An Examination of San Francisco's Chinese Prostitution Trade Through the Turn of the 20th Century
From an 1899 publication of The San Francisco Call:
BILL OF SALE
Loo Wing to Loo Chee —
April 16 — Rice, 6 mats, at $2 . . . . . . . . . . . $12
April 18 — Shrimps, 50 lbs, at 10c . . . . . . . . . 5
April 20 — Girl, $250 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 250
April 21 — Salt fish, 60 lbs at 10c . . . . . . . . . . 6
May 1, 1898 1
With the prospect of creating a lucrative life in California, tens of thousands of men from across the world flocked to the West Coast upon the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. A large number of these immigrants were individuals from China, comprising 20,000 of the 67,000 foreigners that migrated to the US in 1852.2 The contrast between life in the poorer provinces of China and the allure of the possibilities that came with the journey to America powered the migration to the West Coast. As a result, the state of California consisted primarily of male residents. The 1850 US Census and 1852 Censuses of Population in California describe how 94% of the population in California were men during this time in comparison to the 52% of men across the rest of the country. More notably, the small mining towns in northern California were 97% male.3 Women– largely outnumbered by men– were quickly seen to be a scarce and valuable resource in these areas.
Associations called tongs that once provided resources for Chinese immigrants soon resorted to prostitution, gambling, and racketeering to make money. Fueled by the absence of women, these tongs monopolized on the male desire for sex by placing brothels in locations where many men congregated. As multi-layered and highly lucrative collaborations, the criminalization of these tongs involved and included San Francisco police, lawyers, and other city officials with important positions. Thus, it is not surprising that of the $200,000 the Hip Yee Tong– one of the most profitable tongs in San Francisco that imported 87% of the women between 1852 and 1873– made off the sale and prostitution, $10 of the $40 fee they charged the buyers went to the police officers.4 The inclusion of government personnel in the business of these tongs made escape quite difficult for the women that fell victim to their manipulation.
Many of the women that made the over 6,000 mile journey from China to California were unaware of the line of work they were about to join. The 1850 to 1865 Taiping Revolution created unfavorable and arduous living conditions in China, forcing thousands of hunger-struck families into poverty. Female children were seen as liabilities to these impoverished families due to their inability to carry out the same labor as their male counterparts, nor would they carry on the family name. Viewed as a way to better the other members of the household, many families resorted to selling their daughters. Some parents were aware of what lay ahead in the future of their daughters, others were unaware, selling their offspring off with the understanding that they were doing them a favor by sending them to ‘the land of opportunity’. Payment could vary from a bag of seeds to upwards of $250 as seen in the receipt of a “girl” above. The value of these girls multiplied upon their arrival, often auctioned off for more than $2,500 once in California.5 Other women found themselves misled and manipulated into prostitution. Many, like Jeung Gwai Ying, were promised well-paid jobs or husbands waiting for them. Continuing their journey with the expectation of a better life, these women were hidden or coached on how to pass through customs. Ying read one hundred pages of a coaching book prior to her interview at the border, memorizing hundreds of notes and facts on her false family history.6 In reality, these women were tricked, imported, and enslaved into prostitution. The ships coming into harbor from China, carried, as the San Francisco Chronicle referred to it in 1869, “the importation of females in bulk” with “each China steamer now brings consignments of women, destined to [be] placed on the market”.7 These women’s freedoms quickly changed from being allowed to choose their occupation to being forced into the life of a Baak Haak Chai, or “One Hundred Men’s Wife”.8
The ideal working girl was fourteen years of age. With the California Penal Code in 1850 defining the age of consent as ten, this put these young girls at the prime age for buyers.9 Nonetheless, this didn't stop even younger girls– sometimes as young as seven or eight– from being exploited.10 Nicknamed the “daughters of joy”, upon their arrival to the California ports, these women were stripped down and inspected by a multitude of prospective buyers, examining their bodies and beauty, as well as confirming their virginities. For Ying, they removed her clothes in front of many, as foreign men began assessing the “swell of her breast and curve of her narrow hips”.11 She was then purchased for $4,500.12 At the time, these auctions were seen as normal, with the young girls beaten, drugged, starved or raped to force into submission.
A green mansion [ed: “a brothel”] is a place of filth and shame,
Of lost chastity and lost virtue.
Most repulsive it is to kiss the customers on the lips
And let them fondle every part of my body.
I hesitate, I resist;
All the more shamed, beyond words.
I must by all means leave this troupe of flowers and rouge;
Find a nice man and follow him as his woman.13
Once placed in these brothels, the young girls were forced to sign contracts that they could not fully read or understand. Fingerprinting a formal contract, these women were conscripted into a life of essentially indentured servitude, with many hidden requirements in their so-called agreements. If questioned about the willingness of these women, these binding documents were used as reference to claim that these girls chose this profession by their own free will. With many being forced into four to five years of work, some contracts like that of Xin Jin’s claimed that if she attempted to escape and run away, upon capture she would have to pay all costs spent finding and returning her.14 For Ah Kam’s contract, she could be sold again if she attempted to escape the brothel or resist the men that came to see her.15 After the contracts were signed, these women were then assigned to either high end or low end brothels depending on their perceived value. Unfortunately, many of these women were allocated to the low-end bagnios or cribs where they would make 25¢ to 50¢ a day for their services, at the most.16 Such inhumane conditions and treatment caused irreparable damage and suffering to many of these women. As seen in the song above written by an unnamed Chinese prostitute in California in the late 1800s, this line of work took a large toll on the physical and mental wellbeing of thousands. If they couldn't earn their keep, they were left to die. Once forced into service, the average longevity of these women was four to six years, with not many making it past twenty years of age.17
Even as time went on, there was little hope for escape for these girls. In 1870, California passed a law which banned the kidnapping and importation of many Asian women, including those from China, Japan, and Mongolia, for the sole purpose of prostitution.18 However, rather than help eliminate this trafficking ring, it just pushed the trade underground. When the Page Act of 1875 made it illegal to import any woman for prostitution purposes, sellers found a loophole by telling officials that the women arriving in the U.S. were already engaged to marry.19 Additionally, even if these prostitutes found it to be a possibility to escape, the grasp the Tong network had on the city and its officials made it virtually impossible without being found and sent back. With time and the help of many progressive individuals, prostitution in San Francisco’s Chinatown, as well as across the whole state, largely diminished, ending the years of pain that thousands of women were forced to endure.