It’s Fung Lee’s Last Week; Hundreds of Happy Faces Will Travel With Her

By Amelia Roth-Dishy

Inside P & K Laundromat at 432 Amsterdam Avenue off of 81st Street, a massive mosaic of cheerful photos spreads over the entirety of one long wall. The collage, filled with selfies, a few posed shots, and more than a few neighborhood dogs, features hundreds of images of smiling customers alongside the store’s friendliest face: longtime employee Fung Lee.

“I ask first, can I take one picture with you?” Lee explains, gesturing towards the wall. “Everybody likes it. It’s very beautiful.”

She prints out two copies of the picture, one for the store wall and one to take home. When she retires next week and returns to her home country of Malaysia, she will bring the photos with her. “When I go back to Malaysia, I want to remember this one, this one,” she says, pointing at different spots on the collage. “I’ll miss them.”

The feeling is mutual. After 25 years serving customers on the Upper West Side, Fung Lee, whose smile is infectious even from behind a mask, is a beloved local legend. Since she started telling people that she was retiring this month, people have dropped off thank-you cards and envelopes filled with cash. “Everybody is very nice. They say, ‘I don’t want you leaving,’” she explains.

A customer comes in to drop off laundry and confirms that he’ll see her again before her last day on January 9th. “Are you happy for me?” Lee asks him. “I’m crushed,” he says in response.

Yelp reviews also sing her praises, which she is delighted to read. One says, “;o) Fung and her AMAZING staff are SUPER STARS!!!” Another Upper West Side wrote, “I just wanted to update my review to say how consistently wonderful Fung and this place has been to me for 6 years.”

Lee enjoys developing these close relationships with her customers and making them feel at home in the store. She recognizes them by name when they call, because she remembers their phone numbers. While we talk, she often checks her phone to respond to customers that have texted and Facebook-messaged her, showing me their kind words.

Since she presides over the store five days a week (scaled back from her old seven-day schedule), many customers have mistakenly assumed that Fung owns the store herself. But no, she has worked for the same boss this whole time. “Because I serve the customer very well,” she explains. “Morning, they see me. Night, they see me. Every day, it’s me. But it’s not my store. When I leave, the store is still open.”

Lee, who is 62 years old, hails from the Malaysian city of Ipoh. She first arrived in the United States in 1989 and worked for two years before returning home. When she made the trip a second time in 1995, she got the job at P & K Laundromat and has stayed ever since. She lives alone in Chinatown and still sends money back home.

When she first arrived in New York, talking to her family in Malaysia by phone was prohibitively expensive. But now she can video chat with them as much as she likes. “Everybody has the smartphone,” she says. “Go home, don’t go home, it’s the same thing. Everybody is very close.” She met the little ones in her family when they were babies, but now they’re all grown up and getting married. Her sister, she says, is quite old now.

While she’s excited to return to Malaysia after 25 years, there are certainly parts of her New York life she will miss. “It’s very free here,” she says. “Nobody bothers me, only by myself.” She doesn’t enjoy cleaning or cooking— she calls herself a “lazy cook” with a chuckle— and now only orders from her neighborhood restaurants. She’s looking forward to Malaysia’s tropical climate and good food, she says, but she’s gotten acclimated to New York winters. “I’m scared of the cold but I like it. I like the snow!”

Over time, her English has also improved. She only had three years of English learning in school before coming here and had never used the language. Whenever she hears somebody talking about something she doesn’t understand, she asks them to explain it. “I’m not scared to ask like that,” she says. “I want to learn a little bit more.” But perhaps English speakers should be learning from her— she also speaks Malay, Mandarin, and Cantonese, and has picked up conversational Spanish after working with fellow employees from Mexico for many years.

An interaction with Fung is a hallmark of what makes P & K Laundromat feel like a genuinely special neighborhood place. As Upper West Siders lug their bags of laundry into the store and up to her desk, she always plays a game with them: Guess the weight.

“Twenty-two?” a customer wagers.

She lifts his laundry and places it on the scale.

“Twenty-four,” she says. “Oooooooh!”

She loves this ritual. “I enjoy talking to the customers. Everybody says I’m very funny,” she tells me.

With a generous translation assist from a patron who speaks Mandarin, Lee relays some of the craziest things that have ever happened in the store. People have given her everything under the sun to wash, including cups and mugs. She’s had dryers catch on fire a few times. One of her longtime customers even drew a picture of one such incident, which she has included on her photo wall, under a selfie of the two together.

She’s not retiring because of the pandemic— more so because it’s just time. But this past year has been scary for the normally cheery Fung, and she has noticed that a lot of her old customers have left the city. Plus, they’re doing a much less robust dry-cleaning business, she says, because no one is going into the office. When P & K closed in late March along with so many other businesses in the city, Fung texted her customers to let them know. When they reopened in June, she texted them again.

The door swings open and another customer, who has patronized the store for a couple of years, enters. “Sexy!!” Lee greets him with a laugh. They play the guessing game and I explain to the man that I’m writing an article about her. “Best person around,” he says, unprompted. “A landmark.”

“See,” she says to him, “me now star!”

Before I left, Lee and I took a selfie. I hope she adds it to her mosaic of loyal fans, Upper West Siders who will miss her and wish her all the best.

COLUMNS, NEWS | 20 comments | permalink
    1. ajv says:

      excellent article! only sorry that i didn’t get to meet fung before she leaves — safe travels!

    2. Kay McFadden says:

      Nicely turned story. Props to Amelia.

    3. Ben B says:

      I lived at West 81st and Amsterdam 8-years ago and Fung is what I missed most. Sad she’s leaving but I wish her very well! Thanks for making my year a little brighter, Fung! 🙂

    4. Mike says:

      What a great story! It’s so nice to have positive news! OK I’m running out of my quota for exclamation points.Even when you read these kind of stories the comments can sometimes be negative. Hopefully that won’t be the case here. Although I’ve never met Fung As I don’t live that close to her store, she seems like such a wonderfully person .They’ve done marketing studies where are one of the main reasons stated for not returning to a business it’s because the customer has no preference/personal reason to go back. Obviously Fung Had given them a good reason!

    5. Joe Rappaport says:

      Nice job, Amelia.

    6. Heike Schilling says:

      What a wonderful full report! I have known Fung from when she started at P&K( I live on W. 80th Street – ha, age 80 1/2) and is my friend. I love her and tears are in my eyes just looking this over. I have her ticket copy to back “home”. You forgot to mention that she will finally see her now grown up son whom she left when a little babe. Being a long-time Pan American World Airways employe, it comes immediately to mind to find ways to upgrade her to First Class, I wish. Maybe contacting EVA’s PR Dept. She will need a lot of courage to tackle this fourth chapter of her life, as she has displayed for all these many years. Heike Schilling

    7. LL says:

      That is awesome. And yeah, no need for dry cleaning for me. What with telecommuting and all.

      I hope she has a wonderful retiremwnt

    8. Pedestrian says:

      Such a nice article about a lovely woman. Best of luck!

    9. Thank you so much for posting this! I got chills when I saw the title of the headline in my inbox and quickly rushed to read it! I lived right across P&K for 4 years with my roommate and every week we would go see Fung for our laundry! We absolutely adore her and still receive her cute text messages from time to time! I feel so sad to see her go. The upper west side will lose such a gem. Thank you, Fung! We love you so much and we will miss you dearly!!!!

    10. Liz Rudey says:

      Lovely story!!

    11. I love all my interactions with Fung and will miss them. We have been doing business together for many years but in my heart, she is a friend.

      Fung, I wish you a good trip home and all the freedom to live how you want to there. I will stop by to say goodbye this week.

      Thank you westsiderag for writing about this gem of a person that we were fortunate to have in our neighborhood.

    12. JS says:

      So lovely.
      Thank you.

    13. Margaux Nissen Gray says:

      She’s the best! I will miss her so much.

    14. AC says:

      Well written story Amelia. And good luck to Fung Lee ,,, may you enjoy your retirement to its fullest!

    15. eric says:

      great positive story to start 2021. i brought my laundry there for 2 years when i lived a couple of blocks away, and dealing with Fung was always a delight.

      all my best wishes to her

    16. agc says:

      Fung is one of my favorite memories from when I lived at 80th and Amsterdam years ago. What a light she is for the neighborhood. Wishing her all the best in her retirement – Fung, you will be very missed!

    17. Hailey says:

      We love you Fung!!!!!!!!!!

    18. Cindy says:

      She has been a family friend four as long as I can remember. She worked along side my father and after school I use to go visit. She watched me grow up and because I live in California, I wish more than anything I can see her one last time. Unfortunately because of the pandemic and wanting to make sure she and my family are safe we decided it’s best for me to stay put. I will miss her dearly and will forever be in my heart.

    19. Scott B. says:

      Thanks for spotlighting Fung. She has been a gem of the avenue and great friend since I moved to the block back in ’91. I will truly miss her.

    20. Fei says:

      I love Fung! She is so kind and very sweet with kids. I moved from that immediate area 1.5 years ago and my daughter still wants to stop by just to say hi to her. We heard about her retirement plans and stopped by tonight to say goodbye and give her one last tip. I cried like a baby. She has been a gem of the neighborhood and will be sorely missed.