Jeff Carroll - Legendary Texas


When the Southern Pacific Railroad punched its way through  the desert and arrived in El Paso on May 19, 1881, it added more than a quick commercial link with the West Coast. It brought the Chinese. Although a Chinese explorer probably entered the West Texas area 400 years before the birth of Christ, the new tracks, built predominantly with Chinese labor, produced the first "Chinatown" in the state.


Like other newly arrived ethnic groups, the Chinese formed their own community. In the area generally stretching today from Mills Street south to Fourth Street and from Stanton west to El Paso they built shops, restaurants, laundries, and professional pursuits. The addition of the laundries and vegetable gardens provided a more balanced diet and clean clothes to the frontier community not particularly noted for either.

You see, it isn't that folks in El Paso were habitually dirty and didn't wash their clothes, it's just that their efforts toward cleanliness weren't always successful. Water was a problem. Every day Mexican and Anglo women met on the banks of the Rio  Grande and pummelled their washing in flowing silt that was "too thick to drink and too thin to plow." The resulting shirts, pants, and dresses may have smelled better but had a certain abrasive quality that wore as much on the spirit as on the skin.

Following age-old tradition, however, the Chinese carried their water to settling barrels where the silt slowly drifted to the bottom (to be added later to enrich the gardens) and the resulting clean water was boiled (how else could you get clean clothes and add starch?) .

By 1889 the Chinese held a virtual monopoly in the El Paso laundry business. There were 18 laundries and all were Chinese. This brought cries of unfair competition from the public and the press but you really can't argue with clean sheets. When a competitor advertised that his product was "Cleaner than River Sand," Wong Mun made advertising history by opening The House of 10,000 Washings at 401 North Stanton. For 40 years the business prospered. If he had anticipated the examples of various future fast food dispensaries, Wong Wun could probably have changed the name to The House of 10,000,000 Washings but the old name was good enough. Sheets were cleaned for one dollar and ladies' starched drawers went for fifty cents.

Since Anglo and Mexican names were too confusing, Wong used his own system of identification. Each article of clothing carried the web-like Chinese characters identifying the owners as "Fat man with long fingernails," "Sneezing man who scratches head," "Unhappy lady who coughs," and other distinctive traits. Don't laugh, it worked. Just think about the folks you know and imagine one symbol that would identify them forever.

Along with clean clothes there was, however, a problem with the disposal of the water. Boiling soapy and starchy water has its own aroma. Then, too, much water went into the streets or into gardens or into the pig pens that provided pork, ducks, and chicken to the increasing number of Chinese restaurants. One newspaper quipped that "The House of 10,000 Stinks" would be more appropriate. In any event, a city ordinance soon banned the pig pens and, in the fullness of time, sewage systems kept water out of the streets.

Although The House of 10,000 Washings has gone on to a well-deserved 'resting place, the Chinese community of E1 Paso is still a vibrant and vital part of what the Herald Post called, in 1969, "Mei Gwok", "America The Beautiful."


Atomic Web Katz