I’ll share with you what you can expect doing your laundry in China, tips to get better results, and services that take care of it for you.
Washing machines produce a cold, entangled mess
Washing machines are typically included when you rent a furnished apartment. If you live in a high end apartment or house, the washer may be no different than what you know from home, a front-loader with temperature controls. Consider yourself lucky! Many washing machines in China are different.(Just trying to figure out how to operate one can be a challenge with every button labeled in Chinese characters…)
The typical washer is a top loader but without the rotating arm in the middle that American washing machines have to move the clothes around. Instead, a drum with curved bottom and rapidly changing directions swirl the water and clothes, turning everything into one big entangled mess. I’m sure the engineer who designed this method has never washed real clothes in his entire live but the water mixing dynamic is probably perfect.
All this swirling causes long sleeves pulled extra-long because they are twisted around other pieces, and many longish items get tied into knots. To avoid this you should invest in a couple clothes nets with good zippers. You can easily buy those in China in the household items section of a supermarket. Use the nets for everything with long sleeves or with any ties, for pants, scarves, or other things that can be pulled and twisted. Problem number one solved.
Lets move on to problem number two. Chinese style washers are connected only to a cold water tap and don’t have an internal heating element. During the freezing Beijing winters, this means washing with freezing cold water. Laundry detergent needs a minimum temperature to dissolve properly, and honestly, I like to wash my towels and some clothes just a little bit hotter.
To wash warmer you have to manually add hot water. Luckily, my washing machine is close to the shower (well, too close for my comfort to run it while taking a shower, but that is a different story). So I can use the shower head to add warm water.
Laundry detergents are available as liquid and powder from various brands, including Western brands like Tide and Omo. So at least that part is easy.
Drying clothes the old way
Chinese people believe that air drying clothes is healthier. Therefore clothes dryers are virtually non-existent in private homes, which means you have to hang-dry your clothes.
As you can easily witness almost everywhere, hang-drying clothes is the primary use of a balcony – not lounging outside on a nice summer day. For this purpose, the typical Chinese “balcony” is fully enclosed and has a system of clotheslines that can be lowered with a hand crank.
During the humid summers in Beijing, drying your clothes may take a while, like forever. You may take that into account when you decide at 3 o’clock in the afternoon to wash your only set of bed linens. During winter, the clothes dry really quickly but tend to be a bit hard, especially towels, if you are not using fabric softerner.
Dry clean and wash services
To the rescue of the busy professional, there are many dry cleaning chain stores that wash and iron at a very reasonable cost. Those stores also wash bigger items like quilts that are too big for your washer. You can even get area rugs and shoes cleaned.
Usually you buy a prepaid card, and you get bigger discounts if you deposit more money upfront. While you don’t have to deal with the washing and drying anymore, you still have to drop off your clothes and go get them again a few days later.
A new service geared towards expats, called LaundryTown, now even offers pickup and delivery. I tried their service and was impressed. (For full disclosure: The owner provided me with a voucher to give his new business a try. I only promote products and services that I know and support and that I would recommend to a friend.) The delivery service was on time, the clothes were really clean, and best of all, they smelled like fresh laundry in the US. I don’t know if it is from the dryer sheets they are using, but when I opened the bag with my freshly laundered clothes, it smelled like home. That was a nice surprise. And their same-day service comes in handy for that single set of bedlinen I mentioned earlier.
PS: If you enjoyed this post, you may want to check out my Practical Guide – Newcomer to Beijing. It contains this post and 30+ others, plus additional resources, and follows your steps from planning your move to a new culture to settling into your new expat life in Beijing, all in one easy-to-read pdf.