Wanted: Chinese laundry costume

Last week I posted a blog on the development of Poster Balls in New Zealand, along with a link to my Pinterest page where I am collating my finds.

While I am particularly delighted with this photograph of a man dressed in a Dunlop tyre outfit from 1911 from the National Library’s collection, what I really want to find is a photograph of Wing Lee in his attention grabbing poster costume from the same year.

Dunlop Tyre Man figure in rubber costume, on roller skates, 1911. Photo taken by Steffano Webb Photographic Studio, Christchurch. Collection of negatives. Ref: 1/1-009249-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371823

Wing Lee, whose portrait by Berry & Co appears below, operated several laundry businesses in Wellington from 1905.

Wing Lee, photographed at Berry & Co photography studio, Cuba Street, Wellington.

In July 1911, Wing Lee attended a grand Poster Ball in Wellington’s Town Hall. The ball was a fund-raiser for the Society for the Promotion of Health of Women and Children, and according to contemporary reports attracted a  kaleidoscope of costumed ball-goers, and a crowd of eager onlookers. That night Wing Lee won the prize for most ‘decidedly’ original poster. He dressed as a mobile Chinese laundry. While we do not have a photograph of the costume, an Evening Post report provides a vivid description.

‘The Chinese laundry was extremely clever and original, and there was little fear of its being overlooked, for every now and again it would come trundling along the hall, its occupant uttering weird cries, touting for custom, and now and then shedding garments from his counter on the floor’. (Evening Post, 4 August, 1911)

Wing Lee did not simply don a costume, he gave a complete performance, including vigorously ironing garments. As lively as the above description is, I am hoping that Wing Lee’s descendants might have a photograph of him in costume in their family archives.

The above portrait of Wing Lee  is one of a group of just over 90 portraits of Chinese New Zealanders in the Berry & Co collection. My colleague Michael Fitzgerald is currently working with members of the New Zealand Chinese community to identify the sitters. Although we do not have a complete picture of Wing Lee’s life yet, we do know that as well as being an inventive costume maker, he was one of a number of Chinese merchants from the Toy Shan District Association who donated money to the National Gallery and Dominion Museum Fund in 1928 – and for that we are grateful!

You can view the other Chinese portraits in the Berry & Co collection here. If you recognise any of the sitters and can provide any snippets of information please email FamilyTies@tepapa.govt.nz  Or if you just happen to stumble across an image of a man dressed as a Chinese laundry, let me know!

2 Responses

  1. Adele Pentony-Graham

    ask the CHINESE EMBASSY see if they can help with a photograph, no harm in asking!! good luck!

  2. Joanna Boileau

    Hi Claire What a great project and a great find!
    I received Michael Fitzgerald’s request to help identify some of the Chinese portraits in the Berry collection. I am working with the Chinese community in my research on Chinese laundries for the Chinese Poll Tax Trust. I have been researching business directories and I have some basic information on the Wing Lee laundry. Would be happy to share that with you. I also found the article about the poster ball just the other day. Would be fantastic to find a photo of Wing Lee in his laundry costume!
    I am based in Auckland but will be in Wellington next week. from Monday 9 to Friday 13 Nov. I would be interested to come and have a chat with you, and maybe Michael as well. Let me know when might suit you.

    best regards
    Joanna Boileau


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