Last Updated on September 25, 2019 by Michael

Before we left for a year one of our friends asked us what we would do about our laundry. Since our first month was in China we figured finding a laundry wouldn’t be a problem. We were wrong.

By the time we arrived in Shanghai three weeks into the journey we still hadn’t found a typical “Chinese laundry.”  Our apartments so far didn’t have washing machines and we hadn’t had time to find a laundry. This didn’t bother Michael, who is content to just turn things inside out and wear them again, but one of us has standards.

So far we had been hand-washing our clothes in the bathroom sink. Fortunately our Shanghai flat was in an apartment complex that included a cleaners in the building so, armed with two bags of dirty clothes, we made our way there shortly after our arrival.

chinese laundry hutong

We handed the first bag to the woman behind the counter, pointed to what we thought was the large washing machine across the room and pantomimed that was what we wanted. She tried to tell us something but we didn’t understand it and kept pointing at the machine. After shrugging her shoulders in the universal manner that means “these people are crazy” she began to quickly sort through the pile, tallying each item separately.

She then handed us a slip which said the two bags of clothes would be ready in three days—and that it would cost 450 yuan—about $60. What? This was a shock, we had been told laundries in China were inexpensive and offered quick turnaround.

What were we missing? Maybe the Chinese laundry of folklore was gone in the wake of the raging economy of the New China. We weren’t thrilled, but she had already whisked one bag of clothes away and our dumb tourist expressions weren’t getting us anywhere. So we only left half of our stuff there and took the quicker drying items back to the apartment for (sigh) more hand washing.

Washing clothes in the bathroom sink is the backup option for travelers everywhere.  It’s cheap, but it also wreaks havoc on your lodging for a few days.  Even the quick-dry items take a while to dry in an apartment or hotel room with limited air circulation—especially in a muggy climate like a Chinese summer.   The room becomes a humidity combat-zone.  As the clothes dry, the room gets clammy, making everything else a little moister, which puts the air-conditioning, if there is one, on overdrive, etc. etc.

When we picked up our clean clothes a few days later we were certainly impressed.  Each piece was carefully folded, wrapped in tissue and placed in its own cellophane bag; the thick type of bag that is usually reserved for wrapping a gift basket of fruit.  Even the socks were individually wrapped. It seemed a bit much.  As we turned to leave the shop we noticed some other clothes folded in groups in cheaper plastic bags.  This was more what we had been expecting.

We finally figured out that the machine we had so insistently pointed to a few days earlier was the dry-cleaning machine, not a washing machine.  “Wash/dry/fold” laundry is done by the pound, and is placed on a scale (which was located unobtrusively behind the counter) to be priced.  Since we have always washed our own clothes we just didn’t know this. The woman had probably been trying to explain to us that it was crazy to pay to dry clean socks and underwear but it got lost in translation. Chalk this one up in the “live and learn” column. We were $30 poorer, but it made us more laundry-savvy for the future.

In Hong Kong we finally figured things out. Go into the laundry, find the scale and plunk your bag down on it.  If you don’t see the scale, keep looking—or find another laundry. The attendant will weigh it, charge you approximately $3.50 for a full load and tell you to come back in about four hours. It will be neatly washed, dried, folded, stacked and packed in a bag to take home. Sweet. Kind of like being spoiled by mom on a weekend trip home from college.

Now that we know how to play the game, we’ll seek out similar laundries whenever we don’t have a washing machine. It’s a little luxury when traveling that is very affordable and a heck of a lot easier than hand washing and draping wet clothes all over the hotel room or apartment. Perhaps Michael won’t even turn his clothes inside out anymore, one can always dream.

You may be interested in reading how to pack for a year.

Changes in Longitude Larissa & Michael Milne at Arctic Circle
We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our travel newsletter here.