The Soul of Sing Lee

by Ben Hecht, 1921
(Written as a feature article for the Chicago Daily News)
The years have made a cartoon out of Sing Lee. A withered yellow face with motionless black eyes. Thin fingers that move with lifeless precision.  Slippered feet that shuffle as if Sing Lee were yawning.
A smell of starch, wet linen and steam mingles with an aromatic mustiness.  The day’s work is done. Sing Lee sits in his chair behind the counter.  Three walls look down upon him. Laundry packages–yellow paper, white string–crowd the wall shelves. Chinese letterings dance gayly on the yellow packages.
Sing Lee, from behind the counter, stares out of the window. The Hyde Park police station is across the way. People pass and glance up:
Sing Lee, Hand Laundry,
5222 Lake Park Avenue.
Come in. There is something immaculate about Sing Lee. Sing Lee has been ironing out collars and shirts for thirty-five years. And thirty-five years have been ironing Sing Lee out. He is like one of the yellowpackages on the shelves. And there is a certain lettering across his face as indecipherable and strange as the dance of the black hieroglyphs on the yellow laundry paper.
Something enthralls Sing Lee. It can be seen plainly now as he sits behind the counter. It can be seen, too, as he works during the day. Sing Lee works like a man in an empty dream. It is the same to Sing Lee whether he works or sits still.
The world of collars, cuffs and shirt fronts does not contain Sing Lee. It
contains merely an automaton. The laundry is owned by an automaton named Sing Lee, by nobody else. Now that the day’s work is done he will sit like this for an hour, two hours, five hours. Time is not a matter of hours to Sing Lee. Or of days. Or even of years.
The many wilted collars that come under the lifeless hands of Sing Lee
tell him an old story. The story has not varied for thirty-five years. A
solution of water, soap and starch makes the collars clean again and
stiff. They go back and they return, always wilted and soiled. Sing Lee
needs no further corroboration of the fact that the crowds are at work.
Doing what? Soiling their linen. That is as final as anything the crowds
do. Sing Lee’s curiosity does not venture beyond finalities.
*       *       *       *       *
Sing Lee is a resident of America. But this is a formal statistic and
refers only to the automaton that owns the hand laundry in Lake Park
Avenue. Observe a few more formal facts of Sing Lee’s life. He has never been to a movie or a theater play. He has never ridden in an automobile. He has never looked at the lake.
Thus it becomes obvious that Sing Lee lives somewhere else. For a man must go somewhere in thirty-five years. Or do something. There is a story then, in Sing Lee. Not a particularly long story. Life stories are sometimes no longer than a single line–a sentence, even a phrase. So if one could find out where Sing Lee lives one would have a story perhaps a whole sentence long.
“Mukee kai, Sing Lee.”
A nod of the thin head.
“Business good?”
Another nod.
“Pretty tired, washing, ironing all day, eh?”
A nod.
“When are you going to put in a laundry machine?”
A shake of the thin head.
“When are you going to quit, Sing Lee?”
Another shake of the thin head.
“You’re not very gabby tonight, Sing.”
A dignified answer to this: “I thinking.”
“What about, Sing Lee?”
A faint smile. The smile seems to set Sing Lee in motion. It comes from
behind the automaton. It is perhaps Sing Lee’s first gesture of life in
“You don’t mind my sitting here and smoking a pipe, eh?”
*       *       *       *       *
The minutes pass. Sing Lee stands up. He turns on a small electric light. This is a concession. This done, he opens a drawer behind the counter and removes a little bronze casket. The casket is placed on the counter. Slowly as if in a deep dream Sing Lee lights a match and holds it inside the casket. A thin spiral of lavender smoke unwinds from its mouth.
Sing Lee watches the spiral of smoke. It wavers and unwinds. A finger
writing; an idiot flower. Then it opens up into a large smoke eye. Smoke eyes drift casually away. An odor crawls into the air. Sing Lee’s eyes close gently and his thin body moves as he takes a deep breath.
His eyes still closed, Sing Lee speaks.
“You writer?” he murmurs.
“I too,” says Sing Lee. “I write poem.”
“Yes? When did you do that?”
“Oh, long ago. Mebbe year. Mebbe five years.”
Sing Lee reaches into the open drawer and takes out a large sheet of rice paper. It is partly covered with Chinese letters up and down.
“I read you in English,” says Sing Lee. His eyes remain almost shut. He
The sky is young blue.
Many fields wait.
Many people look at young blue sky.
Old people look at young blue sky.
Many birds fly.
At night moon comes and young blue sky is old.
Many young people look at old sky.
“Did you write that about Chicago, Sing Lee?”
“No, no,” says Sing Lee. His eyes open. The smoke eyes from the incense pot drift like miniature ghost clouds behind him and creep along the rows of yellow laundry packages.
“No, no,” says Sing Lee. “I write that about Canton. I born in Canton many years ago. Many, many years ago.”
Ben Hecht, A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, 1922-3.  Collection of articles from the Chicago Daily News, 1921.

Re-published by Project Gutenberg,