Chinatown: Jason Luo on His Family’s Laundromat Business

Chinatown: Jason Luo on His Family's Laundromat Business

Language was a big, big barrier in my parents’ life, too. They can’t speak English, or write, or communicate. They never moved away from Chinatown, so they don’t need to learn English to survive. Their clients are mostly Chinese, they mostly use Chinese. And as I grew up, they would have me read important letters from the government. Like, they see the official logo and want to know, “What letter is this? What does it mean?”

With a loan from his parents, Luo opened his own shop, selling toys and gadgets a few blocks from the family laundromat. But he still helps out at his parents’ businesses. (Aaron Reiss)

In the laundromat, when there is a problem with an English-speaking customer’s order, they call me. They say, “Come over, solve this problem.” I remember this one customer, she can’t find her $70 underwear—it was all lace. I’m serious! I had to look up the brand online, and she wasn’t lying! It was $70. I guess you can find a luxury kind of anything, even underwear. I went there, and we actually found it in another basket. I waived her fee, and she was happy. Afterward, my parents are like, “Okay, go home.” It’s your duty! It’s my family duty. My parents don’t want the customer to feel like they aren’t getting help because of the language barrier.

After I graduated from high school, I studied computer engineering at New York University for two semesters. But then I didn’t think that class was really my thing, and I dropped out. My mom was crying. They let the whole family know. Because that generation didn’t graduate from college—just two cousins—they just want me to get a degree. Anyway, at that time I was just drifting around, doing my thing and enjoying life.

I started building an app, a small game. I worked for a year and a half at an IT firm in K-Town. And at the same time, my parents call me up when they need help with anything, like errands. Or if a worker isn’t there that day, they ask me to cover for them. It’s kind of like you’re on standby, you’re on call.

Luo’s mother is a serial entrepreneur from a humble background. In 1997, his father immigrated to New York’s Chinatown. Five years later, at age nine, Luo came to join him, along with his mother. (Aaron Reiss)

But I didn’t like it. I felt like they forced stuff on me; they didn’t make me feel like I could choose. I think it happens with most Chinese family businesses. There was expectation forced upon me: Someday you’ll take over, go to the work site with Dad; you will take over someday. It soaks in. If you’re the oldest son, they expect you to take everything they have—the money, the business, the home. That idea goes all the way back to China.

For me, though, it’s like multiple personality disorder. You’ll become thankful and grateful to them sometimes. And sometimes you hate them, and you hate the business, right? You just want to burn it to the ground. After they decided to give me the chance to let me invest in my own business, I ran it, everything. It was a bit harsh. So I start to understand that running a business is not easy. And I understand why they ask for any help they can, even from family.