The Sad Story of Hop Wo: The Chinese Laundryman

Asheville Daily Advance June 12, 1886
Asheville Daily Advance June 12, 1886

Rolling through the microfilm one day I came across a small notice in the Asheville Daily Citizen of July 26, 1894 which said:

”Chinatown’s inhabitants are delighted over the return of Hop Wo, the laundryman, after an absence of several years.  Hop Wo has been, since leaving here, in New York, Chicago and Cincinnati and lately in Johnson City, Tenn.”

I blinked, and read it again. “Chinatown’s inhabitants . . . Asheville?”  I showed the clipping to my coworkers.  They shook their heads, too.  A Chinatown in Asheville was news to all of us.  We pursued it a little and found Hop Wo listed in the 1887 Asheville City Directory “under 19 S. Main, bds. same.”  Trying to find more evidence of a Chinese community we found the name of Lee Sing, who we guessed Chinese.  We searched on for any person living in Asheville in 1880 who was born in China.  We found no one.  We decided at best the newspaper editor was speaking tongue-in-cheek — Asheville’s Chinatown maybe having one or two inhabitants.  Then I set it aside.

And as these things happen around here, a few days later I was off on quite another research subject looking to see if there was a mention of when a Thomas Dukes and family moved into their new house at 30 Cumberland Avenue in Montford, as we have notes from the family saying they moved in Thanksgiving 1894.  You never know when a little chatty coverage might include mention of an architect.

Unfortunately, that research didn’t pan out, but I got to November 26, 1896, two years after the date I had stumbled across Hop Wo in the news, and I see this headline:

Chinatown’s Talk: Hop Wo’s Laundry Closed, While Hop Takes a Walk”

The article begins, “Chinatown is agog over the disappearance from the city of one of their number.  The absent one is Hop Wo, or as the name is Anglicized, Lee Johnson.”  It was thought that, as he “had become pretty well fixed he had returned to China to enjoy his wealth.”

This was one of my more extravagant woo-woo research moments in the North Carolina Room.  I pranced around showing the two articles to anyone who would look at them.  My joy was not long-lasting.

The papers sat on my desk for a while.  Long enough, in fact, that I thought I had filed them in the newspaper clipping file.  When I went to look for them several weeks later, I couldn’t remember what I had filed them under — Business, Biography, etc., so I looked for them in the index, doing a “Find” search for “Chinese.”  (I had actually not filed them, they were still on my desk.) The index led me to an article one of us had filed away, who knows when.  The article was from 1909 and was titled, “Chinese Laundry is Latest Industrial Project for City.”  It made mention of another Chinese man, Hop Sing, from Cincinnati, who was announcing his intention of opening a laundry here. “After long years of immunity, Asheville is to have a real Chinese laundry.”  The tale of Hop Wo is then told, beginning with the dire paragraph heading of “Tragic End of First One.”

The newspaper’s side of the story is that Mr. Wo boarded a train here without a ticket to begin his visit to his native land, but having limited English skills, he was not able to explain himself and was put off the train somewhere near the Tennessee line.  They say “on the second day of his wanderings he stumbled on the cabin of a mountaineer where a woman and a daughter were the only occupants, the husband being at work some distance from the house.”  . . . “Merely stopping to ask directions, the strange tongue and the still stranger face of the Mongolian filled the woman with terror, and piercing screams rent the air.”

His body was found several days later by a search party.  This sad tale ended by having international complications, the United States government having to “make a payment of a heavy indemnity to the Chinese government, for the benefit of the dead Chinaman’s family.”  The newspaper article also said that this incident kept Chinese from coming to this area for many years.

What does not make sense is that Hop Wo, as we know, was an accomplished traveler and would have known he needed to have a ticket, and he had been operating a business among the English speaking people of Asheville for at least ten years.  Perhaps the newspaper writer’s memory was not so good after thirteen years. Or perhaps the real facts were not known, only surmised.

Further Information Somewhat Related, click here: Chinese Immigration

Post by Zoe Rhine, Librarian

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