Walt Disney’s Chinese Laundry
“I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the park. I want to feel they’re in another world." - Walt Disney
When I was in Disney World last weekend, I noticed a little storefront in Frontierland, next to the Town Hall, labeled “Chinese Laundry.” I had visited New York’s Museum of Chinese in America only a few days before, and found it interesting that Disney was acknowledging the Chinese presence in the Old West.
But why is Frontierland’s “Chinese Laundry” just a plain, empty shell? It could just as easily been labeled “Jewish Pawn Shop” or “Mexican Cantina” (to mention two of the many minority groups present in the Old West but often ignored in a typical Western). Nowadays, Disney mixes a little bit of education into its ethnic fluff. EPCOT’s Fake China lets visitors view Xi’an clay soldiers and ancient vases among the greasy food stands and tchotchke shops. It seemed like “Chinese Laundry” had something to hide.
Uncle Google confirmed my suspicions, and then some. Disney theme parks have created no less than FIVE Chinese laundries. Disneyland in California has the original Chinese Laundry in its “Main Street USA” section. Disney World has its Frontierland Chinese laundry and another absurd Chinese laundry storefront in Hollywood Studios that houses a Chinese restaurant. A third Disney World Chinese laundry, which was located on its own Main Street USA section, closed when a nearby store expanded.
Disneyland Paris’s Chinese Laundry, created in the 1990s, has a mah-jongg parlor on its upper floor. One online reviewer gushes about the location, "Listening to the Chinese chattering reminds you why Disneyland Paris is just so plain wonderful: there is so much to be discovered."
I have not yet found whether Disney has the gall to put Chinese laundries in its Tokyo or Hong Kong parks.
Why does Disney have so many Chinese laundries? It probably has to do with founder Walt Disney, who designed the Main Street USA in Disneyland to mirror his Illinois hometown around the 1900s. Today, the Disney parks’ Main Street USAs are revisionist fantasy, pretending our society a century ago was integrated (but with minorities in the minority), without a hint of Jim Crow or Plessy vs. Ferguson. But Walt Disney originally wanted to convey “the way things used to be” …
Most launderers at the time of Walt Disney’s childhood were women, mostly black and foreign-born, but a sizable percentage were also Asian men. According to sociologist Peter Li, about 25% of all employed Chinese men in the United States between 1900 to 1930 worked in laundries. So 100 years ago, the Chinese laundryman was a stock character in the popular U.S. imagination.
This stock Asian stereotype is featured in one of the first movies ever made, Edison Studio’s “Chinese Laundry" (1894), which shows a Chinese man doing acrobatics around his laundry to escape a cop. When Disney made his own "Silly Symphonies" cartoons, he filled one of them, "The China Plate" (1931), to the brim with horrific Chinese stereotypes. The film stars by suggesting the story takes place within the decorations on a piece of china. Within seconds, a variation on the Oriental riff is heard, followed by eight more minutes of slanty eyes, long fingernails, bound feet, and the like.
Even as Disney’s work became artistically mature, he still mined anti-Asian racism for laughs. Biographer Michael Barrier says during the writing of “Fantasia,” Disney told his staffers that "a Chinese turtle should dance by moving in a stiff-jointed way and jerking his head back and forth in what a stenographer described as a ‘wooden tempo.’" The evil Siamese cats in "Lady and the Tramp" and an episode of "Chip ‘N Dale Rescue Rangers" bring these racist stereotypes into present times.
Now, Walt Disney was not a complete segregationist. He had talented Asian artists work for him, including Tyrus Wong (still living at age 102!), who was the concept artist for “Bambi.” But within a few years Donald Duck was taking on a Japanese air force base single-handed in “Commando Duck" and Disney turned a blind eye to his former employee, "Snow White" artist Bob Kuwahara, being held in a U.S. internment camp.
Walt Disney’s racist work was not the product of a lone, diseased mind, but a reflection of a larger, disturbed society. When Disney put a Chinese laundry in his first amusement park, he was also mirroring one of his early rivals, Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in California. In 1940, Knott’s built a Western ghost town, complete with a crude Chinese laundry operated by a character named Hop Wing Lee. To my surprise, visitors more than 70 years later can still peek into the horrid booth and gape at the carved wooden statue of slanty-eyed Hop Wing Lee, smoking in front of an ironing board and singing a looped song in “Mandarin." Millions of visitors file past the Disney theme parks’ Chinese laundries, but not many are aware that behind the storefronts’ hollow walls lies Hop Wing Lee’s twanging song of cultural belittlement.
A few generations’ worth of nostalgia has kept both the good and the outdated in Disney’s work relevant in our society. The films and theme parks of Disney can entertain us but can also seduce us, leading us to search for ourselves in characters that match our hair color or skin tone, or giving us pat answers for how things can turn out “happily ever after.” It’s up to us to question and subvert the stereotypes, and to not contain our 21st-century souls within 20th-century fantasies.
African-American runner as Princess Tiana, from promotional material for the Disney Princess Half Marathon.
Actual African-American runner in the 2013 Disney Princess Half Marathon, wearing Minnie ears and a shirt reading “Black Girls Run!”