Combining archival research in Chinese language sources with oral history interviews, Renqiu Yu examines the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance (CHLA), an organization that originated in 1933 to help Chinese laundry workers break their isolation in American society. Yu brings to life the men who labored in New York laundries, depicting their meager existence, their struggles against discrimination and exploitation, and their dreams of returning to China. The persistent efforts of the CHLA succeeded in changing the workers' status in American society and improving the image of the Chinese among the American public.
Yu is especially concerned with the political activities of the CHLA, which was founded in reaction to proposed New York City legislation that would have put the Chinese laundries out of business. When the conservative Chinese social organization could not help the launderers, they broke with tradition and created their own organization. Not only did the CHLA defeat the legislative requirements that would have closed them down, but their "people's diplomacy" won American support for China during its war with Japan. The CHLA staged a campaign in the 1930s and 40s which took as its slogan, "To Save China, To Save Ourselves." Focusing on this campaign, Yu also examines the complex relationship between the democratically oriented CHLA and the Chinese American left in the 1930s.