Judy Yung on Chinese Prostitution – Frontier Women
Interview by Dmae Roberts
1 Disc, 78:56
JUDY: I’m Judy Yung, and I teach in Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and my research and expertise has been on the study and history of Chinese women in the United States from the gold rush period of the 1850s through today. And I’ve written two books on the subject: “Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco,” and “Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco.” And my first book, actually, was “Chinese Women of America” pictorial history, where I covered 150 years of history with the first arrival of Chinese women in New York in 1834 and brought it all the way to the time the book was published in the 1980s.
DMAE: So, how many Chinese women came to the states in the beginning?
JUDY: When Chinese women began immigrating to this country in the 1850s and throughout the 19th century, it was pretty much the men who were immigrating and there were not that many women who were coming during this time period. And certainly they were not coming independently, on their own, to look for work. The women that did come were usually wives. They came to with their husbands or to join their husbands who were those who could afford to bring a family and have families here, who were the merchant class. And most of the Chinese laborers t this time left their families behind while they came and looked for work. The intention was that they would find a job, make money, send money home periodically to their families in China and hopefully save enough so they could retire a wealthy man and go back to China were their families would be when they retired. And that’s why were weren’t that many Chinese women here in the 19th century.
DMAE: Was there specific legislation against Chinese women?
JUDY: The first law that actually stopped or discouraged immigration of Chinese women was passed in 1875; it was called the Page Act. And it really was to stop women who were suspected coming as prostitutes. I should mention that when I talk about the immigration of Chinese women in the 19th century, most women stayed behind in China to take care of the families and their husbands couldn’t afford to bring them here, but there was one group of women that dominated and that were brought here and you think of it, for their labor. And this would be Chinese women who were brought here to work as prostitutes. The US Census statistics show us that in 1870 at the height of rampant Chinese prostitution in the US, 70% of the Chinese women in San Francisco were listed as prostitutes in San Francisco in 1870. By 1890, after the Exclusion Act had passed in 1882, there was a major decline in the ability of Chinese prostitutes, and only about 20% of the women were registered as prostitutes in the 1890s. IN other words, the majority of women who were coming from China in the 19th century were coming as prostitutes. And I should mention they were not coming as free agents, or as professional prostitutes, although many women were coming from all over the world to work as prostitutes, madams, to partake of the wealth, because it was pretty much a male society in the frontier west, including California in this time: 1850s, 1860s, 1870s. But Chinese women did not come the same way. They were contract laborers or indentured servants. They were women who had been sold by their poor families in China. Sometimes they were misled into thinking they were coming to marry someone or to come and be put to work at domestic worker or some respectable job. But others were actually kidnapped and fooled, coerced into coming, and then they found out when they arrived in the US that they had been sold into prostitution and they were expected to work for usually four years. They had these contracts that they signed with their thumbprint, because they could read the contract and they couldn’t sign their names in Chinese, and we’ve seen some of these contracts that say that they are going to work four years as a prostitute for this person who owned them in exchange for paying back the purchase price they were sold for as well as the passage, the cost of passage. And usually the contract said they would work for four years without wages in order to pay back these debts, and then they would be freed. So the majority of women, the overwhelming majority of women from China who were coming to the US in the 19th century, were prostitutes, that’s the main category. Then the only other category or purpose would be women who were coming as wives of merchants, Chinese merchants here. So those were the two main roles that Chinese women played in the western frontier in the 1800s. In the 19th century.
DMAE: Should we do that over? I didn’t hear it in my headphones. Let’s start with…I want the information about the prostitutes and the ways they were brought here.
JUDY: Start from the beginning again?
DMAE: I’m not hearing it. Let’s talk about the contracts.
JUDY: The women who were brought here as prostitutes without knowing so, they’re not professional prostitutes. They were forced to sign these contracts when they arrived. And basically the contracts said they agreed to work four years without wages as a prostitute to sell their bodies, in exchange to pay back the debt that incurred by their sale by their poor parents in China, as well as the cost of passage to bring them to the US. So these contracts said that they were indentured for four years to work as a prostitute without wages. And it also said that if they became sick, or they couldn’t perform, they would have to extend their contracts. So it could go on indefinitely. Because when a woman has her period and she can’t engage in sex or if she becomes pregnant or if she becomes sick and can’t work, all of that means her contract would be extended. And during this period when venereal disease was rampant and all kinds of other abuses, most of the women probably could not outlive the term of four years and often we know that there were women who were – their bodies were just discarded in the streets, they did not even have a proper burial. And there were women who ended up working in the cribs where they had to hawk their trade to anyone who came – it could be drunks, sailors, young teenage boys, men who already had venereal diseases. And these women probably themselves, this is pretty much end o the line. And what I’m saying is that these contracts on paper might seem four years and so on, but in many cases the women didn’t live long enough to be freed from these contracts.
JUDY: Cribs are these little rooms in the back alleys of Chinatown that are no more than twelve by twelve feet, and where women who ended up in the cribs, they called them cribs, would have to work for twenty-five cents a trick and take whatever customers came. I’m just saying it was the dregs of prostitution. And the women arrived and they were clean and they were healthy and by the time they get through two or three years of working as a prostitute in a brothel they would end up in the cribs and that’s pretty much the end of the line for many of these women who were brought here and coerced into prostitution.
DMAE: What were the conditions women had to live with before the cribs?
JUDY: It’s pretty much they’re enslaved, because what happens is they’re owned by a madam or the owner of a brothel and they are not allowed to come and go freely, and if they leave the premises for any reason they’re always under escort. There are different classes of brothels. There are upper class brothels, impala houses they call them, and they serve gentlemen of wealth. And then there are the common brothels where whoever comes you have to serve them. So when you get to the common brothels it could be as many as ten to twenty men a day. And whatever money they made went to their, to the madam or to the owner of the brothel. If they were given jewelry they could keep that, but they didn’t split the fee, the fee went to the owner. So in essence they’re working without any wages, compensation. And during the slack times, if there are slack times, where there are no customers, they would be put to work. They would be asked to do sewing, or housework, or other things. So you think of it, it’s a highly exploitative work situation where you get no wages and also if you don’t work well or if you did anything that displeased your owner, you could be beaten, you could be punished in violent ways. They could do whatever they wanted with the women and they had no recourse. So the women were fearful for their safety, well-being, they were forced into prostitution to begin with, it wasn’t something they wanted to do, and on top of it they weren’t making any money off of it for themselves. And all they hope is that they’d be able to live long enough to be freed and then they could go back to China or be free to pursue their own life or marry whoever they want, but that seldom happened and I think many of them knew this because other prostitutes had been there longer or who they became friends with and they knew what was going on, they knew what the prospects were, and I think from the stories we read – newspaper articles and missionary accounts of these women’s lives, that more often than not, their owners were not kind, benevolent and good to them, that they were using them to make money, and you could always buy another woman to replace you when you die or if you become diseased or so forth. So in that sense working conditions were deplorable for these women who were here and who had been coerced into prostitution. And they probably had very, they had no leisure time. They never had a chance to become educated, and it was just prostituting themselves and working day in and day out and making as much money for their owners as they could.
DMAE: How much of it was the families selling their daughters to make money?
JUDY: I think we have to, even when we talk about Chinese prostitution in the 19th century in the US, to keep in mind that it was trafficking of women, and that usually the girls came from poor families where their parents were in dire circumstances and had to sell their daughters so that the rest of the family could survive. And they would sometimes sell their daughters to people who they thought were going to marry them off or take them to America. The parents didn’t always know that the daughters would end up being used as prostitutes. So these girls were coming from impoverished families. And then being from poor families and probably from villages where they were uneducated and unaware, they didn’t know what was going on. They were very vulnerable for being trafficked into prostitution as they were. And in a sense that’s no different from what’s happening today. With how again in undeveloped or in poor areas of the world that daughters are still being sold and sometimes even agents knowing that they’re going to be used as prostitutes. It’s usually the poor families in poor countries that end up selling their daughters and it says a lot about how it is that girls versus boys are less valued and they’re the commodity that’s sold into prostitution. So it’s no different in the 19th century and today. It’s still going on. But in any case the prostitutes, the Chinese prostitutes we’re talking about in the 19th century, the US, came from poor families and the parents sometimes may not know and sometimes did know, we’re not sure, but they were in dire straits and they will sell them. And because there’s a ready supply of these young girls and there’s this whole network, and it was considered a criminal act to prostitute yourself or bring women in as prostitutes, there were laws against it. And yet there was a ready supply to bring women in, so these poor girls being sold and the profits that could be made in the SU at this time, if you could bring Chinese women to fill the needs of a Chinese bachelor society at this time, or even a highly male society in the western frontier period. Because there were very few women, with regard to the race we’re talking about, but for Chinese men, not only were there not Chinese women here, but they also had laws that forbid interracial marriage between Chinese and whites. So Chinese men, even if they weren’t married, if they wanted to establish families in the US, would have to, and they did, marry women of color. Native Americans, Latin American women, African American women, but they would prefer Chinese women. And prostitution in China was not a taboo. Brothels existed from way back in China. So for Chinese men, if they couldn’t have families here and they couldn’t marry white women of course they would need brothels and would want to go to brothels. So when you have laws regarding Chinese women coming to this country, prostitutes or not, it creates a situation where there are criminal tongs, secret societies and men who could see profits that could be made from the trafficking of women into this country. So that’s when you have this whole criminal network underground set up so that they could bring these poor girls who had been sold by their parents to the US to work as prostitutes in brothels and the women were literally sold into prostitution. The parents might sell them for as much as $50, $70 in China. When they bring them to America they were auctioned off in barracoons, similar to how slaves were auctioned off, for as much as $1000. So you can see already the profit that was made from buying this girl in China and bringing her and selling her to work as a prostitute. And the money that she could make for the owner in a number of years, a number of months, was phenomenal. And these criminal tongs that engaged in trafficking of women, they made tons of money. More than they could ever make working as a laundryman or as a miner or as a houseboy, whatever the jobs that were available to Chinese at the time. So it created this economy of supply and demand, and profits that would come from that. You could bring these girls in and the law would, law enforcement agencies and law officers would turn their eyes away because they were bribed to let this happen.
DMAE: So it was Chinese doing this to Chinese.
JUDY: Yes, the trafficking of Chinese women for prostitution in the 19th century was totally controlled and managed by the Chinese secret societies. By Chinese men.
DMAE: comparisons to trafficking now of women. Examples?
JUDY: This whole, in recent years I think trafficking of women is becoming a global problem and the United Nations as well as other international and national government organizations have been trying to deal with it, to document it as well as try to address it and eradicate it. In 1999 for example the United Nations came out with some statistics and they said about 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the US every year. This was in 1999. And estimates show that between 700,000 to 1 million women and children are trafficked into other countries throughout the world. And they’re bringing brought against their will to work as slaves or in labor in factories, as domestic workers, or in prostitution. So it still goes on, we know it still goes on, and a lot has to do with criminal networks that work internationally to circumvent laws against this. And they can get away with it. So we know that women are still being sold in China for example. But not just China, in many other countries. Another report said that at least 82 countries in the world are involved in being the source or the transitory place or the destination for these women and children who are being trafficked into other countries for labor or prostitution. So it goes on. It’s the same situation. They are being sold. There are networks set up to bring them in illegally. And it’s just that they are coming from different parts of he world and it’s usually from less developed countries where there are poverty conditions. Economic reasons for why women or children would be convinced to, or be tricked into, or be coerced into becoming slave workers or prostitutes in the more developed countries where the demands are. And in the US in particular we know that many of these women and children are coming from East Asia. East Europe, Africa, and certain Latin American countries.
DMAE: Re: mui tsai. Explain that.
JUDY: In the 19th century, another role that Chinese women coming to the US played was in this role of the mui tsai, which is a Cantonese term for a domestic servant or a domestic slave girl. In China often poor families would sell their daughters into domestic servitude. Mui tsai. And the idea was that they actually had contracts, written agreements between the buy and the seller. Between the family and the buyer of the domestic servant. And the contract promised a certain amount of money. They were buying the girl, they would take her into the family, and she would be a servant to this family. And when she turned 18, this family would of course clothe her, house her, and in exchange she would work as a domestic servant in the household. That’s what mui tsai means. Then, when she became engaged to be married, usually around 16 or 18, this is also written into the contract, that they would free her of her domestic obligations as a servant to the family and find an appropriate husband for her. And she’d be freed and married off. So the family that would sell their daughters into this situation would feel good about it because rather than starve all together at least one of them would be able to not starve to death because she would be living with this rich family and be fed. And in exchange they would get some money for her and use that money to help the rest of the family survive. So this was a social system that was set up and you can think of it in terms of an adoption, where someone is adopting your daughter and they’re getting some money for it. And I think from newspaper accounts and from missionary accounts there were mui tsai, or domestic servants, that were brought by rich families to America, to be servants for them in America. What happened too was that people who were trafficking in Chinese women would also take advantage of this to say that these girls who were being brought in were too young to work as prostitutes yet, they’re just domestic servants, they’re just mui tsai. So they’d bring them in and they would work as mui tsai, but if they’re working as mui tsai in a brothel, you can almost be assured that when they got older they’re not going to be married off, they’re going to be prostitutes. And sometimes when prostitutes had babies, baby girls in particular, and they were allowed to keep the babies, they’d say of course, let them keep it, because this girl can first work as a mui tsai in the brothel, she’ll work, and then as she gets older she’ll become a prostitute. So in a way, it’s like black women who were slaves. They have children and children become slaves, so it’s possible. So mui tsai were present in the Chinese American community and sometimes they were mui tsai that were working as domestic slaves or domestic servants in merchant families, in households in the SU, and other times they were mui tsai working in the brothels who then became prostitutes. But actually there were more prostitutes than mui tsai. There were maybe less than 10% of the population of Chinese young women or girls were mui tsai.
DMAE: Are the mui tsai contracts what the family thought they were signing?
JUDY: That was a contract when they gave up their daughters. And I think if the mui tsai stays in China I think mostly they would comply with the agreement, but there also were a lot of abuse against these mui tsai in China and I think the same thing happened in the US. And the mistress could abuse them for whatever reason because after all, they’re just a servant. And there were, and it’s similar to what happened to black women who were slaves, and the masters could take liberties with you, and rape you, and use you sexually. And that did happen. In Hong Kong for example there was in the 1800s and early 1900s there was a whole bureau, department, set up to protect the mui tsai, because there were so many reports of abuse of the mui tsai by their masters or mistresses. And in the US< aside from the Newspaper accounts and missionary accounts of Chinese prostitutes who were mistreated and were rescued and their stories told, there were also abused mui tsai, slave girls, domestic servants, who were also rescued by the missionary homes and by the women who made it their purpose to help Chinese prostitutes and other women who were abused by their husbands. But they also talked about the mui tsai, slave girls, who also were abused here in particularly the brothels by their masters and mistresses, in their homes and the brothels, and they were seen as being victims and being exploited. And we know of those cases and because we only have those written accounts, we don’t know what percentage this represents in China or here of what happens to women who end up being mui tsai, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. But on paper, and in China, this was an adoption process to take care of girls from poor families.
DMAE: Did women who were prostitutes actually sign that contract?
JUDY: The women who were prostitutes could not sign the contract. They had their thumbprint to sign the contract. I don’t think they knew all the terms of the contract – they found out later if they didn’t know at the time they were sold and changed hands what the contract really said and what they were held for. But they did sign it with a thumbprint. And if you look at some of these contracts in the archives, you see the woman’s thumbprint on the contract. And the whole contract is written in Chinese and basically it says these are the terms of the contract. This is what this person agrees to. And then you see the thumbprint.
DMAE: And what do they agree to?
JUDY: They agree to four years as a prostitute for so-and-so. No wages. And this is to repay the debt incurred in the sale by their parents for the passage and expenses involved in bringing them to America. And if they were ever sick for whatever reason and could not work, their contract would be extended accordingly and that if they ever tried to run away they would be punished.
DMAE: Different from the mui tsai contract.
JUDY: The mui tsai contract said that this person has been bought for so much money to work as a domestic slave girl for the family and that she will be clothed as well as housed and fed in exchange for her services as a domestic worker and when she came of marriageable age that is the time she will be freed and they will find her a husband to marry her off.
DMAE: Did you mean domestic slave girl?
JUDY: Yes. Domestic slave girl. That’s really the definition of mui tsai.
DMAE: How much does the Confucian society play into the dutiful daughter and how that reflects on the selling of women?
JUDY: Yeah. Good question because I think the Confucius ideology tells people what their proper role in society should be and if you look at the recommendation he says and the policies he sets, it puts females in a subordinate position to males throughout their whole life. You’ve got the three obediences. You obey your father, as a daughter should. You obey your husband as a good wife should. And when you become widowed and your husband dies, then you obey your oldest son. So throughout your whole life a woman is subordinate to a man, and that is what Confucianism teaches girls. So with that in mind girls are not going to rebel when they’re treated as less than the sons in the family and it’s the girls who are sold for whatever reason into domestic service, slavery, or into prostitution. They accept that, that’s their proper role in society. They need to be obedient and subservient throughout their whole life and if this is what their parents choose to do, this is what their husbands choose to do, they have no recourse, they don’t question. So I think in that sense they comply with it and it’s also obeying whatever the wishes of their parents are, the filial piety comes into play. And what’s interesting is I saw in my research. Even the women who didn’t know they had been sold into prostitution, who found it out when they came here that they were going to have to work as prostitutes, and what that involved. The still, some of them if they kept in touch with their families in China would write letters and tell them not to worry about them and they would send money home if they had money. They would express a sense of obligation, filial piety, that they understood why their parents sold them, their life is hard but don’t worry, they’re manage, and in the meantime here’s some money and if I can send more I will because I want to be this filial obedient daughter that’s also going to sacrifice and do whatever I can for the survival and well-being of my family. It’s almost like their obligation and even beyond that, you see how Chinese women who are arranged in marriage and who come to America and who are not prostitutes but who become wives here without choosing their husbands or having a say, even for them they will, they know that their whole purpose is to open the way so that eventually they can sponsor their relatives, their families to come to America. I’m not talking the 19th century now, I’m talking more the 20th century when it was possible for Chinese then to send for relatives from China. So even as they’re married out and arranged in marriage they become the sacrificial lamb, they’re the ones that come to America first in this way, to pave the way and hopefully bring other family members to the US. Again, they do it out of filial obligation and constantly this notion that they sacrifice for the well-being of everybody else.
DMAE: You called it chain-migration.
JUDY: Chain-migration in terms of being able to establish yourself and send for others from your village.
DMAE: Does mui tsai still exist?
JUDY: No. Mui tsai does not still exist. Now when you have domestic servants in China, Hong Kong or anywhere else, they are paid wages like any other domestic servant.
DMAE: It just reminds me of my mother’s story…that was in the 30s.
JUDY: No. Even in Hong Kong they outlawed mui tsais in the 50s. I think in the 1930s the British established laws against mui tsai because they were seen as contract workers and that was enslavement of a sort. So mui tsai doesn’t exist anymore though domestic workers do exist in many parts of the world, and that’s usually women from third-world countries that fill the role of domestic workers in most of the industrialized, developed countries.
DMAE: Day to day, what is their living environment?
JUDY: Probably we don’t have descriptions of what the brothels were like and what their bed space were like. All we have are the descriptions of the cribs because those were so sordid. A bed and the basic washbasin was all they had, and a chair. And I think that would be again the end of the line but we’re talking about the more common brothel situation. You usually had quite a few women in one brothel. I don’t know how many rooms it would have, it wasn’t a mansion situation, it wasn’t a large flat of some sort. It was in Chinatown during those days, two or three rooms. They didn’t have toilet facilities, there was no privacy, and makeshift kitchens, probably, was all they had. And they had makeshift rooms where they had to entertain and serve their clients. And themselves, I would think…So probably in these brothels they must have had private rooms where they entertained their clients and then their sleeping arrangements and living arrangements would probably be in a large room with the other women, I imagine. So I really don’t know how the actual quarters were like. I don’t think they were extravagant at all.
DMAE: They were in Chinatown?
JUDY: They were. The brothels were all in Chinatown. Yes. I’m thinking of San Francisco in particular. The brothels were all concentrated in Chinatown. In fact, there was a map done in 1885 of Chinatown and they had a special color-coding for brothels. And they were in certain streets. And mainly the brothels were in certain alleys in Chinatown. There were certain streets that were known for having brothels.
JUDY: I think Ross Alley was one. Wentworth might have been another one. Not Grant Avenue, because that’s where all the stores and businesses were. And maybe the parlor houses, the more classy, what they call parlor houses were more classy brothels, where you would have rich clients come and they would be nicely furnished and you would have nice, private rooms, and the girls, the women would be dressed in finer clothing, be more refined. Those were probably above the stores in nicer quarters, but the more common brothels and cribs would be in the back alleys, in much more crowded arrangements and not as nicely furnished and the girls were probably not as well-dressed and the sanitary conditions of those places were probably not as nice as the parlor houses.
DMAE: Michael was asking about Waverly Street. I don’t know why?
JUDY: Waverly…Waverly would be, Waverly place was another one because that one stretched for three blocks and it was an alley but it was an older alley and that and Ross Alley, those two in particular I think were known for having brothels in the older days.
DMAE: Are there any remnants?
JUDY: No. You don’t have a historic plaque on one of these brothels that used to exist in these alleys.
DMAE: And no pictures.
JUDY: No pictures of the interiors.
DMAE: Or of the women.
JUDY: Yes. Pictures of women, because there were photographers who would try to take pictures of them while they were on the streets. And you could tell the prostitutes from other women because they wore silk dresses and makeup and their hair would be fancy and you could always tell that they were the prostitutes versus the wives who were dressed in darker colors, who didn’t wear makeup and were more plain looking.
DMAE: What did the Chinese community think of the prostitutes?
JUDY: The Chinese six companies and the legitimate merchant organizations disapproved of prostitution, disapproved of the brothels, and did what they could to enforce anti-prostitution laws and tried to discourage trafficking of women. They were the ones who cooperated with the law enforcement. They were the ones that tried to work with the consul generals the American government to try to stop the trafficking of women but you have to understand that Chinatown was also dominated by the tongs and the secret societies. They were almost like a counter-force to the merchant-dominated Chinese six companies and merchant associations. And they were the ones that profited by the trafficking of women. So it really was a fight between the established merchant associations to fight prostitution because not only was it a bad reflection on the Chinese and led to further animosities against Chinese and immigrants coming to this country, but they saw this as an amoral situation…
DMAE: Start from immoral.
JUDY: So the more established merchant and district associations and Chinese six companies thought that not only was Chinese prostitution bad for the reputation of the Chinese and it created all kinds of bad feelings and bad attitudes about immorality of Chinese and used as arguments against the Chinese, but they also felt it was immoral and that women should not be coerced into being used as common prostitutes and into prostitution. So there was that part of the Chinese community that was against prostitution. Then there was the secret societies, the tongs, and those who profited by the trafficking of women who wanted to have prostitution continued. So you had these two countering forces and opinions about whether Chinese prostitution should be eradicated or whether it should continue in the community. And then you had missionary women and during the progressive era, many of the women who were Christians. The whole social reform movement involved going into cities and trying to eradicate drugs, alcoholism and prostitution and women established in san Francisco, for example, two mission homes started in the 1870s expressly to rescue and help prostitutes. And they wanted to especially help Chinese prostitutes because they saw them as being even in a worse situation than non-Chinese or white prostitutes. So the missionary homes, and Donaldina Cameron was very well-known and Margaret Culberson, these two women who headed the Presbyterian Mission in San Francisco, made it their crusade to help Chinese prostitutes, to help rescue them, bring them back to the home, educate them and help them find husbands. Or if they wanted to they would help them go back to China . So these missionary homes and missionary women were part of the social reform movement that also tried to help eradicate Chinese prostitution. And they did this not only with their rescue missions but also with law enforcement and social pressure on the Chinese community to stop Chinese prostitution. And I think this combined with the anti-prostitution laws that were more stringently enforced in the 1880s and then the Chinese exclusion act in 1882 that helps to detract from the trafficking of women, openly. The Chinese prostitution declines, it goes underground and so by the 1920s and 1930s you no longer hear about cases of women being brought in and forced to work as prostitutes and the raids of law enforcement on Chinese brothels around WWI kind of got rid of the brothels at the same time.
DMAE: Was this the only way women could escape?
JUDY: There were a number of ways Chinese could get out of prostitution. One way was to get out of their contract somehow and not get sick and work the four years and then be freed.
DMAE: How many of those?
JUDY: A very small percentage actually worked their four years and then were freed. We have no statistics but a small percentage. The mission homes claim that they were able to rescue and rehabilitate, so to say, at least 3000 women between 1870s and 1910. 3000, they have cases to prove they made that many rescues and that the girls were able to go back or many of them were encouraged to marry Chinese Christians and stay in America. So being rescued or outliving your contracts and being freed. Being redeemed by a wealthy client who would pay the brothel owner, your owner a certain amount to free you. Some of the women tried to run away with the help of men who befriended them or loved them. A few of them were able to get away but many were not, because there was this whole tong network of henchmen who would go after the person who helped you and get you back. And I guess the only other way and some of the women did this, was to commit suicide rather than continue to work and endure these conditions as a sex slave. And they either swallowed raw opium or there were cases of women who drowned themselves, if they could get out of the brothel to do that. But swallowing opium seemed to have been one way that some of these women did this. And I think in Chinese culture committing suicide is not a cop-out, it’s not a disgraceful way to die. It’s actually a noble way to go, in the sense that you are choosing to kill yourself rather than continue to be victimized. This is your act of resistance. And in Chinese cultural terms too, you could come back as a ghost to haunt your oppressors, and maybe this is something that crossed the minds of women who chose to commit suicide. But probably the most successful way, the most prevalent way, is if you could somehow get word out that you wanted to be rescued by the missionaries, they would come and get you. And they would do whatever they could to protect you from being recaptured and being returned to the brothels.
DMAE: How do we know these stories?
JUDY: Missionaries and the two mission homes that were established by the Presbyterians and the Methodists, made it a point to publicize al the good work. And this was their way of saying that they were trying to eradicate prostitution and they would give very detailed accounts of the rescue raids they did with the help of the law officers, and they would also tell stories about what the women told them about they got into prostitution, how they were brought over and mistreated and how happy they were that they were now free and maybe even they wanted to be Christians and they were grateful to these women for turning their lives around. So those written accounts from the missionaries and in the newspapers and I think they wanted the publicity and wanted these stories told to help their work but also to get funding because then benefactors and rich people could donate to their cause because they needed money to run their mission homes. So in all these cases we have written accounts of the rescue raids and the stories of some of the women that were in the situation of being indentured into prostitution.
DMAE: Wong Ah So?
JUDY: Wong Ah So is a very typical case and I use her story in both my books: Unbound Feet and Unbound Voices to talk about how it would be that a Chinese woman would end up being a prostitute in the US in China. In her case, Wong Ah So was the oldest of five children and her mother was approached by a Chinese man from America. An immigrant who had gone to America, come back and said he was looking for a wife and wanted to marry her daughter, Wong Ah So. So for 450 Mexican dollars, in that day, that was the marriage price that was paid for Wong Ah So. So Wong Ah So and her mother were under the impression that he was marrying her and he would bring her to America to live and have a good life in America. So she went off with this man, Hu Yow. And when she arrives in San Francisco, after they take the boat and arrive in the US. After they arrive in 1922 he tells her that he had been given $500 to purchase her by this madam in San Francisco and she was to work as a prostitute for this madam in San Francisco. And that’s when Wong Ah So realized that she’s been tricked. She’s been lied to. That this was not her husband at all. So she ends up working as a prostitute for this madam who takes her to various small towns in California where she works as a prostitute and she was resold to another madam in Fresno for $3000 and while she was entertaining guests one day in a Chinese restaurant in Fresno a Chinese friend who knew her family in China saw her and asked her what had happened, because everyone thought she had been married off and was a wife in the US. And she told him that she had actually been forced into prostitution and this friend went back to San Francisco and told Donaldina Cameron about Wong Ah So and asked Donaldina Cameron to go rescue her. And within ten days Donaldina Cameron goes to Fresno. Gets Wong Ah So, brings her back to San Francisco and puts her into a mission home. teaches her how to sew, gets her a trade, and then convinces her to marry this Chinese widower in Idaho. And Wong Ah So then agrees to this, marries this Christian man, has children by him and raises a family in Idaho. I say this is a typical story in some sense because this is how most of the women ended up coming as prostitutes and forced to work as a prostitute. And in this case it’s typical of the work the missionary women were doing in that they would go out of their way, even all the way to Fresno, to rescue someone who asked to be rescued, to bring them back to the rescue home, to educate them, and to marry them. There were many Chinese men here who were willing to marry a prostitute. They didn’t see them necessarily as being the dregs of society. They knew why they had ended up being prostitutes and they saw them as being filial daughters who were in the wrong, forced into the situation. So a lot of men would come to the mission homes looking for wives, so that’s how Wong Ah So met her husband and then Donaldina Cameron would interview these men to make sure that they were truly Christians and that they could truly provide for the women and they would be good husbands. And then once she checks them out she would make the recommendation, the women had a choice, and Wong Ah So decided to listen to what Donaldina Cameron recommended and married this man. So in a sense of being rescued and staying in the US and starting a family of her own, this was typical for those who were rescued, not for all women.
DMAE: Donaldina Cameron was a character, wasn’t she?
JUDY: She had a reputation. Even my father knew about her. I asked him about her one time, because he came in 1922 and he always lived in San Francisco, Chinatown, and I said dad, how come prostitution disappeared and he said Donaldina Cameron, she was the troublemaker. She was the one the tongs hated because she had such nerve that she would just, once she knew where the girls were and who wanted to be rescued, she would do anything to break into the brothel and find the right girl and grab her and risk her life and bring her back to the mission home. so she had a reputation for doing these rescue raids. And she herself never married and she devoted her whole life to first helping Chinese women and Chinese prostitutes in particular, and then later establishing the Donaldina Cameron house to help orphans and to help Chinese young people by providing social club activities for them to develop as leaders and proper citizens.
DMAE: I see an HBO movie starring Glen Close. You mentioned Wong Ah So. Did she and Polly Bemis ever cross paths?
JUDY: Polly Bemis died in the 1930s. they could have because there weren’t many Chinese living in Idaho at the time so they might have crossed paths, but maybe not because she…oh yes, because Wong Ah So ends up in Boise Idaho and Polly Bemis was in Warrens Idaho and she ends up only going to Boise Idaho when she’s sick and goes to the hospital . but it’s interesting because they both end up coming here as prostitutes and in the end they both end up in Idaho.
DMAE: Just capsulate how different she was from Wong Ah So?
JUDY: Even though they were both brought here for prostitution and ended up in Idaho, their stories come out very differently. Polly Bemis, known as, her Chinese name was Lalu Nathoy, she was sold for two bags of seed to bandits by her family during a time of famine and she was brought here and auctioned off in San Francisco and intended for a prostitute. But she was auctioned to a saloon keeper in Idaho. And when she arrives she is forced to be his mistress and he probably had intentions to use her as a prostitute to make money back but in the end, she is won in a poker game by Charlie Bemis and she chooses to go live with him and in the end she chooses of her own free will to marry him. And the two of them homesteaded in Idaho until he died first and then she died later. So she becomes a freed woman, freed by Charlie Bemis. People who knew her said she never worked as a common prostitute. She was intended for that but she never did. And she was not rescued by Donaldina Cameron or similar women who were doing similar work in other states in the West. She was a very unusual situation. But I think it also shows if you read her story in “1000 pieces of gold” she’s a woman of courage, of persistence, and always knew she would somehow find a way to gain her freedom after she was sold to the saloon keeper in Warrens. So her story is different from the Wong Ah So’s, hard to say, and I think hers would probably be more exceptional to the rule from other women we know of who would be more like Wong Ah So.
DMAE: Talk about how they were frontier women. What do they say about frontier women?
JUDY: In my book, when I wrote “Frontier Chinese Women in America,” I made a point to talk about the differences in the lives of Chinese women who ended up in urban Chinatowns versus Chinese women and also prostitutes who ended up in rural areas. It was considered, from what I read in my research, it was a worse situation to be a prostitute in the rural areas, particularly in the mining towns, you would not have the comforts and social amenities of being in a Chinatown community. On top of that, if you were a prostitute, you would have to serve uncouth miners and laborers and there were stories about how women who were Chinese prostitutes in rural towns would try to run away or commit suicide because they just hated it. It’s not only that they were abused as prostitutes but that they were isolated, they didn’t have the comforts of being in a Chinese community and having access to Chinese foods and having Chinese people around, so for a Chinese prostitute it was worse to be sold away from a Chinatown community. For Chinese women who were married and lived in rural areas there were pluses and minuses of not being in an urban Chinatown. There was more freedom of movement. There was less social restrictions made on them and they talked about, because they were seen as less of a threat because they were not in a large Chinese community, so for them they could be more independent, they had more freedom of movement, they interacted with the non-Chinese, their neighbors, more freely, and they were more accepted. Their lives may be just as hard-working in terms of the labor they did, because they had to help with the farm or help with the business or whatever their husbands did for a living and on top of that they would be the ones that would run the house and raise the children and so on, so it’s not that work was less, it’s just that being in a rural area rather than in an urban Chinatown they had more freedom of movement and they had more opportunities to become more acculturated to American life and to interact more with their neighbors than the women who lived in urban Chinatowns. On the other hand, they probably also missed the same of social amenities and cultural things and foods and customs and the comforts of being in a Chinese community that prostitutes in rural areas missed as opposed to prostitutes in urban areas. So I’m just saying there were pluses and minuses to being out in rural areas. But for prostitutes it was definitely considered a worse situation to be working in frontier towns rather than an urban Chinatown.
DMAE: I’m thinking about John Day, Oregon. Crazy Jane. They ran the laundry. Giving those kinds of names to women on the frontier.
JUDY: the nicknames, the common nicknames that white Americans gave to Chinese men and Chinese women that lived in their communities is indicative of the in…what it is, is that I believe the tendency to call Chinese men John Chinaman or Charlie Chinaman and the tendency to call all Chinese women China Mary’s or China Polly’s was because they couldn’t tell Chinese apart so they couldn’t recognize China Mary from other women. And they couldn’t pronounce their Chinese names, and as far as they were concerned, they were just this faceless, impersonal mass of Chinese, and one Chinese was as good as another. So there’s that. But I think also its that they never really got to understand and to know these Chinese who lived in their midst. And it’s not so much discrimination, they just didn’t see them as being worthy of getting to know them as people and trying to learn their real Chinese names. We do know most of the Chinese prostitutes if they were written about or written up always had China Something, China Mary, China Suzy, China Annie, so forth. And that was almost like saying that all Chinese prostitutes were Mary’s or Annie’s and they were just Chinese. So in a way these were names that were given to Chinese prostitutes more than to other women and I’m not even sure how they would refer to a non-prostitutes Chinese woman, whether they would call them China Mary as well. Yes, they did, they did. They did all women. Because I’m thinking of Mary Moulton in Oakdale California, she was adopted by a white family and she wore western clothing and she spoke English and they always referred to her as China Mary even though her legal name, her official name was Mary Moulton, because she was adopted into the family, though they always called her China Mary too.
DMAE: When was this?
JUDY: This would be in the late 1800s. 1890s.
DMAE: In conclusion with the current view of prostitution. It’s still looked on badly.
JUDY: I think that Chinese, anyone who…a Chinese prostitute is still considered lower class and looked upon badly for having to be a prostitute whether she willingly does it or not. Certainly they’re not treated with respect and well-regarded any more than they were in the 19th century. And the idea behind trafficking women is still a problem as it was then as it is now. it speaks to again the kid of enforced subordination and sexism against women in Chinese culture and it also speaks to the commoditization and exploitation of Chinese women as prostitutes and as workers. And that’s the way it was in the 19th century and in a way it hasn’t changed. When you think about prostitution still being a problem in China today and as you think about many Chinese girl babies, orphans, are up for adoption. Why is it only girls who are up for adoption and ready to adopt and open for anyone, the US or anywhere, to come to adopt? We still have many unwanted girls in China today. So I think the devaluation, sexism, subordination of women in China continues and is manifested in prostitution, is manifested in adoption of baby girls and not baby boys, and manifested in the forced marriage of women in China where women can be sold and kidnapped, taken to the hinterlands in China and married off and enslaved to that man and forced to be his wife. That still goes on today.
DMAE: Especially since the girls are leaving there are very few women left in China too. Marriageable women for marriageable men.
JUDY: I’m saying that because the reason why you have a situation in China where there are still men that have to find a way to buy wives so they can have wives are usually men in out-of-way, rural parts of China where women have left that area to go look for better jobs and better marriage partners elsewhere. But they’re still there farming and they need a wife, they want to have a family, so they’ll pay someone to find a wife, bring her to him, and they’ll pay a price for her. And these women are usually kidnapped. They don’t come willingly to go marry this man out in the middle of nowhere in rural parts of China. They’re actually kidnapped and sold to this man. So I’m saying in 2005 we still hear about this happening in China today.
DMAE: Say it without 2005.
JUDY: Even today we still hear stories about how Chinese women are still being sold to marry men in undesirable places in China.
DMAE: What is the legacy of Chinese prostitution in America?
JUDY: We look at Chinese prostitution in American history, we’re talking about the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s where it was rampant, where it’s more of an indentured prostitution contract slavery situation where women are in modern terms trafficked into the US against laws and forced to become prostitution. That legacy is part of our history as Americans, as women. When we think of how Chinese Americans that history is a part of our history as much as any other group. And I think the legacy for us is to hopefully learn by that but I don’t think we have that we should do what we can to prevent women and human beings from being used and exploited in this way and yet it still goes on in the trafficking of women from China and other parts of the world to the US and other developed countries and so the legacy still stays with us and we haven’t learned our lesson. And we’re still trying to deal with that problem as we did in the 19th century. But these women were in some ways the chain to future generations here. They were also the lifeline for supporting their families because they were sold so their families could survive and they sent home money if they could and if they were freed and able to marry like Wong Ah So was she went back to China and she brought some of her siblings back with her to the US. So in some sense they’ve made a contribution to their families and to their communities and to this country that most people would not be willing to acknowledge.
DMAE: Is there a way to stop this trafficking?
JUDY: It would take concerted coordinated efforts of many agencies, national as well as international organizations, because what we’re talking about is finding a way to get women who are trafficked out of that situation, protect their rights and their safety and well-being. We’re talking about finding ways to break up the criminal elements that are involved in the international trafficking of women and children and we’re talking about enforcing laws that are already in place to stop the trafficking of women. But overall we all know that we have to get to the root problems. Until you can improve the situation locally – the economy and the political situation and the overall treatment and subordination of women in every country, until you can deal with those problems so it doesn’t create a situation where women would become vulnerable victims of prostitution and trafficking, you have to deal with those problems at the same time you’re trying to deal with women who are already now victims of this criminal trafficking of women. So what I’m saying is yes, there is something that can be done about it, but it’s going to take a lot of work on the part of many countries and many organizations to stop the trafficking of women and children all over the world.
DMAE: We have such a long history of it.
JUDY: Why is it still here? We haven’t learned our lessons yet?
DMAE: Anything to add?
JUDY: No. Can’t think of anything now.
DMAE: Thank you. I love how you draw parallels with what’s going on now. it keeps coming back.
JUDY: It’s not just past history. If you think of anything else, you can have Michael call me on the phone.