Among the plethora of shops along Lorong Maarof, Bangsar, City Laundry could be easily overlooked. Standing on the corner, the smell of fresh laundry is overpowered by the delicious waft of curries from the Indian restaurant a few doors away. The shop’s exterior is hardly memorable, stacked simply with neat piles of cleaned and labeled laundry. Yet this laundry shop has been running for over forty years.

Owner Raffi Zainal Abidin proudly tells me that the laundromat is a neighborhood landmark. “Some families have been our customers for 3 generations!” says Raffi, who inherited the business from his uncle fifteen years ago. City Laundry now provides a range of wash, dry and dry cleaning services. But how has this laundromat survived when so many people now own washing machines of their own?

“I know it is surprising since most households have washing machines. But ask anyone, and they will tell you that ironing is their least favorite chore. The people in this neighborhood are mostly young working professionals or expatriates who are particular about their clothes and appearance. They are quite willing to pay a small fee to get their laundry washed, professionally ironed and folded in two or three days.”

Raffi invites me to see the wash-dry-iron-fold process for myself. The behind-the-scene area feels like a detergent-scented sauna and easily accommodates six of his employees, a manual ironing-cum-folding machine, three large-scale washing machines and a 30kg capacity drier.  “My shop is a mix of old and new. My uncle bought one of the washing machines in the 1970s. I call it the Jurassic monster, but it is very reliable,” he says.

Currently, City Laundry takes laundry jobs not just from residents in the area but also from small-scale hotels and businesses. This has marked a change from the early days of the business, when most people did their laundry at home and only took special outfits for dry cleaning. “There are a lot of opportunities in this business, and we have come a long way from our days as the neighborhood Kedai Dobi,” Raffi says.

Raffi Zainal Abidin, owner of City Laundry in Bangsar

Indeed, the world of laundry is not restricted to clothes, as I discover when I investigate YS Dry Cleaning & Laundry, a long-running business in Jalan Imbi. Located in a commercial and tourist district, this shop was established in the 1980’s. Inside, the soft sounds of muzak and the uniformed employees give it the atmosphere of a polished hotel lobby. Behind the counter, leather shoes and handbags sit in pristine plastic covers.

According to employee Ms. Ten, YS specializes in cleaning shoes and bags, especially for tourists staying nearby. “People started asking us if we could clean their vintage and highly fashionable designer shoes and bags. The owners were willing to spend money as long as they knew that their products are well cared for and handled. So now, that has become our niche. More Malaysians and other expatriates in KL have started using our services as well,” she tells me.

Just a short distance away on Jalan Imbi, I find a very different kind of laundry shop. Cleanpro Express, part of a growing franchise, is a self-service automated laundromat. In the last two years alone, this franchise has opened thirty outlets in Malaysia and Singapore. Instead of catering to high-end luxury cleaning or even young professionals, their target demographic are people who don’t own washing machines at all. “We focus on areas where there are communities of foreign workers or college students”, says a customer service representative.

CleanPro Express at Jalan Imbi, the original shop of the franchise

All the outlets have similar no-frills designs and the laundry cost is identical: RM12 to wash and dry up to 14kgs of laundry, which is far cheaper than the rates in most laundromats in the city. As I walked into the Jalan Imbi outlet on a Saturday afternoon, two customers were in the shop, washing everything from bed sheets to t-shirts. While waiting for the one hour it takes to complete the laundry cycle, they either fidgeted or checked their Facebook using the free wifi.

One of the fidgety customers took it upon himself to educate me on changing laundry habits. “People used to wash their laundry in the daytime, so that they can dry it under the hot sun. But nowadays, a lot of people, especially in this area, work long or shift hours. That is why 24-hours self-service laundromats like this have become so popular. People can wash and dry their clothes any time of the day. In fact, this place gets crowded after 6pm, when people finish their work.”

The three laundry shops I visited cater to very different cleaning needs, showing the different social dynamics of a neighbourhood. While most of us might take our washing machines for granted, the thriving franchise model of 24 hour laundromats shows that many people don’t have this luxury, or else need to wash their clothes at night. Others, meanwhile, spend good money at specialist shops to maintain the quality of expensive leather bags and shoes. And in the middle? There are those who simply just don’t like doing ironing.

Photos by Anne Fernando

Shopping List

Wash and iron comforter – RM15 in City Laundry

Wash and dry 14kgs of laundry – RM12 in Cleanpro Express

Find It

City Laundry, 100 Lorong Maarof, KL 59000.

YS Dry Cleaning & Laundry, 96 Jalan Imbi, KL 55100.

Cleanpro Express, 131 Jalan Imbi, KL 55100.