The Bootleg Files: The Calgon ‘Ancient Chinese Secret’ Commercial

BOOTLEG FILES 769: “Calgon ‘Ancient Chinese Secret’ Commercial” (1970s commercial that made an extraordinary impression).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No commercial reissue value.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe in an anthology of vintage commercials, but that’s unlikely.

During the 1970s, Asian Americans received minimal screen time on television. The series “Hawaii Five-O.” “Kung Fu” and M*A*S*H* kept its Asian American actors in supporting roles while giving the leads to White actors, while comic actors Pat Morita and Jack Soo were also stuck in supporting parts in “Happy Days” and “Barney Miller,” respectively. (Morita scored the lead in a sitcom called “Mr. T and Tina,” but that effort was so atrocious that it was canceled after five episodes.) There was an animated Hanna-Barbera series “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan” based on the Charlie Chan mysteries, but a mix of White and Asian American actors did the voice performances (including a young Jodie Foster).

Asian Americans had even less visibility in television commercials – but, then again, minority representation in commercials was still a work in progress. During this time, Madison Avenue was just starting to allow Black actors to promote products, while Ricardo Montalban was the token Hispanic spokesperson with his elegant extolling of the “Corinthian leather” in the Chrysler Cordoba advertisements. Native Americans were sort of represented by Iron Eyes Cody in public service announcements to fight pollution, although the actor was actually Italian-American Espera Oscar de Corti.

There was one commercial where Asian Americans were front and center – and not only did the actors effectively sell a product, but they also engaged in a full-throttle assault on the stereotypes facing their demographic.

Calgon Inc. had introduced a water softening product in 1930 that was designed to be used in conjunction with powdered detergent in washing machines. The marketing pitch was that the water softener neutralized hard water, thus contributing to cleaner clothing.

For many years, the product sold without the need for special advertising campaigns. In the 1970s, however, it seemed that every laundry brand was the subject of a television advertising campaign – everything except Calgon. The challenge was to find some kind of a laundry expert that could vouch for the effectiveness of the product. And that’s how Asian Americans wound up in commercials.

The first Chinese-owned laundry in the United States was opened in San Francisco by Wah Lee, a Chinese immigrant who charged $5 to clean one dozen shirts. Gold Rush-era California was overwhelmingly populated by white men who scorned the domestic sciences. Chinese immigrants saw the laundry business as an entrepreneurial endeavor.

But this proved to be a blessing and a curse. Racial hostility to Chinese immigrants led to their being ghettoized by a white society that ultimately passed laws halting immigration from China. The laundry business was one of the few business sectors where the Chinese could thrive professionally – by 1920, 30% of the nation’s Chinese population were employed in laundry work. Even well into the post-World War II era, when many households had their own washing machines, Chinese laundries thrived in urban areas.

(Just as an aside – a Chinese laundry was nearly responsible for my being born prematurely. In the summer of 1964, my pregnant mother went to see “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” in the theater, and there was a sequence where Sid Caesar and Edie Adams were accidentally locked in a hardware store basement. The couple escaped by dynamiting a hole in a wall that opened into a next-door Chinese laundry, where the flabbergasted laundry workers are yelling in Chinese after the explosion as the bedraggled couple make their escape. My mother laughed so hard at that scene that her body convulsed and she had to temporarily walk out of the theater because she was afraid that she was going to give birth to me. She didn’t, mercifully.)

Now, back to the Calgon commercial. The scene opens in a small, cramped Chinese laundry. A blonde White woman is picking up her clothing and asks the young male proprietor, “How do you get shirts so clean, Mr. Lee?” The proprietor – who, quite frankly, is a sexy character with long hair and a tight shirt that barely contains a chiseled torso – raises an index finger to his lips in a shushing motion, leans forward, grins and declares, “Ancient Chinese secret!”

Suddenly, we are in the back of the laundry to find Mrs. Lee, a young woman wearing a Chinese-style tunic and her hair pigtailed with thick yellow ribbons. She looks at the camera, lifts a box of Calgon and a box of generic laundry detergent, and boldly states in a vibrant voice one associates with an Iowa cheerleader instead of a Chinese laundry woker, “My husband, some hot shot! Here’s his ancient Chinese secret: Calgon!”

We then see Mrs. Lee pour the Calgon into a washing machine that is filled to the brink with suds. She informs the viewer that “Calgon helps detergents get up to 30% cleaner.”

Mrs. Lee intrudes on her husband’s dishonest sale by yelling, “We need more Calgon.” The White woman, realizing she’s been bamboozled, raises an arched eyebrow and sneers, “Ancient Chinese secret, huh?” Mr. Lee assumes a guilty expression at being exposed as a fraud.

So, why did Mrs. Lee rat out her husband? Was she jealous of the White woman’s attention? Was she tired of life in a laundry and ready to destroy her livelihood in pursuit of freedom? Or was she just a vicious kook?

There are actually two versions of the commercial – one where Mrs. Lee is ridiculously ecstatic in highlighting Calgon, and another where she is more subdued while mentioning Calgon is “new and improved.” The original version is funnier, if only because Mrs. Lee is so absurdly animated in denouncing her spouse while extolling Calgon.

The Calgon commercial turned up in the mid-1970s and stayed on the air for many, many years. Even though Mr. and Mrs. Lee’s laundry was never revisited in follow-up advertisements, the commercial became a fixture in pop culture. Even today, when Asian Americans are the target of harassment in real life and in show business – thank you, James Corden, for your racist humor – the Calgon commercial generates debate over whether it is a positive or negative depiction of Asian Americans.

Of course, a 30-second commercial is never going to be released in a standalone home entertainment format. But absent of an anthology of vintage advertising, the Calgon commercial can easily be found on YouTube.

I should add that because television commercials do not come with closing credits, the cast of this production were mostly unknown for too many years. I would like to take a moment to honor Anne Miyamoto as the spunky Mrs. Lee, Calvin Jung as the playfully deceitful Mr. Lee, and Pamela Wiley as the White customer who is almost tricked into believing her clothing looks so wonderful because of an ancient Chinese secret. None of these actors became household names, but they used their very brief time on camera to create an immortal work of marketing.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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