Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | An enduring Asian stereotype in a 1970s TV commercial
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An enduring Asian stereotype in a 1970s TV commercial

“Ancient Chinese secret, huh?”

In honor of the final day of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I wanted to share an iconic classic television commercial. I grew up with the accusing tone of the white woman who catches the affable Asian laundry owner in a lie, ringing in my head.

The TV commercial was for Calgon water softener, and the scene is in a Chinese laundry shop, run by “Mr. Lee.” Here’s the quite accurate description of the 30-second flash of Asian stereotype from the YouTube page that features the video:

A Caucasian woman with an American accent asks “Mr. Lee” (played by Calvin Jung), a laundry shop owner, how he gets her shirts so clean. He replies, with what appears to be a Chinese accent, “Ancient Chinese secret.”

The scene changes to Mrs. Lee, who is in an adjoining room. Mrs. Lee appears ethnically Chinese, but she speaks English with a thoroughly American accent, and explains to the audience that her husband’s “ancient Chinese secret” is that he uses Calgon water softener.

Mrs. Lee ultimately gives the secret away by sticking her head into the front room where Mr. Lee and the customer are standing, and shouts “We need more Calgon!” (without a hint of an accent). To which the customer replies “Ancient Chinese secret, huh?” while Mr. Lee accepts the exposure with good humor.

The actress playing Mrs. Lee, Anne Miyamoto, was actually Japanese-American.

As a kid, I laughed along with everyone else who watched the commercial at the time, though I remember feeling embarrassed for Mr. Lee, who simply shrugs and looks sheepish at the end of the clip.

I never gave any thought to the fact that there were no laundry shops in China. It’s true that by the early 1900s, Chinese had cornered the market in laundry shops in America. But that’s because Chinese were forced into certain professions, including running laundry shops, early in their immigration by prejudice and exclusion.

Chinese men learned to wash and starch clothes because after coming to the United States — the country they called “Gold Mountain” — in the wake of the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, they found they were prevented from owning property, and blocked from owning mining rights.

They often had to pan for gold in mines already abandoned by European American settlers. Many found work in hard, backbreaking labor, such as the railroads. Others went into service industries, such as running restaurants for other Chinese (and later, for the next wave of Asian immigrants, the Japanese), as workers in shoe factories, as servants for white households, and running laundries.

It took until the rise of modern clothes washers and dryers, plus the next generations’ interest in exploring more satisfying, better paying careers, for the Chinese laundry shop to fade from memory. But not faded enough by 1970s, apparently, for the image to be put to advertising use.

So, here’s to Mr. and Mrs. Lee, and their “Ancient Chinese secret.” It wasn’t anything in the water — it was just plain old prejudice.