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A recent ad by Bing Lee had during its ad something like

You could create a Chinese laundry with that much [washing powder].

Mum, you can't say that!

Yes I can, I'm Chinese

Does "Chinese laundry" have any meaning other than a laundry staffed by Chinese people?

A onelook.com search only gives Wikipedia and Urban dictionary as matches for the phrase.

Wikipedia redirects "Chinese laundry" to Chinese Laundries in North America, which states that

In the United States and Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century, the occupation of laundry worker was heavily identified with Chinese Americans.

However, a google ngram search has "Chinese laundry" far more common than any other immigrant population (such as Jewish, Italian or Polish) plus "laundry". Does this mean "Chinese laundry" developed a non-literal meaning?

Urban dictionary has an entry about "Chinese laundry", but there's very few upvotes, and even the top voted entry has half as many downvotes.

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I suspect that they're just playing with a stereotype here, a self-deprecating ethnic joke. I'm not aware of any figurative meaning. Compare “Chinese fire drill.” –  Bradd Szonye Apr 20 '13 at 11:35
It seems to be quite literal and was even the subject of a memorable TV commercial for a water softening product, "Calgon", that is referenced, tongue-in-cheek, as an "ancient Chinese secret": youtube.com/watch?v=mzixL7Ef-bI –  Kristina Lopez Apr 20 '13 at 13:08
It's a trope. Enough Chinese immigrants to the US went into the laundry business that the two were connected in popular culture. –  MετάEd Apr 20 '13 at 13:49
This page gives rather more background to the development of Chinese Laundries and related social issues, and might explain some of the historical connotations surrounding the expression. –  TrevorD Aug 28 '13 at 19:25
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5 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

I think it was just referring to the literal opening of a laundry owned by Chinese immigrants. Since the ad was referring to washing powder, that would be my guess.

I don't think this is what they were referring to, but I have heard the term "Chinese Laundry" or "Chinese Massage" be a slang term for a cover for a prostitution ring.

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In my experience, someone stating that the working conditions were likened to that of a Chinese laundry means nothing negative toward someone of Chinese descent, simply that the working conditions were or are hot, muggy, and uncomfortable.

In regards to the amount of washing soap, it would be near the same as telling a young child that they had placed enough soap in their hands to wash their entire body, only in this case the child had poured out enough soap to run a laundry. No negative connotation.

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When I was growing up in Illinois, a Chinese Laundry meant a "wedgie".

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I grew up in Northern Ontario, and telling someone they had "Chinese laundry" meant their pants were so tight you could see the outlines of their buttocks. The implication I guess was that a Chinese laundry had shrunk the pants.

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I thought it had something to do with laundering 'dirty money' from black market activities in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and mainly in the US.

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