The Economic Opportunities in a place called Baltimore

Moon Chin crossed North America in a train, sitting upright on a wooden bench with his face glued to the window, full of wonder at the sights of the new land. After five days in transit, father and son reached Baltimore, where they settled in Walbrook, a quiet neighborhood northwest of downtown. Joe Chin worked in a Chinese laundry for a few months before he was able to buy one of his own on West Baltimore Street. It was the ultimate Chinese-American clichĂ© — the 1920 census reported that more than a quarter of all Chinese male laborers in the country worked in laundries.[i] Joe and Moon lived in the ground-floor laundry and rented the rooms on the two upper floors. An electric motor drove the washing machine and the wide leather belt that turned the clothes-squeezing rollers; a coal-fired stove heated the drying room. Moon and his father slept on two folding beds in the ironing room, saturated by soap-smells and cloying heat. The humid Maryland summer was torture.

A small unfenced pear orchard fronted the street across from the laundry. Summer aged into autumn and the pears ripened and fell. Moon Chin needed most of a day to summon the courage, but he finally darted across the street and wolfed a pear. Moon wiped juice on his sleeve and looked around. No one seemed to mind, so he ate another, and another, gorging himself on fallen pears, amazed to be in a country so wealthy that it dared waste such bounty.

In 1926, Joe Chin hired a trustworthy compatriot to run the laundry and opened a Chinese restaurant further down Baltimore Street, near its intersection with Frederick Avenue and across the street from a Salvation Army depot. Expressing hopes for his native land, Joe Chin called it The New Republic, and the restaurant proved a shrewd diversification. Within a year, Joe Chin was able to send his wife enough money to buy an apartment a few blocks west of Nathan Road in Kowloon, on the mainland side of Victoria Harbor in the British colony of Hong Kong.

Next: Lindbergh’s crossing captivates Moon Chin

[i] 12,559 Chinese-American laundry owners in the United States in 1920, thirty percent of all male Chinese workers: Chang, Iris, The Chinese in America, pp. 147.



  1. He sure was, Don. The efforts “we” made to keep people like him out of the United States strike me as totally inane and counterproductive. We need MORE people like Joe Chin, not fewer.

  2. And how much more so now… Of course, at about the same time (ca 1930), the police came knocking on my grandparents door, accusing my uncle of stealing apples from the local orchard.

    1. Did your uncle do any time? Although people were certainly hungry in the US in the 1930s, few Americans starved. Tens of millions of Chinese starved to death in the 20th century.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *