Arts & Entertainment

A sit-down with Julia Flynn Siler: Author takes in-depth look at 19th century sex trafficking in Chinatown

By May 22, 2019 May 24th, 2019 No Comments
The home in San Rafael where Donaldina Cameron and the girls and young women in her care took refuge after the 1906 earthquake. They dubbed it “The Fairy Palace.” (Photo courtesy of Cameron House)

Julia Flynn Siler is the author of “The White Devil’s Daughters, The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown,” published by Alfred A. Knopf on May 14.

In this deeply researched work of nonfiction, she tells the story of a Presbyterian mission house established in San Francisco in the 19th century that rescued hundreds of Chinese sex slaves and helped them establish new lives.

The narrative revolves around an unusual partnership between a Scottish Presbyterian missionary named Donaldina (“Dolly”) Cameron and a Chinese immigrant a generation younger, Tien Fuh Wu, who became Cameron’s lifelong friend.

Together, they and a cast of many other characters fought the sex-trafficking industry that enslaved thousands of Chinese women in the 19th and 20th century.

Siler sat down recently in a quiet seminar room of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library — where she did much of her research — to discuss the book with Local News Matters. (The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Local News Matters: First, can you explain the title? Who is the “White Devil” and who are the daughters?

Siler: Dolly Cameron and the other leaders of the Mission Home were white, middle-class church women who were running a rescue home for vulnerable women, many of whom had been trafficked into sex slavery. The traffickers called Cameron and the other women who ran the home  white devils, which is a common Chinese epithet.

But she was known by most of the residents, colloquially as Lo Mo, or old mother, and she referred to them as her daughters. I found that in her later years she received Mother’s Day cards from some of the residents who transformed their lives by coming through the home, with her help. I found it deeply touching. She referred to Tien Fuh Wu as her daughter, and Tien really looked to Cameron as her mother since she didn’t have a family of her own.

LNM: How did the relationship between Dolly and Tien develop, and what impact do you think it had on both of their lives and work?

Siler: Tien arrived at the house in 1894, about 15 months before Dolly arrived as the home’s new sewing teacher. Tien was a defiant girl when she first met Dolly and she didn’t like being bossed around by her at all. But they came to a mutual respect and worked very, very closely with each other. I found decades of letters between the two of them. Because Tien was an orphan, Dolly was effectively her mother. This was the only home she knew.

Dolly relied on Tien and knew she couldn’t do her job without her because Dolly never learned Chinese. She needed TIen and the other Chinese workers in the home to translate. Dolly finally retired to Palo Alto, and when the time came for Tien to leave the home, Dolly invited her to live in the little cottage next to hers. I think it was a relationship of friendship, respect, and love. I was deeply touched after visiting the Evergreen cemetery in Los Angeles. Dolly arranged for Tien to be interred with her in the Cameron family plot. You have all these, Camerons — all these Scottish folk — and then you have Tien Fuh Wu in there. This book explains the mystery of why Tien was buried there.

LNM: Tell me how you got interested in this story.

Siler: I came across a first-person account by Dolly Cameron. Her voice was so strong, and the images that she created were very powerful — I don’t think I’d ever run across an account quite like that one. I started thinking, who is she? And that led me to 920 Sacramento St., which is now known as Cameron House.

The Occidental Board Presbyterian Mission House in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of mliu92)

LNM: Why did the Presbyterians establish this home? You said it was founded even earlier than the famous Chicago settlement home for immigrants called Hull House, and that surprised me.

Siler: It surprised me as well. Jane Addams of course, is probably our country’s best-known pioneering social worker. But the women who founded the Presbyterian mission home at 920 Sacramento St. were responding to a horrifying social situation in San Francisco with an outpouring of empathy. Chinese girls and women were being imported to San Francisco by traffickers and they created a place where those vulnerable girls and women could find refuge.

Of course, one of their goals in the 19th century was to convert new people to their faith. Various congregations would compete to try to bring the Chinese into their churches. So, in the Chinatown of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Christian missionaries were proselytizing in hopes of conversion as well as demonstrating what I see as a radical empathy towards women and girls who really had nowhere else to turn.

LNM: I was struck by how — despite those cultural differences — these women transcended the usual politics of gender, class and race. It’s an amazing story in that regard.

Siler: That’s exactly why I wanted to tell this story at a time when our own politics are so racially charged. These women defy the social expectations, the social norms. There was deeply held, widespread animosity towards the Chinese in the city of San Francisco. The most despised people in the city were the Chinese prostitutes or Chinese women and girls forced into sex slavery. I was fascinated by these church women who defied their husbands, who defied the male church elders in their congregations, and went ahead and did this work.

LNM: I was also struck by how much agency many of the Chinese women had in not only in saving themselves, but also in saving other Chinese women.

Siler: That’s why I chose to start the book with a scene of the young woman running from the beauty parlor in Chinatown to the house: she saved herself effectively. She made the decision to take that risk and to go to safe house on her own. Nobody rescued her: she rescued herself.

LNM: There’s a lot of cinematic drama in this book. Can you describe a moment that really stands out to you?

Siler: The quarantine of Chinatown in 1900 was one of the most dramatic moments. There was a fear of an outbreak of bubonic plague, and so, in the middle of the night, the police came and strung rope all around Chinatown so that people could not enter or leave this roughly 12-square-block neighborhood. The mission home at 920 Sacramento St. was right outside the roped quarantine area, and shortly after quarantine was declared, the home got a note that there was a girl inside the quarantine who was in distress.

The Julia Morgan School for Girls in Oakland. (Photo courtesy of Julia Flynn Siler)

It wasn’t clear exactly what the trouble was, but Dolly Cameron put on dark clothing, chipped in a favor that she had accumulated from a shopkeeper within Chinatown who let her go up through his skylight, and she scrambled over the roofs to come back down to the address where the girl was living. The girl was very, very ill, and Cameron was able to call police to come and to bring the girl out on a stretcher. Cameron had auburn curls and she had to tuck her hair into a dark cap. She was incredibly courageous.

The other thing that was so striking was that she was a real person, who struggled with the stress of running a large group home. She had a breakdown after the death of the home’s first longtime superintendent and her employer, Margaret Culbertson. She struggled with up and down periods. She may have struggled with depression because, at certain times, she had to take extended rests. And she lived very, very modestly. She lived in a group home for decades with almost no privacy and frequent problems, including epidemiological ones. Especially during the period of the great flu pandemic in 1918, there were many girls and women who got sick in those homes. That must have been terrifying. Many, many people were dying, including people Dolly Cameron knew very well. I think it’s remarkable that she was able to sustain that commitment to that cause for such a long period of time.

LNM: How did you begin to unravel the story about sex trafficking — actually slavery —  in San Francisco? Was that story immediately evident when you read Dolly Cameron’s account?

Siler: The language that she used in her church reports was very coded and never referred directly to sex slavery or forced prostitution. They were very delicate in the way they talked about abused, vulnerable women and girls. So I had to learn a lot about trafficking in the 19th century. One of the very surprising things I found was that the business model in the 19th century versus today really hasn’t changed very much except for the digital nature of it.

I made many trips to the National Archives in San Bruno, which is an incredible repository of our history. It stores  immigration records of many people as well as some court records.

The case that begins the book and ends my book was known as the “Broken Blossoms” case. Many of the records for that case were held in San Bruno. There’s very detailed testimony, receipts, and the records that the prosecutors used to piece together a picture of the trafficking ring that was taking place in Chinatown.

That was in 1935, but in fact, it began much, much earlier than that. One of the things I try to do is trace the arrival of the man who was at the center of that trafficking ring (Wong See Duck) and follow his career. He operated for perhaps three decades, almost certainly in variety of criminal enterprises.

LNM: I was struck by is how much you depended on court records. Much of this battle was played out in courtrooms. Also, it seems like Dolly Cameron’s life was more documented than a lot of the women who went through the house.

Siler: Absolutely.

LNM: Were you able to find any documentation that filled out the other stories, or is a lot lost because of the lack of first-person accounts?

Siler: One of the first articles I encountered that was very helpful was a scholarly article about “the problem of prostitutes in the archives.” That seems like a weird title, but it makes exactly the same point which you made, that these are marginalized people who left very few records behind with the exception of occasional immigration or court records.

This old photograph shows the entrance to the Ming Quong Home in Los Gatos when it was still an orphanage. (Photo courtesy of the New Museum Los Gatos)

Finding first person-accounts from women who moved from situations of sex slavery into freedom are extremely rare.

That’s why I was so thrilled to have found a number of those, most notably Tien Fu Wu, who had been sold as a child. She never experienced sex slavery, but she was a child slave working in a brothel. Probably the most extraordinary story is the story of Yamada Waka, who had been tricked into prostitution, found her freedom by getting herself to 920 Sacramento St., and was educated there. I think she was illiterate before she arrived at the home. She learned to read and write, continued her education with the home’s help and then became a journalist. She wrote powerfully about her experience as woman forced into prostitution. Her writings about that period of her life are searing.

Chinese people, for the most part, did not make it into most 19th century American newspapers, which were deeply racist. I was very lucky that the editor of the Chung Sai Yat Po, the largest and most important Chinese-American paper in the country not only was very closely allied with the value system and the goals of the mission home, but he married one of the women who came from the home. I did my best to bring in him and his family into the story, and to use material from his newspapers, which reflect a Chinese perspective on what was happening.

LNM: Could you explain the economics of the sex trafficking you describe? At one point, you talk about how much was invested in the girls who were smuggled in and why that therefore made it very dangerous for them to escape. What did you mean by that?

Siler: Traffickers paid for the young women’s steamship journeys from China to the United States. They also paid for the documentation for the false family that they would claim to be part of. That was related to the Page Act and 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that made it very difficult for Chinese people, and especially women, to come into the United States unless they were a merchant’s daughter or wife. The traffickers would pay someone to escort the woman on the steamship, get her through immigration, and then transport her — often a great distance. Sometimes they would land in Seattle and then be transported to San Francisco. And then they would transform these young women so that they would appeal to men in America by cutting their hair and dressing them in alluring clothes.

LNM: Who were these women being brought to serve? I thought at first that they were being brought for Chinese men, then it seemed like the brothels were serving white men. Did it change historically?

Siler: In the first early chapters of the book, I describe scenes where hundreds of Chinese women are landed on the Embarcadero and literally auctioned off in the streets. This was in the late 1860s early 1870s so we had just abolished slavery elsewhere. But we were having auctions in San Francisco. And then, accompanied by police, these women would be brought up from the wharves to Chinatown and they would go to different types of brothels depending on how young they were and what they looked like. Those brothels were for both Chinese men and white men. San Francisco at this time was still very much a chaotic, boom town.

Then (in the early 1900s) we start to see institutions like the “municipal crib” — a large brothel for as many as a hundred or more women — where the investors were officials. Located in Chinatown on Jackson Street, the “municipal crib” was financed in part by the friends and relatives of people in city government. A cable car used to run right past it. If there were no women on board, the conductor would say, “all off for the whorehouse.” The municipal authorities at that time had their hands in everybody’s pockets and were very involved in the sex trade.

LNM: You write about the criminal tongs that operated the trafficking. What were these tongs?

Siler: “Tong” is a is a Chinese term for an organization, and not all tongs are criminal. I try to refer it throughout the book to criminal tongs, or fighting tongs, to distinguish them from other organizations that were fraternal organizations to help fellow Chinese from various villages or people who had the same last names. That said, there was a thriving criminal tong element in San Francisco and on the West Coast. They controlled the traffic in women between China and the United States. The key character in the book who is a trafficker (Little Pete), was a member of a tong from the very beginning.

In Chinatown, there were six companies that served as the organizing group that, for example, would hire lawyers to fight the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or stand up for civil rights, or protest, for example, the quarantine in Chinatown during the plague years at the turn of the century. Beneath that level, there were a number of tongs. Newcomers might approach a tong and say, “could you help me find a job or can you lead me to community services that might be helpful?” Beneath that level was a criminal element and there were certain tongs that the police and law enforcement folks believed were very involved in certain types of criminal activities. One specialized in the trafficking of women. One would be focused on opium or drugs or other types of things. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, tong wars would regularly erupt in Chinatown’s streets.

Julia Flynn Siler, author of “The White Devil’s Daughters, The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown.”

LNM: Your book ends with the 1935 trial. You write about it being seen as a pivotal moment, the end of sex trafficking because Wong See Duck and three others got convicted and deported. Do you think it really was the end?

Siler: The trial of Wong See Duck and the trafficking ring he led attracted a great deal of press attention. Several of the women who’d been trafficked testified in open court against him — which was a tremendously brave stand for them to take. The newspapers and true crime magazines of the time went crazy over this.

But as we obviously know that was not the end of the story. The Bay Area remains a center for sex trafficking in the United States. We’re a transportation hub, and a lot of flights that start in Asia will stop in San Francisco and likewise boats will stop here or stop in L.A. or stop in Seattle. Sex trafficking is still happening. But we’re fortunate that there are also a lot of highly effective organizations in the Bay Area that are trying to fight it.

LNM: Is there anybody you see like Dolly Cameron doing the rescue work? Are there safe houses, or is that the wrong way to fight 21st century sex trafficking?

Siler: The digital nature of the crime calls for different tools. I recently profiled a UC Berkeley graduate in computer science, Rebecca Sorla Portnoff, who could have gotten hired anywhere and decided to use her Ph.D. in computer science to join Polaris, one of the leading organizations fighting sex trafficking. I do not think that busting through the doors of brothels is an effective way to combat trafficking anymore.

LNM: How is the fight different?

Siler: I’m not an expert on 21st century sex trafficking. But I do know there’s been a lot of focus on disrupting the digital technologies that make purchasing sex easier, particularly when the purchasing involves sex with boys and girls. So all of a sudden, activists are searching for different ways to disrupt this.

However, it’s still going on in. In fact, Cameron House is now a social services agency, and it will occasionally work with local anti-trafficking groups to help assist someone who’s been trafficked. But it mainly operates as a social service agency in Chinatown, operating a big food pantry, after-school programs, and kids’ programs in the summer. Generations of Chinese Americans have come through Cameron House and participated in its youth programs when they were young.

LNM: Is there anything else you would want readers to take away from your book? Anything we haven’t talked about?

Siler: This is a story of women helping other women. It’s a story of social change and radical empathy. I hope the takeaway will be that a small group of people can reach beyond their race and social class to bring about lasting and meaningful change in this world.


Setting the local scene of “The White Devil’s Daughters”

• 920 Sacramento St., San Francisco: Since the 1870s, the Occidental Board Presbyterian Mission House has stood on the same steep hillside site on the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, this is where Dolly Cameron and Tien Fuh Wu lived for most of their working lives. An estimated 3,000 women passed through its doors on their way to freedom. It is now a faith-based community center, with a food pantry, after-school programs, and adult education. www.cameronhouse.org

• Ming Quong home, Mills College campus, Oakland: A home for younger girls that was an offshoot of the Occidental Board Presbyterian Mission House in San Francisco, funded in large part by the shipping magnate Robert Dollar. The pioneering woman architect Julia Morgan designed the building, which now sits at the entrance to the Mills College campus and has become the Julia Morgan School for Girls. One of its rooms is named in honor of Donaldina Cameron. https://www.juliamorganschool.org/

• San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Anselmo: A castle-like seminary overlooking the Ross Valley in Marin County, this is where the residents of the Mission Home sought refuge after the 1906 earthquake, staying in a barn on its campus for about a week. The seminary is also where Ng Poon Chew studied to become a minister: he soon abandoned preaching and instead formed the Chung Sai Yat Po, or Chinese Western Daily newspaper. https://sfts.edu/about/

The San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1903. (Photo courtesy of Marin County Free Library)

3 Bayview, San Rafael: The Victorian home that the 60 or so earthquake refugees from the Mission Home nicknamed “The Fairy Palace.” This home still stands today and is tucked down away near San Rafael’s Panama Hotel. The 60 or so girls and young women from the home soon found the space too cramped and moved to a larger home in Oakland in the autumn of 1906. https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/3-Bayview-St-San-Rafael-CA-94901/80732020_zpid/

• Cameron Park, Palo Alto: This is a small park in Palo Alto’s College Terrace neighborhood named in honor of Donaldina Cameron. It is only a few blocks away from the tidy home and cottage where Cameron and Wu lived for decades at 1020 California St. in the same neighborhood as the park in Palo Alto. https://www.cityofpaloalto.org/news/displaynews.asp?NewsID=103

• Ming Quong orphanage, Los Gatos: The original home for younger girls moved to Los Gatos in the mid-1930s, on Loma Alta Avenue. Part of the original 13-acre site is now occupied by Uplift Family Services, a behavioral health provider. One of Ming Quong’s former residents, Nona Mock Wyman, later wrote about her experience there in her memoir, “Chopstick Childhood In a Town of Silver Spoons.” https://www.mercurynews.com/2017/05/25/lighting-the-way-orphanage-for-young-sex-slaves-is-now-modern-treatment-refuge/