I’m roaring through research books at the moment. But the only thing I’ve written is an entire notebook full of notes with page numbers to find references in the books because I have a terrible memory for facts. Of course, my notebook is so convoluted that I should have probably kept a notebook to reference the notebook notes. And as usual, I’ve come across so many real life people and events that if I plucked them from the pages of history and plopped them into a historical mystery novel, readers would cry ‘No way! That’s impossible.’
That’s OK, I’ll do it anyway, because people are capable of amazing feats. But before I introduce you to an amazing woman from history, let’s delve into a bit of rarely talked about history.
Beginning in 1882, the US government passed a series of exclusion Acts that tried to limit the number of Chinese workers flowing into the country. It’s the same old story that we hear throughout history, and in our current day: ’Migrants bring crime and steal jobs away from hard-working *insert country*!’
‘The Chinese Must Go!‘ was a popular newspaper heading of the time. These series of Acts made it extremely difficult for Chinese women to enter the country and prevented Chinese men already living in San Francisco from bringing their families over. Into this massive population of men with no women… the Yellow Slave Trade was born.
Having either been sold by their family, abducted, or boarded a ship thinking that they would be reunited with their husbands, thousands of Canton girls were smuggled into the country and sent straight to the Queen’s Room where they were stripped and sold to the highest bidder. Any who resisted were beat with bamboo sticks or branded with hot irons. And once these girls began ‘working’, the ones who showed even a spark of defiance against their new life were chained to beds or forced into a stupor with opium.
The average lifespan of a singsong girl (as they were called) was only about five years after they were sold into sexual slavery. When a singsong girl became sick, she was sent to small, dismal room in a Chinatown backalley known as a ‘hospital’. Once inside the hole, she was forced to lay down on a small shelf, and given a single bowl of rice, a cup of water, and a metal oil lamp. She generally died from starvation or by her own hand. Whether she was dead or alive when the ‘doctor’ returned… he always left with a corpse.
The sex slave trade was profitable business for the tongs in California. A girl from China generally cost around $40. When she arrived in San Francisco, she was sold for around $300-500 in the market. The average return on a girl once the parade of men started lining up to use her was $3000 dollars. The average cost of a ‘crib whore’ was 25 to 50 cents with a special rate of 15 cents for boys under 16.
I’ll let you do the math on the number of men an average crib whore ‘entertained’ in five years.
Sexual slavery was one of the cornerstones of the tongs existence along with the opium trade and gambling. These tongs employed salaried soldiers called ‘boo how doy‘, or killers. These were the highbinders, or the professional hatchet men. And they were bold. It was not uncommon for a highbinder to assassinate a black-listed person in front of multiple witnesses, and in some cases, even the police. One highbinder walked onto stage during a theatre performance in a Chinese Theatre and shot the cymbalist before casually walking away.
As a result of the ruthless tongs, Chinatown was under a crushing weight of terror, and as a result a conspiracy of silence hung over the Quarter. Any resident of Chinatown who dared testify against a highbinder or tong had a chun hung, or a reward poster, plastered all over Chinatown with his or her name on it. It was as good as a death sentence.
Although slavery was against the law and a few people tried to help these girls over the years, it was a seemingly hopeless fight because San Francisco was built on graft. The tongs paid protection money to white government officials (like the mayor), lawyers, Custom Officers, and policemen. And often times the tongs exploited a loophole in the law itself forcing a Mission (with pressure from the police) to hand a runaway girl back to her slavers.
It wasn’t until 1895 when a sewing teacher entered the fight that any real progress was made. That’s right. A Presbyterian sewing teacher who ran a Mission put the infamous, fear-inspiring tongs on the run.
Her name was Donaldina Cameron, and in a few years, she would become a living legend. The girls she rescued called her Lo Mo—Old Mother. The newspapers called her the Angry Angel of Chinatown, and the hatchet men who came to fear her, called her Fahn Quai, or White Devil.
Donaldina did what no honest policeman or the Chinese Six Companies could manage to do: she struck hard and repeatedly at the tongs’ foundations—the slave trade.
This ‘beloved, gentlemanly missionary’ was described as having ‘the equivalent of carbon steel in her make up.’ Armed with a detailed map of Chinatown drawn by cartographer Willard B. Farwell, she was said to be able to find her way blindfolded to every hidden den. And when Donaldina made her ‘calls’ to rescue girls, she brought along a trio of brawny policeman armed with axes and sledgehammers. As you can imagine, these rescue raids were not without risk.
She had a nose for trap doors, hidden panels, and secret stairways. And was known to climb out windows onto rickety fire escapes, through skylights, and onto roofs in pursuit of a girl being whisked away.
During the 1900 Bubonic plague and subsequent quarantine of Chinatown, Donaldina slipped through the tight quarantine lines using sky lights and roofs to rescue girls as knowingly as the highbinders themselves.
But once she spirited the girls to her mission, the danger wasn’t over. The tongs’ paid lawyers used the law and police to retrieve the girls. When the police came looking for a slave-girl with warrants and fake charges, Donaldina would insist that ‘she’s not here’ and pray that the police wouldn’t look under the rice sacks in the dark space behind the basement gas meter. She accepted the fact that she had to break the letter of the law in order to uphold the spirit of it. And when one of her rescued slave girls was jailed on trumped up charges, she willfully and proudly occupied the same cell to keep the girl out of highbinder hands.
Despite great danger to herself, she was credited with rescuing over 3,000 girls. With the help of police, law-abiding Chinese, immigration officials, the Consul General, and eventually the 1906 earthquake and fire, she put the tongs in retreat.
During an interview with Miss Cameron in 1961, she gave her reason for leading police into the brothels and fighting the highbinders in court. Her reason was simple: Because no one else would.
The Hatchet Men by Richard H. Dillon
The Barbary Coast by Herbert Ashbury