During the 1950s, the streets of Foggy-Bottom were lined with Chinese laundries. So many, in fact, with competition so heavy, that the stores had to cut prices continually just to stay in business.
Today, many of them are gone Drummed out by passing time. Until two months ago, Fung Dak Lee operated one of the reamining Chinese laundries. But the 61-year-old found himself having to close his laundry -- GW Laundry & Cleaners at 2145 I St. NW on the campus of George Washington University -- a year before he was eligible for Social Security benefits.
In doing so, he ended a career his father had begun and he had been in since he was 10 years old.
"I've been in the business all my life," a dispirited Lee says in heavily accented English. "I'm mad and I feel shorted."
His business barely provided a comfortable living, but it was the only business he knew and he believes he is too old to start over again.
He and the other displaced merchants are victims of timing, making way for a university to expand, as the old gives way to the new. His story has no traditional villains.
Lee's business and the property it rests on is to be used by George Washington University to expand its medical center. While the school did not buy the property until early this month, it had a contract with the landlord to buy it.
The people whose clothes Lee had returned crisp and fresh for nearly 25 years were unwilling to accept his going out of business. Letters of protest from the laundry's customers, lawyers, government workers and university alumni were sent to the school's president and vice-president. They asked that Lee be allowed to stay, many saying that his 23 years there had made him an institution on campus.
GWU students filed a petition demanding that Lee be allowed to remain. Lee and his son met with the school's vice-president and treasurer, Charles E. Diehl, to see if they could relocate somewhere else on campus or lease the property from the university once it became the landlord. The Lees say they were told there was no space available.
"George Washington is not in the landlord business,' Diehl said," Eddie Lee, one of the elder Lee's two sons, recalled. "We could have stayed and fought it out. The property is very valuable to them and court fights would have cost them time and money."
"I could not afford to hold out," Lee says. "Going to court alone costs $300-$400. It would have cost a few hundred every time I went to court."
Several of his lawyer-customers donated their time last summer to gain Lee an extension until the end of the year, but he understood they had only so much time they could volunteer. He understood that time is money.
Diehl, for his part, said the university had done all it could when it made displaced merchants aware of job opportunities on campus.
Lee met with the manager of the George Washington medical center's linen service about a possible job as assistant manager.
"The man says he wants someone with college manager training," Lee says, recalling the meeting, as he leans back in one of the booths at the China Doll, a restaurant in Chinatown where he is working part time as a headwaiter.
"He wants someone who knows commercial laundry business. He says I have no experience with cleaning machines. Maybe he wants someone younger, to take over for him."
Diehl is resolute that GWU made its best offer when it offered to notify the evicted merchants of campus job opportunities. "This is not the policy of the school," he explains. "I am doing this out of the kindness of my heart."
Lee's father started the family in the laundry business after emigrating here from southern Canton, China, in the late 1920's and establishing a laundry on 12th between K and L streets NW.
Lee worked in the family business from the time he was 10 years old until he was drafted to serve in World War II. He became a captain in the artillery, and after being stationed in England, saw action in Africa, Sicily and France.
"I went to Ft. Bragg for fasic training," he says. "Long (time) in France, holding the land. Some fighting. A lot of bombs dropping. I got a lot of citations, clusters, medals. After four years (in the Army), that's all you do is collect them."
In 1947, Lee was discharged and went back to China, where he married before immediately returning to D.C. Like many Chinese-Americans who fought in the war, he was made an American citizen.
He took over the laundry business when his father retired. A year after he returned home after World War II, he opened his own laundry. His first store was on 22nd and G streets NW, also on GWU's campus. But there was a second laundry at his home on 14th street NW.
"My wife run laundry also in house," Lee says, sipping a cup of tea and beginning to describe their life then. "Most of the clothes that came in I picked up in a truck and brought to my store on G street. Then I send it out to wholesaler who wet-wash the shirts and sheets.
"They wore weighted and cost by the pound, and they delivered it back wet and I press and dry them. Those days shirts to wash cost 18, 20 cents apiece. I put shirts in gas dryer with tumbler and then take it back in the truck to my house. Suits were sent out for dry cleaning, the rest of the clothes I did myself my hand. Used a lot of starch, because that was style, tight collars and cuffs."
"I work, very, very hard," Mrs. Lee says -- in a high-pitched voice -- of the home laundry. "Work, work, work. Take care of kids. I send them to school. When they come home, they work too. Help me.
"In China, (there is) no work. I come here, plenty of work. You live good here."
Despite all the work, Lee said, they were making no money in the business.
"Every year I lose money. Take money from the bank to feed my children." In 1957, he moved to the I street location.
"The building that I was in was too old and I had to relocate," he says. "I bought out the other store from a friends. Seventy-five percent of business came from campus. I started making a little more . . . Best location. I liked it because it was secluded. I never had a robbery, never a stick-up."
Before Lee moved out of GW Laundry & Cleaners, he removed everything worth taking.
All the outstanding orders, clothes that hadn't been picked up, he has hanging upstairs at the China Doll restaurant.
"Right now my kids are supporting me," he says dishearteningly.
"He doesn't know what to do anymore," says son Eddie. "He would just sit at home. I finally coaxed him to come out and work in the restaurant at night. He is trying to learn the restaurant business."
Looking back on his life in the laundry business, Lee shrugs. "I'm an old man," he says. "I say to the people at G.W., 'Why not let me stay just a few years, and then you can have the store?'"
Diehl, asked again this week about Lee, reiterated, "Efforts still continue to make Lee aware of employment opportunities on campus."