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.

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9 Responses to An enduring Asian stereotype in a 1970s TV commercial

  1. johns says:

    Why would any “asian american” extract from a racist time a very racist TV commercial? How many kids today associate “asians” with laundries servants, like zero? You insult “asians” far worse than those in the majority. I couldn’t find more degrading portrayals of “asians” on stormfront.org.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi John, it’s good to see your perspective on this commercial, so thanks for the comment. I do think it’s important to remember and learn about, instead of forget and ignore, history though. It’s the same reason I’ve studied and written about Yellow Face even though I never saw the original examples of Yellow Face. And, it’s obvious that the same kind of thinking that led to the Calgon commercial is still at work in the KFC commercial I wrote about yesterday. How sad that things haven’t changed; they just got updated.

  3. Jeff says:

    replying far after the article, one could imagine that Mr. Lee was being a smart businessman by representing something “comfortable” for his non-Chinese/Asian clients since his wife speaks good English while Mr. Lee was not dressed in stereotyped Chinese attire.

    Isn’t it interesting that this is the longes-running American commercial of all time.

    If one wants to contact Calvin Jung, he is based in Southern California

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks Jeff, and also for the link to the story about Jung!

  5. Rob says:

    As a kid growing up in the 70’s and seeing this commercial the thought never crossed my mind as demeaning portrayal of Chinese. I thought the joke was funny. It’s basically a take on an old saying, “ancient Chinese secret” which was put together very cleverly. Years later, 88-2007, living in Cranford, NJ I lived above one of the few remaining “Chinese” laundries. No one ever disparaged them, they LOVED the service. He was well liked. You know what his secret was? He walked the laundry up the street to the local laundry matt, did the wash there, and then came back and pressed them.

  6. Rudea Smith says:

    I wanted my mom to buy Calgon because of that lady…and she did. From a little girl in Harlem, Japanese-American actress Anne Miyamoto was awesome in my eyes because she had a clear American accent and the commercial was and is still funny. R.I.P. to Mrs. Anne.

  7. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your comment, Rudea — great to hear your memory!

  8. Gregg Cahill says:

    While this is an old thread, it bears a current comment. I grew up watching this commercial through my teen years. I NEVER had a racially biased negative thought regarding this commercial.

    The fact is (was): in many smaller communities, laundry businesses were predominantly owned and operated by Caucasians. This was the norm prior to the Calgon commercial. Their services weren’t always the best–you might say they were sometimes “spot on,” which isn’t good in this business.

    But, laundry service was one business other than restaurants wherein Chinese saw a void and capitalized on it. Of course, more populated areas meant better opportunities. Nail salons are still often owned and operated by Vietnamese ; gas stations and/or convenience stores are often owned by people of Middle-Eastern descent. I say “More power to them!”

    There are Americans who want to blame them for taking away “domestic” business. They are the same people who want to blame the Democratic Party for outsourcing of manufacturing, customer service, and tech support jobs. Both parties are guilty, as they’ve been bought by corporate lobbyists on behalf of the uber wealthy–the oligarchs–who have us all strung up by the balls.

    I digress.

    The Calgon commercial generated a great number of sales. I remember friends’ mothers talking about how well recognized the (especially) Chinese were at conducting their businesses and the moms endorsed the product to others. As I always perceived it, they were being complimented for a job over and above well done.

    I also had the utmost respect for the very few Asians in our community. They, of course, were always at or near the top of their class. This infuriated a lot of bigoted people–parents and students, alike. At age 12, I suggested to a friend (who made such a comment) that he up his game and study harder. We were all above average students, but he felt the Asian students were skewing the grading curve. So it may have been. I applauded them, as they demonstrated more discipline toward their studies and were justly rewarded. I was also aware that they came from solid families, from which both parents had post-graduate degrees, even if only the father stereotypically worked while the mother stayed home to raise the children.

    The fact is that society was a lot different then. I don’t deny that there was racism then and still is. In the U.S., I think it has spread from its origins of predominantly “everybody vs. African Americans.” It has always been a cancer, but it has now metastasized and has become more life threatening to anybody of a different race, religion, gender, etc., or just different in any way.

    This further demonstrates the simultaneous ignorance and arrogance of many (though I’d like to think still minority of) Americans. Hence, I don’t believe it is all necessarily racially biased; rather, it is simple bigotry across the board. Simultaneous ignorance and arrogance….

    Having travelled extensively through Europe, South America, Asia (including SE Asia and Pacific Islands), I have had the privilege of meeting people from many cultures. Sadly, while they used to be enamored by me (as an American), there are some now who have shown prejudice. I don’t follow media in these countries and don’t know how much they are being fed. But, if media in other countries has become as untrustworthy as that in the U.S., how could I possibly blame the citizens? After all, they are just acting on what they have been conditioned to believe.

    I hate to witness the degeneration of our nation, but the only way to have equality is for people’s values to be “re-programmed.” As values are passed onto one’s posterity, the bad has outweighed the good and is trendy toward an abysmal ending. On the bright side, once one hits rock bottom, there is nowhere to go but up.

    While visibility is sometimes a powerful tool, given the state of our society, I’m not sure that exhuming an old example (like this commercial) is such a good idea. “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”–George Santayana

    Sadly, the ignorant/arrogant people are most often less educated and will likely never learn. Most problems to not emanate from those of us who are already aware. Hence, your efforts may be futile.

    I live according to the mantra: “Give everybody due respect…and every opportunity to lose it.” Once lost, it takes a lot to earn it back.

    I am proud to say that I have always held this value. Through my experiences (including travels), I have accrued more wealth than any amount of money could ever buy. I’m not proud to say that I am an American. I am proud to say that I was raised by a single (widowed) mother who–by example–taught me well. I have a good reputation and have earned the respect of many people (who, unlike me, feel that respect needs to be earned–that’s ok). I do my best to perpetuate benevolence and try to promote humanity. I’m sure you can relate.

    If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for your valuable time, undivided attention, and sincere consideration. Also, thank you for your input. If nothing else, it reaffirms that there are people with a well-tuned moral compass and provides hope that our future is not totally lost.

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