For the last few weeks, I’ve been working my way through Siler’s non-fiction 300 page book documenting the story of slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown and the women who fought it.
The book center’s around the story of Donaldina Cameron an Scottish American who runs the Occidental Mission Home from 1899 to 1934 and her assistant Then Fun Wu who arrived at the Mission Home at age 6 or 7 after being rescued by police from a Chinatown brothel where she was a household slave.
The women who began the house faced challenges as SanFrancisco in 1874 was a very rough and rowdy town with miners and immigrants from all over the world. Prostitution was legal, and the selling of women and girls from China to America was widely unpunished for several decades post Civil War. In 1860, The Daily Examiner ran an editorial exposing the police involved in the operation to hold women hostage until their brothel owners arrived, calling it, “a new story of slavery on this continent.” The biggest push back to the formation of the Mission House wasn’t because they were helping Chinese, although that was an issue, instead to think of these Victorian-era women prowling through the back alleys of Chinatown, attempting to rescues was more than their husbands and fathers would stand for. After all, who might these women find in the Chinese prostitutes’ beds?
This isn’t a straight forward from here to there book, it is an encompassing tale about the Chinese in San Francisco from the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s. It tells facts about the Chinese Immigration ban, inflating the need by Chinese men for Chinese women as wives because of a law prohibiting interracial marriage. It tells the story of segregated schools, and corrupt politicians, police, and the race to evangelize the Chinese by the church.
It tells the story of the first Chinese American newspaper and the editor’s relationship to the Mission House. It tells the story of Chinatown being infected with the bubonic plague, lack of medical support, the 1906 earthquake, the destruction of Chinatown, building of the new Mission House, the 1918 Spanish Flu and so on.
Donaldina Cameron bravely stepped up against racism at the time to protect the girls in her charge, including spending a night in jail while trying to protect one of them. She bravely shown a light on brothels, and the destruction of human slavery and its affects on the women she rescued. Not all the women and girls rescued were being used as sex slaves, some were child slaves. These were sold by their family members frequently to repay debt as unpaid household servants and was a form of charity toward female children from poor families. And toward the end of Cameron’s tenure they had more women at the house fleeing domestic abuse and were providing temporary housing to Chinese immigrants.
All in all, I felt the parallels in this book to the discrimination of immigrants to our current politics were alarming. The same use of fear mongering and un justified anger. The facts are still the same and recruiters still lure women in the same way or they just kidnap them, bringing them to a foreign place where they don’t know the language keeps them from seeking help.
What inspired me was the strength that Cameron showed, she was truly a woman empowering other women. Standing up for the oppressed in her daily life, actions, and her deeds. She used her voice, power, and influence to make a way for women who had almost no legal or political rights.
I borrowed this book from my local library, it was a thick read and it takes awhile for the story to pick up but I will continue to be amazed at how backward some of thinking is based on books like this that show we can do better, we don’t have to repeat the horrors of the last hundred years.