25 August 2010

Tragic Tales: Chinese Slave Girls of the Barbary Coast

By Jacquie Rogers

The California gold rush of 1849 brought men from all over the world, including China, to find their fortune. The next gold rush was of a different nature--those who provided services to the miners...for a pinch or two of gold dust.

Barbary Coast was the section of San Francisco that harbored the red light district. It was rife with gambling, prostitution, pickpockets, and violent crime. The streets were crowded with brothels, gambling houses, saloons--this was where the rowdiest of the rowdy men went to kick up their heels. The Barbary Coast was also home to the cribs--low-class prostitution housing--and small Chinese girls pleading for the men walking by to use her services.

In China girls weren't valued, and many girls, even babies, were sold to "entrepreneurs" who took them to America to be used as sex slaves. In San Francisco, girls were bought and sold--a baby sold for a little over $100. These girls were raised to prostitute themselves.

This is from The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, quoted from A la California: Sketch of Life in the Golden State by Albert S. Evans:
These poor creatures are all slaves, bought with a price in China, and imported by degraded men of their own race, who, despite our laws, contrive to hold them to a life-long servitude, which is a thousand times more hopeless and terrible than the negro slavery of Louisiana or Cuba could ever be. They have been reared to a life of shame from infancy, and have not a single trace of the native modesty of women left. They are, as we have said, mere children in point of intellect, having no education whatever, and no experience of the world outside of the narrow alleys in which they have always lived, and the emigrant ship in which they were brought over to this country...

The girls cost $40 each in Canton, but are valued here at about $400, if passably good-looking, young and healthy, and readily sell at that figure in cash, or approved paper. Each colony of half a dozen girls is under the immediate control of an "old mother," herself a retired prostitute, who jealously watches over each, and receives from them the wages of their shame as fast as earned.
Officials looked the other way for two reasons. First, they were paid off by the Chinese merchants, and second, they didn't consider the Chinese all the way human. Chinese girls were no more significant, and less valuable, than a horse. Once a girl was sold into slavery, there was no help for her.

These girls were also called sing-song girls and worked in small rooms lining the cribs alleyways. The girls would bare their breasts to passers-by. If they didn't attract enough customers, they were often physically punished. During their periods, if they had any, they were considered sick and that missed time was added to her contract.

This is from http://www.foundsf.org/:

Opium was administered to them for every ailment, and many girls were addicted. Once a girl's looks had faded and/or her health deteriorated, usually before age 20, she was placed in a room with a vial of narcotics. She could either take the overdose, starve, or if she wasn't dead when they came for her corpse, she was murdered. These murders weren't reported or even noted by the authorities.

One white woman who didn't look the other way was Donaldine Cameron, the Angry Angel of Chinatown. She was born in New Zealand and came to California with her parents when she was a child. At 18 she was engaged, but no one seems to know why she never married. In 1895 she took a position as a sewing teacher at the Occidental Mission Home for Girls and became a crusader for these abused girls no one else cared about. Over a period of 40 years, she was instrumental in the rescue and education of over 3,000 Chinese girls. Miss Cameron used sledgehammers and axes to get to the girls, and learned early on to find more girls in hidden in walls and under the floor boards. Of course the slavers hated her, calling her Fahn Quai--white devil.

History books teach that slavery ended in the United States with the Civil War, but that wasn't so for the sing-song girls of the Barbary Coast, who, in many cases, worked in worse circumstances than the slaves of the South, with a far shorter life expectancy. Finally, 75 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Chinese slave trade ended. It's a blight on American history that we should never forget.

Jacquie

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11 comments:

Caroline said...

What an amazing piece! I never knew about these poor Chinese Slave Girls. And how brave of Donaldine Cameron to rescue so many of them. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. Caroline x

Lisa Yarde said...

Very interesting, I never knew about this in US history.

Pamala Knight said...

Such an interesting and enlightening post. Thanks for bringing the plight of the sing-song girls out into the light.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks for your comments, Caroline, Lisa, and Pamala. I knew about the Chinese prostitution in the Barbary Coast, but I had no idea of the extent of abuse until I researched the subject for the class I taught at Hearts Through History. (The class was Gamblers & Lightskirts: Vice in the Old West.)

What humans do to other humans is sickening at times. This was one of these times.

M. said...

I am appalled that I never heard of this abuse or that wonderful activist. She should be as well-known as Harriet Tubman or Oscar Schindler.

Jacquie Rogers said...

M., I agree. What Donaldine Cameron accomplished is incredible, and she put herself in harm's way to do it--for years. What an amazing woman.

Gambling Wages said...

This is a great blog post. . It's really nice and
informative post. Thanks so much.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

What an interesting yet tragic part of California history. I had no idea it was that bad for the Chinese girls. Thanks for such an informative article.

Claudine said...

I discovered the "sing song girl" in one of Isabel Allende's novel "Retrato en sepia". It is the saga of a Chilean family (inspired from that of Isabelle Allende) in San Francisco. The sing song girls are described - as is their fate, as part of a the broader story of immigrants in California. The character of Donaldina also enters the scene, signing the end of this unfortunately all too human trade.

David W said...

Thanks for posting this sad chapter of our history. Whilst researching for my book, I interviewed my 96 yr old grandpa ... and he shared an ugly family secret with me...

That his grand aunt had been kidnapped as a young girl and brought to San Francisco in the late 1800s to serve as a slave :-(

Andi Carter said...

Stumbled on this excellent old post while lurking on Pinterest. :-)
I based one of my middle-grade novels on this subject, but I limited it to the slave girl being a "domestic servant" for my audience (which the girls were until they grew old enough to enter the prostitution side of slavery).

A primary source I heavily relied on was "Chinatown's Angry Angel" by Mildred Martin. The complete story of Donaldina Cameron. It's a fantastic book if you can get hold of a copy.

The book's setting was exclusively Chinatown (and never mentioned the Barbary Coast, but it likely spilled over to there big-time). Cameron's mission house was located at 920 Sacramento Street and has been renamed in her honor and serves the Bay Area Asian community to this day! What a legacy this godly woman left.