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Wen Yiduo, poet

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Wen Yido

The noted poet Wen Yiduo in front of the Art Institute of Chicago, about 1922. His experiences as a student at the School of the Art Institute led him to write several important poems about Chicago, including his great Laundryman's Song:

Laundry work is a common job for American
Chinese, so Chinese students coming to America
are often asked: “Is your father a laundryman?”

(One shirt, two shirts, three shirts,)
Shirts must be washed clean
(Four shirts, five shirts, six shirts,)
Shirts must be ironed smooth.

I can clean handkerchiefs soaked with tears
I can whiten sweaters black with crime
Grease of greed, dirt of desire
And all the filthy things you have at home.
Give them to me to wash,  give them to me.

Money stinks so, blood smells so
Those dirty things you cannot leave unwashed
Even cleaned laundry will be soiled again.
How can you, men of patience, ignore it?
Wash for them, wash for them!

You Americans say the laundry business is too base
Are Chinamen alone willing to stoop so low?
Yet your preacher tells me
Christ’s father was once a carpenter.
Don’t you believe it?  Don’t you believe it?

Soap and plain water can’t make big splashes
Washing clothes is less fine than building battleships
I too ask what splendid future lies in
Sweating blood for other’s sweat?
Would you Americans do it?  Would you do it?

Year comes, year goes, the homesick tear falls
Midnight, late night, the laundry lamp glows
Don’t you Americans worry that the job is vile
Just find where it is not clean or smooth, and
Call the Chinaman, call the Chinaman.

I can clean handkerchiefs soaked with tears
I can whiten sweaters black with crime,
Grease of greed, dirt of desire
And all the filthy things you have at home.

English translation by Chuimei Ho and Bennet Bronson, modified from that of Hsu Kai-yu (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 1958 (21), pp.147-148.)