Kitchener-Waterloo·Asian Heritage Month

The 'quiet stories' of early Waterloo: Charlie Sing, Hop Wo and the Chinese laundry business

The City of Waterloo Museum is looking to give a voice to some of the city's early diverse settlers. That includes stories like of Hop Wo, who ran hand laundry businesses in the early 1900s.

The big developers are known, now it's time to look deeper, says museum curator

Karen VanderBrink, the manager of archival collections at the City of Waterloo Museum, shows a calendar created for customers of Hop Wo's laundry. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Aside from a few photos and a handful of artifacts, little is known about the early Chinese community in Waterloo, Ont.

But the City of Waterloo Museum is actively working to change that and give a voice to more of the city's early diverse settlers.

"We know who the big economic developers were in our area and now it's time to pause and look at some of the others," said Karen VandenBrink, manager and curator at the museum.

That includes telling the stories of Charlie Sing and Hop Wo, who each owned and ran hand-laundry businesses in uptown Waterloo during the early 1900s.

Using the city's early directories and fire insurance maps, VandenBrink and her colleagues were able to figure out Sing owned his hand laundry business on King Street, near a creek that VandenBrink suspects he used for his business.

This is the right side of a panorama photograph taken in 1929. On the right, a sign that reads, "Hop Wo Laundry". That's where the City of Waterloo's parking garage, across from Waterloo Town Square, is now located. (Waterloo Public Library )

They found Wo was down the street on 66 King St., in a business he took over from the previous owner Joseph Lee. VandenBrink said if you were to look for the location of Wo's business today, you'd find a city parking garage instead — located across the street from Waterloo Town Square.

Most of the information the museum has on Wo's business comes from artifacts: a calendar from 1928 and a block print local artist Woldemar Neufeld created of what is believed to be Wo's storefront. A panoramic photograph from 1929 also shows his business in the foreground.

"Like many businesses of the time, they would give you that 'Thanks for your business' calendar at the beginning of the year," VandenBrink said, adding the calendar was a donation made to the museum.

Artifacts from Hop Wo's hand laundry business are part of the City of Waterloo Museum's collection. On the left is a calendar from 1928 and on the right, a block print by local artists Woldemar Neufeld of Wo's store front. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

VandenBrink said they know Wo's hand laundry business was part of King Street from the mid-1920s to the early 1940s. She said uptown Waterloo at that time was very industrial and many men would need their shirts, collars and cuffs cleaned.

But that's about as much as the museum has on Wo. 

"We don't have a lot of information about [Wo] or his family, if he was married or if he wasn't or where he lived," she said. 

This photograph shows a man sitting on a horse drawn sleigh in the early 1910s. In the background Charlie Sing's store front can be seen. This is believed to be the only photograph of his business in uptown Waterloo. (Kitchener Public Library Archives)

It has even less on Sing, said VandenBrink.

A photograph from the 1910s shows a man sitting in a horse-drawn sleigh. Sing's business can be seen in the background. 

Charlie Sing's business can be seen on this fire insurance map. It was number 47 on the map. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Ryan Wong, president of the Central Ontario Chinese Cultural Centre (COCCC), has worked with VandenBrink and her team to keep the stories of his community and the Chinese cultural centre intact.

"Especially the people who started this centre and how they gathered, at the time, a small community of Chinese people in the K-W region," Wong told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. 

The COCCC was founded in 1973 by Bill Lee, Peter Chieh, and Norman Lynn to share and preserve Chinese culture locally and create the K-W Chinese School. 

Ryan Wong is the president of the Central Ontario Chinese Cultural Centre in Kitchener. (CBC)

For Wong, whose family immigrated to Canada in the 1980s, Asian Heritage Month is a time to take pride in how far the Chinese community has come in K-W. 

Preserving for future generations

"I look back to those stories of our founding members, stories of my family, stories of everybody who tried to come here and made a new life for themselves and their families as well," he said.

"I like to think of this month as way to take pride and get to know those who worked hard here, before us, to make sure we had a good life here. Why we have such a big Asian community now here in K-W from a tiny bit even 50 years ago." 

VandenBrink said she and her colleagues want to continue their work, resurfacing these stories — and more. 

"More of our work now is finding and digging for these quiet stories to be able to give them voice," she said.

"We have wonderful communities and the diversity here is getting stronger and stronger all the time, that we want to be able to tell the stories well and complete."

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