In California, between 1850’s to the Chinese Exclusion Act, most of the Chinese women who came to San Francisco were either slaves or indentured. They were often lured, kidnapped or purchased and forced to work as prostitutes at the brothels which is run by secret society of the Tongs of San Francisco. Chinese prostitutes also were smuggled and had worked at the Chinatown brothels in the Comstock Mines in Nevada. Chinese prostitutes were commonly known as prostitutes of the lowest order. “Both outcast slatterns and Asian slaves stood at the edge of the irregular marketplace, far more socially stigmatized than ordinary prostitutes.
The demand for Chinese prostitutes in California was primarily due to the shortage of Chinese women and the prohibitions and taboo against sexual relations between Chinese men and White women. During the period of unrestricted Asian immigration from 1850 to 1882, more than 100,000 Chinese men but only 8,848 Chinese women entered the United States. The incredible sex ratio and the isolation of Chinese men from white communities generated nearly ideal demand conditions for prostitution, but white prostitutes rarely accepted Chinese customers.
The same merchants and members of protective associations who had arranged passages and jobs for male sojourners leaped into the breath, supplying Chinese prostitutes to their own immense profit. These secret Chinese Tongs based in San Francisco controlled Asian prostitution in San Francisco and in the mining towns such as Comstock, Nevada. The Hip Yee Tong, the secret society that reportedly started the prostitution trafficking in 1852. “These organizations, the tongs, soon monopolized the control of vice—prostitution, gambling and opium.
The Hip Yee Tong in 1852 was founded for the sole purpose of importing sing-song girls (prostitutes). The members enriched themselves at the expense of the girls and their customers. ” Chinese prostitutes were almost always imported as indentured servants or mui jai. The women were usually between the ages of 16 to 25. Mui jai were girls who had been sold into domestic service or labor by their poor parents. Their owners were expected to provide them with food and housing and to match them with husband when they become of age.
But some were sold by their masters in China for $70 to $150 and then resold in America for $350 to $1,000 or more. It was a wholesale and retail operation. Like the price of merchandise, the price of prostitutes fluctuated depending upon supply and demand. During the times of war and famine in Chines, when there was an increase in the sale of daughters, prices dropped. Prices rose in the United States whenever stringent laws were passed to suppress Chinese prostitution. An estimated 85 percent of the Chinese women in San Francisco were prostitutes in 1860, 71 percent in 1870, and 21 percent in 1880.
At the time of the Spanish-American war there were over 400 singsong girls in the Chinese Quarter. Yet they could not keep up with the city-wide demand for their services, much less fill the requirements of the State at large. The disreputable houses, together with gambling dens, constituted a firm economic base for the fighting tongs. ” Upon their arrival in San Francisco, these young Chinese women were taken to the barracoon, which were also known as the “auction block” or “Queen’s Room,” the barracoon was closed guarded room large enough to house fifty to one hundred women.
In the barracoon women, like livestock, were put on display for sale. They were stripped for inspection and sold to the highest bidder. They were forced to sign service contract, which only a few of them could read the terms, and thumbprinted. The contracts usually states that for the girl was indebted to her new master for passage from China, which cost about $500 to 700 in 1860-70’s, she will serve as a prostitute for four to five years without wages.
The luckier girls were sold to well-to-do Chinese as concubines or mistresses or to the parlor houses to serve upper-class gentlemen. The lowest less-fortunate women were confined in cribs, rooms no larger than four-by-six feet, where they were forced to hawk their trade to poor laborers, teenage boys, sailors, and drunkards for as little as twenty-five to fifty cents. When hopelessly diseased, they were left alone to die in the “hospital” or were discarded in the streets. The trade was so lucrative along with gambling and opium. The tongs constantly fought for its control.
Sing-song girls were often kidnapped in broad daylight and “hijacked from their cribs under the very noses of their masters, in order to be rushed inland to womenless agricultural or mining town’s Chinatowns and work as prostitutes. ” The Tong members were often called Hatchet man because of the brutal things that they perform. The Hip Yee Tong was reportedly netted two hundred thousand dollars from the illegal traffic between 1852 and 1873. Violent tong wars in the 1870’s and 1880’s, sensationalized in the press, often began with disputes over possession of a Chines prostitute.
In 1875 two tongs went to battle after a Suey Sing Tong member was killed by a Kwong Dock Tong member over possession of Kum Ho, a prostitute. Ten men were killed in the street fight before the police intervened. In those days, there were no worse fate for a Chinese prostitute than to be banished to the mining camps, like the Comstock Mines in Nevada, where they led lives as harsh as they were short. In these isolated rural areas, conditions were even more worse and horrible than in urban brothels.
Living with their masters in the segregated Chinatowns that services miners, most prostitutes serve a racially mixed clientele of uncivil miners. They were called the “prostitute of the lowest order. ” In these mining towns, separate Chinatowns sprang up because of racism and discriminatory city ordinance allowing any white citizens to petition to remove them. There were twenty Chinese prostitutes on the Comstock in 1880, while there had been seventy-five in 1875. The majority of prostitutes worked in public establishments in mining towns such as the Comstock.
Brothels were distinguished by both class and race, and the best Chinese brothels in San Francisco, and probably on the Comstock as well, catered only to Chinese, because Chinese men believed that the most degrading thing a Chinese woman could do was to have sexual intercourse with a white. High-Status Asian women often dressed in silks and jewels, as did other Chinese prostitutes who catered to whites with a taste for the exotic. By and large, however, Chinese prostitutes dressed in plain cotton and worked for fees ranging from twenty-five to fifty cents a customer.
In Comstock, “Asian women were always segregated in Chinatown and none of them lived in brothels also housing whites. This segregation reflected the anti-Chines prejudice. In the system of stratification within prostitution Chinese prostitutes had lower status than any other group of women. A few Chinese immigrated to the Comstock as free-agent prostitutes or the concubines of rich Chinese, The majority were either indentured for about five years or were the lifetime slaves of brothel keepers with ties to the secret societies headquartered in San Francisco”
The harsh life of a Chines prostitutes in the mining towns were commonly disrespected in the white communities there. The enslavement of Chinese women was common knowledge on the Lode, whites simply accepted. A newspaper even ran articles reporting the kidnapping of a prostitute urged readers to treat it lightly, noting that among the Chinese women stealing was comparable to horse stealing among Americans. It was a serious crime against someone’s property, but not a grave offense to someone’s person.
For some prostitutes, suicide, madness or a violent death proved to be the only way out of misery. One prostitute tried to run away from her owner and hide in the Nevada hills. By the time she was found, both her feet had frozen and had to be amputated, and in the end she courted death by refusing to take medicine or food. In another instance, a popular dance hall girl nicknamed “The Yellow Doll” by her admirers in Deadwood, South Dakota, was found “chopped into pieces” in 1876. In Virginia City, Nevada, six Chines prostitutes committed suicide to escape enslavement.
Most prostitutes did not have the individual or collective means to resist their fate. Refusing to work only brought on beatings and other physical tortures. Cases were reported of prostitutes attempting escape with the help of lovers, but only a few succeeded. Because of the high value placed on prostitutes, owners went to great expense to recover their property. “Hiring highbinders to retrieve them and paying legal fees to file writs of habeas corpus or criminal charges against the women for grand larceny.
Once the women were arrested, the owners would post the required bail, drop the charges, and repossess the women. ” During those times, not all prostitutes met these horrible fates, there were a few who escaped the confines of their enslavement. China Annie was an exceptional case. A prostitute belonging to a member of the Yeong Wo Company in Idaho City, she escaped to Boise to marry her lover, Ah Guan. Her owner charged her with grand larceny for stealing herself, and after a four-week search, she was apprehended and taken to court.
The judge, sympathetic to her cause, dismissed the case and allowed her to return to her husband. Another prostitute who won her freedom, Polly Bemis, survived the harsh frontier life to become a legendary figure in her community. Born lalu Nathoy in northern China in 1853, she grew up in poverty. At an early age she was sold for two bags of seed to bandits, shipped to America as a slave, and auctioned off to a Chinese saloon keeper in an Idaho mining camp. She later married Charlie Bemis, who won her in a poker game, and the two homesteaded on twenty acres of land along the Salmon River.
Twice she saved Charlie’s life, and many times she nursed neighbors back to health. She was so well respected that when she died in 1933, members of the Grangeville City Council served as her pallbearers and the creek running through her property was named Polly Creek in her honor. A number of established institutions responded to the plight of Chinese prostitutes. For many years the Chinese Six Companies, the governing body in Chinatown, sought to have prostitutes and their procurers deported and worked with the authorities to eradicate the problem.
American newspapers frequently ran stories about the evils of prostitution, but almost always in a sensation way, using headlines such as “Story of Girl Shows Workings of a Chinese Ring,” “Confession of a Chinese Slave Dealer,” “Her Back Was Burnt With Irons,” and “Chinese Girl Flees to the Mission From Inhuman Owner. ” Presbyterian missionaries also made in their crusade to rescue Chinese prostitutes. In 1874 the Women’s Occidental Board established the Presbyterian Mission Home as a refuge for Chinese girls and young women in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The home remained in operation until 1933 when the last major anti-prostitution trial took place. The directors, Maragaret Culbertson and Donaldina Cameron, successfully conducted numerous rescue raids with the help of the police, using the press coverage of the raid to turn public opinion against Chinese prostitution. Between 1874 and 1908 approximately one thousand mistreated mui jai and prostitutes were rescued, housed and educated at the home. Some, unaccustomed to the restrictions and austerity of the home, ran away and returned to their former status.
Others chose to return to China or stay and later married Chinese Christians. The story of Wong Ah So is typical of the lives of these rescued Chinese prostitutes. Born into a poor Catonese family, she was betrothed and married to a Chinese laundryman at 19 and taken to America. “Even if I just peeled potatoes there, he told my mother I would earn lots of money. ” Upon arrival in San Francisco, Wong Ah So discovered that her husband had lied to her and her mother and that she had been brought to America to work as a prostitute.
Seven months later she met a friend of her father’s at a banquet. The friend recognized her and sought help from the Presbyterian Mission on her behalf. She was later rescued in Fresno, California, and placed in the home, where she recalled she started “learning English and how to weave, and I am going to send money to my mother when I can. I can’t help but cry, but it is going to be better” Wong Ah So’s story end happily but most of the other prostitute’s did not end quite so well. Many of them were not as lucky as China Annie, and Polly Bemis.
Most of them were diseased and were left on the streets to die. When no longer young and attractive, prostitutes were put to work in cribs or small cubicles. In 1870, Chines prostitutes were a major political concern for the new cities of the West. Chinese prostitutes were figures for a conduit of disease and social decay which was sensationalized in newspaper accounts, magazine articles, and official inquiries into the social hygiene of these women. In California, these hygiene issues were the catalyst for the supporters of prohibition of Chinese immigration to the United States.
The first act limiting Chinese immigration was the Page Act of 1870, which ostensibly prohibited “Chinese, Japanese and Mongolian women” from being brought to or entering the United States to “engage in immoral or licentious activities. ” The Page Act, on the presumption of bad character and immoral purpose, required all Chinese women who wished to come to the United States to submit to lengthy and humiliating interrogations of their character prior to being issued a visa in China.
The Page Act effectively closed off the immigration of Chinese wives of immigrants already in the United States. But it did little to stop the illegal trade in women which was protected by corrupt officials on both sides of the Pacific. ” The perception of Chiense prostitution as a widespread threat to the nation’s moral and physical well-being was greatly exaggerated. At the peak of Chinese prostitution in the late 1870’s, it was reported that some 900 Chinese women in San Francisco worked as prostitutes.
The number of Chinese women who worked as prostitutes other than on the West Coast, however, was quite small. Although New York’’ Chinatown gained notoriety for prostitution, opium, and gamling, it was reported that only three of the prostitutes in the quarter were Chinese, while the overwhelming number of prostitutes who worked there were white. Nevertheless, the image of the Chinese prostitute as a source of pollution was considered a matter of urgent concern. Chinese prostitutes were said to constitute a particular threat to the physical and moral development of young white boys.
In San Francisco, a Public Health Committee investigated conditions in Chinatown in 1870 professed shock that boys as young as ten could afford and did regularly use the services of the lowest level of Chinese prostitutes. In a popular environment in which theories of national culture were freely combined with theories of germs and social hygiene, it was asserted by some public health authorities that Chinese prostitutes were the racially special carriers of more virulent and deadly strains of venereal disease. The general tended to ignore the realty and focus on the sensational accounts that fueled the perception of a social crisis.