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Chinese Prostitution in America’s West

Writing historical fiction isn’t an easy task—there’s research, there’s confronting uncomfortable truths, and there’s also the need to make the past accessible and immediate. All of these issues were front and center while I was writing Soiled Dove Murder, the third book in the Moonshiner Mysteries series. The plot of this novel centers on the disappearance of a Chinese prostitute and my research into the women known as Daughters of Joy or sing-song girls was challenging.

Few women were in the first wave of Chinese immigrants to America in the mid-nineteenth century. For example, in 1850, there were only 7 Chinese women versus 4018 Chinese men in San Francisco and in 1855, women constituted only two percent of the total Chinese population in America.

These skewed male to female ratios in the Chinese community led many of the men to seek sexual release in brothel houses, which became a lucrative business opportunity and an aggressive expansion of the number of Chinese women in America’s west.

Sadly, these women and young girls were not brought over from China to become brides. Rather, prostitution was so rampant that in 1870 census manuscripts, 61 percent of the 3536 Chinese women in California had their occupations listed as prostitution.

Yellow Slavery

Chinese secret societies known as the “tongs” oversaw prostitution from the beginning. Tongs offered protection and opportunity to new arrivals, and were also notorious criminal enterprises.

To furnish the burgeoning sex trade, its members kidnapped and bought Chinese girls. Business proved highly lucrative; it was easy to make 850 dollars a year off even a low grade prostitute. With their profits the tongs were able to extend their power, dominate immigrant neighborhoods and further expand the sex trade and other criminal activities.

In most of the cases the prostitutes were not there by choice. Many of these women were lured to America under false pretenses or sold by their impoverished families and some cases they were abducted.

Although some girls were kidnapped in China by bandits during such political upheavals as the mid-century Opium Wars and the 1850–64 Taiping Rebellion, other girls were sold into bondage by their own families. As daughters in Chinese households could neither furnish the hard manual labor required to support the family nor carry on the ancestral name, they were considered inferior to sons. Their inferior status in Chinese society at the time made them expendable, thus it was acceptable to dispose of them as circumstances warranted.

While a girl sold into prostitution in China might fetch as little as $50, one sold overseas was worth thousands of dollars, once under control of the tongs. Families facing economic hardship and starvation often made the decision to sell their daughters abroad in hopes of giving them the chance at a better life.

Most girls in such circumstances accepted their family’s decision out of filial loyalty and allowed themselves to be sold to “labor contractors” in China.

On arrival in San Francisco the young women were confined in holding pens called barracoons (from the Catalan word barraca, or “hut”), a practice originating with the African slave trade. The women purchased for tong brothels while still in China were handed over to their owners; those not yet sold were put up for auction.

Those women were literally sold at auction in the 1860s and the 1870s on the wharf of San Francisco. Later on, those sales started to go underground, but the trafficking of women for sex slavery, for forced prostitution, continued into the early 20th century. It continues today, but not in the way you would see hundreds of women coming off ships and being sold.

Daughters of Joy

The nature of Chinese prostitutes’ work differed from the prostitutes who worked in high class brothels where they were decked up in silk and satin and displayed for the men to choose from. The majority of Chinese women arriving on America’s west coast were destined to work in cribs on the streets where they were treated like virtual slaves.

Life for these women was abusive and often short. Most often the women became drug users to escape from their sordid reality or in other cases were beaten to death or were victims of venereal diseases.
On meeting their owners, the Chinese women, though often illiterate, were forced to sign papers that contracted them as prostitutes for four to six years. Some of the more attractive girls were “lucky” enough to become the concubines of wealthy owners, who might treat them decently, although if they failed to please, their masters could return them to the auction block.

Others ended up in high-class brothels reserved for Chinese men, where they might also receive better treatment.

But most of the girls wound up in “cribs”—shacks frequented by sailors, teen boys, day laborers and drunks, Chinese and white alike, who paid less than a half-day’s wages (25 to 50 cents) for their services.

Conditions in the cribs were brutal. Often mistreated by customers, the indentured girls received little care and no medical attention. Homesick and left untreated for venereal disease or other illnesses, most women were broken within a few years and rarely lasted more than five or six years in bondage. Some who started when they were 14 years old were dead before they reached 20, according to Chinese academics Yung and Lucie Cheng and the reportage of Gary Kamiya based on stories in the San Francisco Chronicle archives.

In Soiled Dove Murder, the third book in the Moonshiner Mystery series, ‘the hospital’ is based on research. A dreadful ritual took place when a Chinese prostitute could not earn her keep. “When any of the unfortunate harlots is no longer useful, and a Chinese physician passes his opinion that her disease is incurable, she is notified that she must die,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 1869.

The condemned was taken to a “hospital”—a dismal, windowless, unfurnished room in a Chinatown back alley. “A cup of water, another of boiled rice and a little metal oil lamp are placed by her side,” the Chronicle article continued. The proprietors then locked the heavy door. Days later, when the lamp had burned out, her executioners entered to remove the woman, who was usually dead from starvation or by suicide.

White Devil’s Daughters

Motivated by their Christian faith, a group of white women set out to offer the Chinese immigrant women a path out of slavery and sex trafficking and, ideally, into what they viewed as good Christian marriages. In 1874, they founded the Occidental Board Presbyterian Mission House and, for the next six decades, more than 2,000 women passed through the doors of the brick building at 920 Sacramento Street, San Francisco.

In most circumstances, the Chinese Daughters of Joy had to be rescued from their ‘places of work’.

image Tien Fuh Wu (standing in the back, on the left) and Donaldina Cameron (seated, center) with a group of women who may have been Mission Home staffers. Courtesy of Louis B. Stellman, California State Library


If you would like to read more about Chinese prostitution during the gold rush, there are several excellent sources I consulted during the writing of Soiled Dove Murder.

White Devil’s Daughters
Early Chinese Prostitution
China’s Lost Women in the Far West
Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery
Poker Bride

1 Comment

  1. Jin Jin says:

    Chinese prostitution is not only thriving world wide, but it growing exponentially. Chinese massage parlors (CMP’s) are up there with Chinese restaurants.

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