In 1932, the popular comedian and ukulele player George Formby released the song “Chinese Laundry Blues”
Now Mr Lu was a laundry man in a shop with an old green door,
He’ll iron all day your linen away, he really makes me sore.
He’s lost his heart to a Chinese girl and his laundry’s all gone wrong,
All day he’ll flirt and scorch your shirt, that’s why I’m singing this song,
Oh, Mr Wu, what shall I do, I’m feeling kind of Limehouse Chinese Laundry Blues!
But it was probably only a timely coincidence that Chinese laundrymen should start serving in HM ships six years later, when the Royal Navy had a large number of ships stationed in the Far East. Many were based in Wei-Hei-Wei, once a British concession in mainland China, as well as in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. The tradition might well date back even further, to the turn of the century and the halcyon days of the China Fleet. What is certainly true, however, and to the surprise of many nearly eighty years later, is that Chinese laundrymen are still serving in naval ships.
For many years they were known as “unofficials” because, officially, they did not exist. But it is hard to imagine now how the Royal Navy could function without them. Officially, they had nowhere to sleep. Because naval architects never included berths for them, they usually slept on the deck, or in bunks unofficially rigged up in the ship’s laundry. Some have also been known to sleep on an ironing board or table. Officially, too, they were not fed. Unofficially, they bartered with the ships’ cooks for pieces of chicken, or bags of rice or vegetables.
HER MAJESTY’S CHINESE LAUNDRYMEN
These are Her Majesty’s Chinese laundrymen. They do the scrubbing and boiling, the pressing, ironing and mending that makes the Royal Navy the most immaculately turnedout of the British armed forces. Next time you watch a warship entering harbour, with her crew in starched white uniforms standing smartly to attention along the upper deck, you’ll know who has been working overtime!
The laundrymen go to war too. Many served in the Korean War, and there are ships with them on board serving in the Gulf and Mediterranean today. It is not that they want to savour the thrill of battle. On the contrary, when “Action Stations” is sounded they usually prefer to be shut in the laundry until the all-clear signal. That does not always make them safe, though. Two Chinese laundrymen were killed in the Falklands conflict. Lai Chi Keung was one of the 21 crew killed in early May 1982 when an Exocet missile hit HMS Sheffield. Kyo Ben Kuo was among the 24 casualties when HMS Coventry was bombed to the bottom of the South Atlantic. But like serving RN personnel, they are entitled to receive campaign medals for the conflicts in which their ships are involved.
WORLD LAUNDRY SERVICES
When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, it was thought this could spell the end for the “unofficials”, as the majority of Chinese laundrymen traditionally have their homes there. But because of their loyalty and proven effectiveness it came as no surprise that they have now become recognised as “official” and are employees of WLS, World Laundry Services, which is a direct descendant of the old system. This firm, run by the Shao family – previously private contractors who made their own arrangements directly with ships’ captains – now provide laundrymen to all RN ships. So, whilst the arrangements have to a certain extent been formalised, and the days of freelance contractors are over, their working practices have not changed and business is thriving.
Smaller RN ships, such as frigates and destroyers, normally have two laundrymen. Bigger ships, like the amphibious assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, with crews of 325 officers and men, and 400 Royal Marines, will probably have up to 12 laundrymen, and sometimes a Chinese tailor, affectionally called Sew-Sew, as well. It is not difficult to appreciate that providing rapid turnaround laundry services to ships’ crews, both male and female, is a profitable occupation.