARRIVALS
Think about the bigger picture of immigration in those times. In the years after the Civil War, Chinese laborers came to the West Coast in reasonably large numbers. Many toiled on the Transcontinental Railroad. Others chased one or another of the gold rush frenzies that broke out in those decades.
Far too many Americans treated these new arrivals like dirt. Chinese immigrants were frequently victims of unfair discrimination and unjust law enforcement. They were often the victims of unprovoked violence as well.
The angry public outcry that greeted their presence is an ugly episode in our country’s history. The phrase “racial purity” arose often in that outcry. Legally, Chinese immigrants were relegated to second-class status–ineligible for citizenship and barred from testifying in court. In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act barring immigration from China for 10 years.
These restrictions were extended time and again, through the 1930s. During much of this period, Chinese immigrants were required by law to carry on their persons at all times a “certificate of residence” issued by the Internal Revenue Service. Without proper papers, they could be deported in short order.
ON DELMARVA: FEW AND FAR BETWEEN
Lee Fong was 18 years old when he crossed the Pacific Ocean in the midst of this ugliness. According to a sketchy summary of his life in a 1916 article in the Cambridge Banner, he landed in North America in 1888, settling first in Ottawa, Canada. He moved to Boston in 1892, though it’s not clear in the article how, exactly, he managed to get around the legal obstacles facing Chinese immigrants. Was he allowed in because he came through Canada, rather than directly from China? Or perhaps there was some loophole he qualified for? I don’t know the answers to these questions.
What I do know is that his stay in Boston was brief, and it was followed by short stays in Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Then, in 1895, Fong somehow found his way across the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore and Cambridge. Searchable databases for the Cambridge Banner newspaper begin with issues starting in 1907, so Lee Fong’s first dozen or so years in town are a blank slate for now.
In the 1900 census, he is listed as 30 years old and a laundryman. That career choice is not a surprise. Excluded from most traditional jobs, Chinese immigrants basically had no choice but to start up businesses. Laundries were far and away their #1 choice, with restaurants and grocery stores coming in second and third. The laundry game had dirt cheap overhead–in pre-electricity days, it added up to some soap and a few scrub boards, irons, and ironing boards. Plus, laundries could operate in pretty much any old building, including ramshackle ones where the rents were low.
As you can probably guess, Chinese immigrants were few and far between on the Delmarva Peninsula in those years. This blog post by the Delmar Historical and Art Society has some good information on this front, locating Chinese laundries in the 1900 census in at least 10 towns–Laurel, Milton, and Lewes, Del.; Chincoteague and Onancock, Va.; and Salisbury, Snow Hill, Berlin, Crisfield, and, of course, Cambridge Md. Here is more from that post:
“The few [Chinese immigrants] that were here in the late 1800s and early 1900s were almost all owners and operators of laundries. … They would eke out a living working 18 hour days, 6 days a week closing only on Sunday due to community pressure. Usually single and in their 30’s [these men] had no social outlets and would usually move after a few years.”
IN CAMBRIDGE, LOVE FOR THE LAUNDRYMAN
Lee Fong was the exception to this rule. He stayed in Cambridge for decades. Through that time he climbed the social ladder into the ranks of a much-beloved local business owner and even civic leader. You can catch hints of this now and again in the local paper. There is his name, in a list of citizens buying war bonds. There it is again, making a large donation in support of the hospital. A full list of Lee Fong’s civic do-gooderism would stretch on for quite a while.
His Star Laundry facility was located on Poplar Street, a one-block-and-done stretch of downtown Cambridge. The business was successful enough that he placed prominent paid ads in nearly every issue of the local paper–the ad you see here is from 1911. In 1913 the Banner reported that Fong was making a major new investment in his business:
“Lee Fong, the well-known proprietor of the Star Laundry, has recently installed a number of pieces of machinery which are run by electricity; in fact, Lee states that his whole plant is now electrified. The different machines have attracted much attention during the past few days.”
But the success of Lee Fong in Cambridge is much more than a matter of business acumen and charitable donations. There was his prowess as a duckpin bowling all-star, for example. He was apparently just as talented in traditional tenpin bowling. In March 1909, the Banner reported that while a team of Cambridge All-Stars had lost a match to a team of Baltimore All-Stars, Lee Fong had performed so brilliantly in defeat that he was invited to return to Baltimore and give an instructional demonstration to bowlers in the big city.
Fong was an avid horseman as well. Here is a public notice he published in the Banner in 1913: “I hereby challenge any horse in Dorchester County to run with my horse, ‘Star’ [on] July 4th. I will give two dozen Chinese dishes to any horse that can beat my horse on the above-named date. This race to be mile heats, three best in five.”
Then there was baseball, his biggest love. The minor-league Cambridge Dodgers were quite a big deal in the early years of the 20th century. In 1907, the man chosen to lead the traditional opening-day parade that ran through the streets of downtown and then over to the ballpark was … the Chinese laundryman. According to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Fong “was one of the primary financial backers of Cambridge baseball during these years and considered the [team’s] ‘star rooter.'”
Later, after the Dodgers folded, the Chinese laundryman put together his own team and dubbed them “Lee Fong’s All-Stars.” Fans would come out to watch the All-Stars play exhibition games against teams from other Delmarva towns, barnstorming teams from out of state, and even the local high school team.
A FOND FAREWELL
In 1916 Fong made an announcement that shocked and saddened his adopted community. He planned to sell the Star Laundry and move away from Cambridge. As those plans came to fruition and Fong departed that fall, the Banner published a lengthy farewell that’s not just fond, but downright loving. Here are excerpts:
“There are comparatively few persons in Cambridge who do not know Lee Fong; old and young, rich and poor, high and low, all classes, kinds, and conditions of people were on good terms with the friendly laundryman from the celestial kingdom. Lee was an all-around sport and good fellow.
“He loved baseball, and his was usually the first money that was put up to secure a team, and his $5 was the first to be offered as a reward for a home run knocked out by a member of the Cambridge team; he was an enthusiastic duckpin and tenpin roller; he loved a good horse, and, in time, learned to like the automobile: he was also an ardent bicyclist several years ago. when the craze existed, and he even fell for a good game of pool.”
The story then details some of Fong’s bowling exploits, including a rumor that he had been offered a considerable sum of money by a Philadelphia sponsor to go on a bowling tour, putting on exhibitions in cities around the country.
“Lee modestly declined, saying that he was at home in Cambridge, and knew everybody and everybody knew him, but that it would be different at other places.
“By his good nature, his honesty, his liberality, and his earnest efforts to please, Lee Fong made a host of friends in Cambridge, and when a short time ago he announced that he had sold his business and was going back to China, there was a feeling of genuine regret upon the part of these many friends.”
This is where the newspaper provided that brief overview of his journey from China to Canada to Boston and, eventually, to the Delmarva Peninsula.
“Since  he has been n resident of Cambridge, and during all of the twenty-one years spent in the midst of, at first, a strange people, he conducted himself in such a way as to win the confidence and esteem of the general public. He was an enthusiast in everything but politics; about politics, he said he did not know anything, only he wanted to see his friends win and was always willing to help them.”
The story says that Fong had a brother in New York City and a son back in China who was now a young adult. Apparently, Fong had been trying for years to bring that son to America, but he hadn’t managed to get that done in the face of those anti-China immigration rules. The story continues:
“When asked what he would do in China, Lee Fong stated that would not do anything: that a little American money would go a long way in China, and that he expected to carry enough with him to last him for several months, during which time he would visit his family and other relatives.
“His many friends here wish the genial Chinaman the best kind of a trip, all kinds of luck, and safe trip to and from the celestial empire … [We] hope to see his smiling countenance in Cambridge before very many moons have rolled around. This [would] not be at all surprising, as Lee stated just before he left that Cambridge was the best place in the world to him and that he would surely come back.”
Fong was a man of his word. He returned to Cambridge in 1918 and opened another laundry in a different building on Poplar Street. Again, his name starts popping up in ads and occasional news stories and public notices in the local paper. He issued a plea in December of 1918 asking if whoever took “a large clothes basket” could please return it. In 1922, he offered a reward of $25 for information about the delinquents who broke a window at his business, then came inside to play craps and poker. That same year, Lee Fong made another nice donation to the local “hospital fund.”
Searchable access to the Cambridge newspaper runs out after 1922, so that’s where the trail ends for me at the moment. I haven’t been unable to locate an obituary or a burial location for Lee Fong, or even to learn for sure whether he lived out the rest of his days on his beloved Eastern Shore. Perhaps someone reading this knows the rest of the story. Perhaps someday I will have time enough to slog through the Cambridge Banner on microfilm, scouring every issue for the name of this unlikely Chinese laundryman.
Until then, I’ll just have to hope that his feelings for Cambridge and the Eastern Shore didn’t change in the years after he returned to town, that he always felt like he did on that day in 1916 when he promised a newspaper reporter that someday he would return to Cambridge: “‘I could not stay away,’ he said, ‘as the people are all my friends and have been so good to me. … I just love the people and the place.'”
POSTCRIPT: Shortly after I posted a link to this story in a Facebook group devoted to local Cambridge history, a reader named Stan Davis chimed in with a memory. Mr. Davis warns that he was very young at the time and might not have the details precisely right, but he remembers Mr. Fong being in Cambridge long after the trail ran out in my research above. Here is his comment:
“I believe that Lee Fong continued to operate his laundry on Poplar Street right up to the early 1950s, at which time he would have been over 80 yrs old. Or I suppose our Chinese laundry could have been a Fong family operation, run after WWII by someone else [in his family]. But I remember going to the laundry with my Mom to get some stuff done. Laundry work YES; however there was once another VERY SPECIAL reason. My Dad had spent several pre-teen years in China. His father/my grandfather was a Naval Officer on assignment in Shanghai. In consequence, Dad was very familiar with Chinese food, and we had a lot of Chinese crockery brought back by the grandparents. At some time circa 1950, my parents decided to give a Chinese dinner for their friends. Being one of the few “China hands” in Cambridge, my Dad had, of course, befriended Lee Fong. So my Mom and I were sent to Lee’s laundry to discuss the menu for their dinner. Lee gave my Mom a hand-written page of Chinese script. Mom and I then drove/ferried over to Baltimore where by appointment we met with a friendly young Chinese restaurateur named Jimmy Wu. Jimmy took the script and packed up all the ingredients for my parents’ Chinese dinner party, which came off very well.”
So it looks like Lee Fong might well have lived out his days in Cambridge. Thank you, Mr. Davis!
–written and posted by Jim Duffy on April 29, 2020 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.