No one expected the revelation when workers peeled away the facade of a downtown Mobile building. In sunshine for the first time in decades, the exterior told the story of a Port City business icon from days gone by. Stretching 30 feet across bricks and mortar, the sign said it all: “Chin’s Laundry and Cleaners.”
But the display told more.
The sign, being power washed by construction workers on this February day, indicated more than a bygone clothes cleaning service. It speaks of triumph, determination, history and an epic journey from China to Mobile.
It is the story of the Chin family, originating in China, moving to America and ultimately settling in south Alabama.
Almost a century earlier, company founder Tom Chin started a one-man business under his family name for handwashed laundry on Conti Street. By 1980, Chin’s Laundry and Cleaners had locations in five states, with 260 employees, the largest business of its kind in Alabama.
“We were excited to discover our sign was still there,” said Daphne’s Kimberly Chin Hise, about the site once housing her ancestors’ 361 St. Louis Street business. “Actually, the discovery is bittersweet,” she adds. “We are thrilled the sign was revealed but saddened it will be painted over. Yet the memories are everlasting.”
The story starts with a teenager. In 1912, at age 16, Tom Chin heeded the call of Uncle Chin Suey. The uncle needed help in his small shop, Sam Joy Laundry, 115 Conti Street, Mobile.
“We are not sure how Uncle Suey came to Mobile,” says Fairhope’s Richard Chin, who was also one of the company’s CEOs. “He probably was seeking a better life in America.”
The uncle offered Tom $15 dollars a week to work in Mobile. The Mobile salary was a significant pay increase for Tom as the San Francisco resident was earning $10 dollars a week. California, here I…leave.
Tom the teenager left the Golden Bear State for golden opportunities in Mobile. The train ride covered four days and four nights. He knew three English words: “ham and eggs,” which Tom ordered and ate for every meal during the railroad journey.
The one-man shop was now two – Tom and Uncle Suey. In a 1981 newspaper interview, Tom noted that cleaning laundry commercially is almost an art. He could iron 10 shirts in an hour.
“Tom told me there was a system for cleaning clothes; it is not just random washing,” said Richard of his grandfather. “One section of a shirt would receive three rubs, the next section six rubs and so on. Each section of a shirt had an assigned number of rubs, then to the next shirt.”
The early training would be valuable for Richard who, like almost everyone else in the Chinese family, worked in the business from childhood.
In the early days of living in Mobile, Tom studied English, learning the language from night school courses, business school and Gladys Brown, a neighbor of his. “Gladys Brown became like a mother to him,” recalls Kimberly. “He also learned from reading local newspapers about current events.”
In 1918, Tom joined the Army, serving during the ending of World War I. After military service, he returned to downtown Mobile’s Sam Joy Laundry. “But Uncle Suey wanted to return to China,” recalls Richard. “He sold the business to Tom and a cousin of his in 1920.”
Left Rose Chin and her son Bob at the laundry in downtown Mobile. Right Tom and Rose Chin, center, on their wedding day, March 3, 1921.
Under the new owner’s leadership, the shop went from handwashing to steam-cleaning. The cost was reasonable: Laundered, ironed, packaged and delivered by Tom on a bicycle — ten cents a skirt.
Meanwhile, a young girl was soon to be part of the young man’s life.
Rose Wong left China for California when she was 13 years old. Her family sent her to America to find a husband. Rose was chosen by her Chinese village from a pool of candidates because of her many admirable qualities. According to her memoirs, she mixed well with others, and could adapt to a new family better than her competitors. “She was also very good at riding water buffalo,” laughs Richard. “That skill was handy in the rice patties.”
The youngster considered herself a cowgirl. Rose could not only handle a water buffalo; she was the boss, riding the beast of burden unlike most of her childhood peers. Her letters note the accomplishment of standing on a water buffalo’s back. But it wasn’t for show.
“l learned to ride the animal so, when I led it to the grazing fields, I didn’t have to walk there or back,” she writes. “The buffalo did. And I was its passenger.”
At age 13, Rose left China, alone, on a steamboat, for California to live with relatives. At age 16, she heard about Tom Chin of Mobile. Word had spread in China and California that Tom was looking for a wife. Their two families arranged for the couple to meet in a marriage interview. Tom traveled from Mobile to Rose’s home in Oakland. The two only knew each other from photographs exchanged.
Both Tom and Rose were teenagers. She writes, “I was so shy I did not even look up at his face. I looked down. He wore shiny black shoes.”
She adds, “My sisters and brothers were peeking in at us and noticed Tom had a black eye. When he left, my siblings asked me ‘Did you notice he had a black eye?’ I said, ‘No. I noticed he had black shoes.’”
The injury occurred when Tom fought off robbers, days earlier. Thieves seized jail uniforms from the Mobile laundry shop and wore the ill-gotten garments in a Mardi Gras parade. But they didn’t leave without a fight, thus, Tom’s souvenir black eye.
Tom and Rose, with the approval of their parents, married on March 3, 1921. Tom Chin, in a 1960s newspaper interview, said, “Our marriage was done in the old-fashioned custom. It was an arranged wedding. We were lucky that it worked out.”
At the time of Tom’s death in 1981, the couple had been married 60 years. They had two sons and three daughters.
After the wedding, Mr. and Mrs. Tom Chin returned to Mobile. In 1922, Rose gave birth to their first son, Robert Wallace the first Chinese baby born in Mobile. Rose worked in the family business until retiring in 1944.
About two decades later, son, Robert ‘Bob’ Wallace joined the military. He died on the battlefield in World War II.
Up until the age of 85, almost the time of his death, Tom Chin worked for the family business. “My grandfather was strict,” recalls Richard. “He did not have complete command of the English language. Conversation was not his strong suit. But he did not want a conversation from you. He wanted you to get to work, and faster. He could communicate that very clearly.”
Kimberly added, “He expected everyone to work. We all worked, women and men. It was all hands on deck.”
After Tom’s death, second-born son, Jack Chin, took a leadership position in the company. Jack was a Murphy High School basketball star and graduate of the college of engineering at Tulane University of Louisiana. He served as a Naval officer during World War II aboard the USS Fargo. After the war, he returned to Mobile, married Dorothy Moy and ran the Chin family business.
“Jack was running the show when I got out of school,” recalls Richard, a 1972 Auburn graduate. During his father’s administration, Chin was diversifying, offering more services. From handwashed laundry to steam-cleaning, the business moved into dry cleaning and more.
Jack Chin died in September 2018 at the age of 93.
After college, Richard also reentered the business that he had worked for since childhood. He advanced to the position of uniform rental division head before his grandfather, Tom Chin died. Richard eventually assumed a CEO position in the company.
Also, after college, Richard’s brother, the Eastern Shore’s Thomas Chin, became involved in day-to-day operations of the business.
“We made an effort to diversify even more, and not just in retail dry-cleaning; that was not a growing business,” says Richard. “People changed. So did clothes.”
“Clothes are not professionally laundered and dry cleaned like they used to be,” Richard explains. “Permanent press, double-knit fabrics, ready-to-wear from the washing machine — the laundry business was falling.”
Fortunately, the lull was short. Chin expanded into the uniform rental business. “We owned the uniforms and outfitted mechanics, hospitals, gas stations and more,” recalls Richard. “We picked up the uniforms, cleaned them and redelivered,” he adds. “The uniform rental business was quite successful for us.”
Successful indeed, as in “establishing operating plants in Mobile, Dothan, New Orleans and Atlanta” successful. Chin also had 20 branches in greater Mobile.
Incorporated in 1944, Chin Laundry and Dry-Cleaning closed in the 1980s. After working in the business from childhood to assuming the position of CEO, Richard was ready to retire. Running a business and being a single parent to children, Kimberly and her twin sister, Cristen Barker, were his two life objectives. Mission accomplished.
Today, Richard and wife Mollie enjoy time with family, gardening and traveling. “He has a camper trailer and goes everywhere. He disappears for months at a time,” laughs Kimberly.
When asked his opinions on today’s work ethic, compared to Tom Chin’s philosophy, Richard answered, “Work is different now. Technology is fast and moving and changing how we work. But there are still jobs and careers out there, such as those that Tom, Jack and I were employed in. Even with technology advances, you still must learn jobs from the ground up. Many don’t want to do that, and they do not want those types of jobs anymore.”
Looking back on the family business covering a century and three family generations, Kimberly smiles at her father, “It’s been a good life, hasn’t it, Papa?” He smiles back, and nods, “Yes.”
About five years ago, Kimberly, sister Cristen, father Richard and others, visited their ancestral home in China. “It is similar to Mobile,” Kimberly recalls, thumbing through photos in a family album. “It even has a nearby bay.”
In China, the group toured the houses, the gravesites, the land where the Chin family originated, about two hours south of Hong Kong. “It was very moving,” recalls Kimberly.
Meanwhile, about 8,000 miles from China, 361 St Louis Street, the building where Tom Chin built his dreams ⎯ is preparing to be painted. Soon, the big and bright all-caps letters proclaiming, “Chin’s Laundry and Cleaners” will be concealed once again.
But the company that, decades earlier, offered free shirt replacements if a button was missing, the business that provided free shoe repair for children in need, the firm, whose founder worked with Walter Bellingrath to establish the Azalea Trail, lives on.
After all, it is only paint covering a sign. “We are okay with that, right Papa?” Kimberly asks her father, who again nods. “Yes.”