The Hom Family’s Inverness Laundry
By Dewey Livingston
Note: This is an excerpt from Dewey’s forthcoming book on Point Reyes history.
For decades on the Inverness waterfront stood the home and business of the Hom family. Gin Hom (or Hom Gin in China) emigrated from Guandong (Canton) around 1915 and found a job at Mare Island in the Navy laundry. There he met Mashee (Ma) Yuen and they soon married. After starting their family in Vallejo and San Francisco, the couple bought Song Lee’s laundry business at Inverness in 1925. Located where Martinelli Park offers expansive views of Tomales Bay and hills today, the Homs operated their laundry utilizing the clear water of the creeks and the fresh air breezes off the bay to wash and dry the clothes and domestic items of Inverness’s summer residents and few permanent citizens.
Jack Mason wrote, “Outside their house on the tidal flat, ‘miles’ of washing flapped over Tomales Bay to be retrieved when the tide went out, and ironed on the flatirons from Mrs. Hom’s wood and coal stove.”
“Moving in was a full time job,” recalled Alan Johnstone about arriving for a summer in the 1920s. “We had to make arrangements with Hom to have the laundry picked up, and he came around in a horse and wagon.”
When the Currier family came for the summer, recalled Elizabeth Currier Pease, “Mr. Hom at the laundry would realize we were here and would deliver the laundry that he had taken away at the end of summer before.”
When they arrived from Vallejo and San Francisco in 1925, the couple had four children; another four would be born in Inverness. The size of the growing family alarmed some Inverness matrons, as remembered by Mrs. Pease:
There was concern expressed by the ladies of the town that Mrs. Hom really shouldn’t have so many children and so the Judges’s daughter, who was quite well along in years — she might have been almost sixty — was elected to go down and discuss it with Mrs. Hom that perhaps she ought to consider something and not have so many children. Well, the result was zero. Mrs. Hom who was a sweet little Chinese lady just closed the door and that was the end of the discussion.
Gin Hom died of a brain hemorrhage 1936 and Ma Hom raised their eight children alone, all attending Inverness School: Emma, Joseph, Edith, James, Alyce, Henry, Lotus and Kenneth.
All the children worked in the laundry and at other chores. Henry got a job at Mery’s Inverness Store where he learned the business, about “hardware and lumber sizes, yardage goods, the various over the counter drugs, sacking the coal which would come in bulk,” wrote Michael Mery whose father owned the store. “Henry learned to drive [and] got a license in 1944 at age 14. At that point Henry took over the grocery delivery for the Inverness Store.”
Lotus, the second youngest of the Hom children, was remembered for her infectious smile and friendliness. “She was bright and fun and we became good friends,” recalled Diane Shaw Preciado in a memoir. “I spent a lot of time at her house enjoying the noise and fun of a big family.” Youngest Kenny delivered newspapers all over Inverness. “He was a very good shot with a slingshot and brought up quail for the table,” recalled his older brother Henry.
Henry, through Michael Mery, told the story of how he was named:
The Colby family has long had two summer residences in Inverness. They were upper class families from Berkeley with several children. A few days after Henry was born, Mr. Colby stopped at the Hom laundry to either drop off or to pick up clothing and Mrs. Hom asked one of the older children to ask his first name. Henry was the answer.
All the Hom males served in the U. S. military. Joe fought in the Philippines and participated in the invasion of Japan. Yet still some locals and visitors were suspicious of the Hom family, ignorantly thinking they were Japanese.
Most old-time Inverness residents remembered the oldest child Emma (born in 1920 as Ngun Yee) the most. She attained national fame as fan dancer and actress Noel Toy. After graduating from Tomales High School, Emma attended U. C. Berkeley studying journalism. She took a job at the World’s Fair on Treasure Island, posing in a Chinese gown in an exhibit. Charlie Low, owner of the San Francisco nightclub Forbidden City, hired Emma as a “fan dancer,” really a stripper. She took the name Noel Toy and became nationally famous, some calling her “the Chinese Sally Rand.”
“I went home and told my mother what I was planning to do, and she raised the roof,” she told a reporter a couple of years later. “I guess it’s true that you can get used to anything, because now she sees me in the nude in nightclubs and thinks nothing of it.” Upon marrying in 1945 she gave up stripping and became an actress, appearing in major movies and television shows. Noel Toy (Emma Hom) Young died in 2004.
Ma Hom closed the laundry in 1949 and moved to Berkeley. “The laundry was doing all right, but the Hom children were growing up, going to high school and the owners wanted to get out,” recalled George Ludy. “They were very, very thrifty, had accumulated a few bucks and they had got their education and today they’re all wealthy people.” He noted that Emma became a rich entertainer, Alice a designer in New York, Edith a University of California professor and head of a private school, Jimmie with a large printing business in Honolulu, and Henry finding success in real estate. “Most of them did very well in the world,” said Mrs. Pease. “They were just a steady family that worked very hard, quite an addition to the community.”
Only Ruth Colby remembered two laundries in Inverness. “There was an Indian woman, and we took our clothes there,” she recalled. “Mr. Hom did all the sheets. Every weekend we’d stop there and pick up our sheets.” Perhaps the “Indian woman” was Rosie Felix Sanchez, an Indigenous woman from Laird’s Landing who, with her Mexican husband John was raising their family in the town. Maidee Moore recalled that Sanchez took over the laundry after Ma Hom left, but it wouldn’t have lasted long. Ludy tore down the old building, which today is Martinelli Park on the Inverness waterfront.
The Homs were sometimes thought to be the only Chinese family in Inverness, possibly in West Marin at the time, but as of 1930 there were two Chinese laborers at the Reeves Hotel, and a number of Chinese cooks in Olema. Ten years earlier, Song Lee, from China, operated the laundry. Ah Lee was a fruit and vegetable peddler at the same time, living near Song Lee. And even earlier, Chinese cooks, woodcutters and laborers were employed on dairy ranches in the area, and peddlers and fishermen frequented the area, but were oppressed by anti-Asian laws and sentiments. The Homs, although very different from the WASP summer people of Inverness, were nevertheless mostly loved and appreciated for their friendliness, ambition and important service. To Maidee Moore and no doubt many others, the Homs “were very much part of this community.”