Piecing together the lives of Reno’s early Chinese residents can be a difficult task. Often misunderstood or misheard by official chroniclers, their names as reported were often not just inaccurate but inconsistent, with the same person listed in numerous ways from reference to reference. Subjected to horrendous discrimination, disparagement and violence, their individual lives were generally not covered in mainstream media beyond their associations with white residents, and those were usually negative.
For these reasons, it is striking that so much is known about one Chinese immigrant who lived in Reno for more than thirty years, from at least the early 1880s through 1918. Predominately identified on official records as Sue Wah (but also See Wah and Soo Wah), he was commonly known to white residents as “Tom.” Although certainly born in China, it is not known when or why he came to the United States. He may have sought work with the railroad, mining, or some other early industry. A photo notation at the Nevada Historical Society indicates that he worked for the Newt Evans family starting in 1879 before going into business for himself.
By 1882, like many early members of the Chinese community, Sue Wah operated a laundry. His original wash house, a small wooden structure on the west side of Virginia Street, caught fire in 1882. He reopened within days one street over, and then, it seems, returned to Virginia Street. Anti-Chinese sentiment was on the rise at the time in Reno and across the country. Authorized by the U.S. Congress, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act in the spring of 1882. The law banned new Chinese immigrants to the U.S. for the next ten years and empowered intolerant communities to do everything they could to drive out existing Chinese residents.
Because so many Chinese workers operated and worked in laundries, their livelihoods became a central target. An “Anti-Chinese Club” formed in Reno in March 1886 and immediately tried to persuade residents to help finance a white-owned steam laundry, believing it would put the Chinese hand laundries out of business. After a flurry of fundraising, the Reno Steam Laundry opened in March of 1886 but within months was bankrupt. Residents were simply unwilling to pay the higher costs being demanded to finance the operation and staff it with white workers, and instead continued to patronize the more affordable Chinese laundries.
In 1902, Sue Wah purchased a lot at the southeast corner of East Second Street and Center Street from John Eyraud, who had been operating the French Laundry there. Upon buying the property, Sue Wah named his business “Tom’s Laundry" to take advantage of his existing name recognition, and appears to have been very successful. Suddenly, in 1905, an unexpected offer came. A group of investors representing the Odd Fellows Lodge offered to buy the property for a rather staggering amount for the time: $15,000. In just a few short years, the block, which bordered Reno’s Chinatown (see separate entry) had become prime real estate, and both Sue Wah and his next-door neighbor Martha Jackson (see separate entry) were among the beneficiaries of the desire to expand Reno’s business district.
Some did not take the news of Sue Wah’s unexpected prosperity well, particularly the man who had just sold him the property three years earlier for $3,500. Amid some legal confusion over whether Chinese-born residents of Nevada could purchase property and the need to correct a typo on the title, John Eyraud demanded $3000 to help Sue Wah finalize his sale, but was rebuffed. The local judge presiding over the trial chose to ignore the state statute, allowing Sue Wah to walk away with a tidy $11,500 profit.
Continuing to work, Sue Wah moved Tom’s Laundry first to Chestnut Street (now Arlington Avenue), then to 138 East Second Street, where he appears to have kept the business going until suddenly leaving town in 1918 for parts unknown. The story of Sue Wah, typical in some ways and extraordinary in others, illuminates an important aspect of Reno’s history that deserves much further exploration and commemoration.