In 2008 Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard suggested that the Circle City build a Chinatown to celebrate the “cultural flavor of Indianapolis” and “showcase its diversity.” Ballard’s proposal was an unfunded musing that was not especially focused on celebrating Chinese culture; the Mayor was instead aspiring to craft a tourist-friendly Chinese district in reach of downtown on the city’s near-Southside. Nothing has ever come of Ballard’s idea, and perhaps it is because the city has no historically Chinese neighborhood and has been the home to relatively few Chinese immigrants. In 1880—on the eve of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first of a series of laws strictly regulating overseas Chinese immigration—Indianapolis had just 14 residents who were born in China to Chinese parents; in 1910 that population swelled to 43 residents, in 1930 it was 39, and in 1940 it was 20. Nevertheless, some Chinese immigrants did come to Indianapolis, and they and their families were part of city affairs throughout the early 20th century.
In the 19th century segregated Chinese communities emerged throughout much of the West. The earliest of these communities were based in Gold Rush and railroad centers like San Francisco, and these Chinese neighborhoods were often referred to as “Chinatowns.” Cities like Chicago and Detroit had similar communities emerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Chinese immigrants went eastward searching for new social and economic opportunities or simply fleeing West coast xenophobia.
Nearly all of the earliest Chinese immigrants to Indianapolis ran laundries, a pattern that was typical of Chinese laborers throughout the US well into the 20th century. Wah Lee’s laundry on South Illinois Street was probably the first Chinese laundry in Indianapolis, opening in May 1873 (and receiving a fine in August for constructing a wooden building in violation of the city’s fire code). In the 1874 city directory, two of the four laundries in the directory were Chinese managed, including Wah Lee’s laundry and Sang Lee’s laundry on Virginia Avenue. Continue reading