The Chinese Slave Trade in San Francisco, California

In 1882, the United States instituted the first of three Chinese exclusion acts as a way to control the immense influx of Chinese men. These acts prevented all but a few privileged classes of Chinese men from sending for their families in China. Single men did not have the ability to send for Chinese wives, nor did the law permit them to marry non- Chinese wives.1  The small ratio of Chinese women to men bred a rampant prostitution market. To feed the market of sex, Chinese girls and young women, mostly from Canton, were bought, kidnapped, or coerced into coming to the United States. 2According to Charles Fredrick Holder who wrote in his article Chinese Slavery in America in 1897, he claimed that a young Chinese girl who was between the ages of nine and twelve was usually priced at $150 to $500.A Chinese girl from the ages between twelve and sixteen and also attractive would be priced from $500 to $1,500.Chinese Girls over the age sixteen were marketed for up to $3,500 (289). 3

Knox portrays the buying and selling of Chinese girls in The House of the Tiger.

“ And her price?”

“Five hundred dollars.” Quan Lee looked at her and examined her carefully, saying she was pretty but not very good looking (69). 4

Most Chinese girls in China would be sold for a small amount of money; however, coming into Chinatown, the slave-selling place in San Francisco, California, Chinese girls were sold at higher prices by highbinders. Highbinders, corrupted Chinese men who kidnapped, bought, and sold Chinese girls and young women used slavery as a way to make a profitable business.5  Not only did Chinese men participate in this corrupted system, but older Chinese women as well helped in buying, selling, but most importantly housing Chinese slaves.

For the Chinese girls to gain entrance into the United States, highbinders and Chinese women were clever at presenting fake papers that showed the girls and women to be daughters and wives of the few privileged classes who were allowed to send for family.6 Among the young Chinese women who were trapped in slavery and prostitution, many of them entered the brutal system because they were fooled by highbinders and old Chinese women. In China, young Chinese women were promised by Chinese slave sellers, specifically  corrupted Chinese women, that they would have the opportunity to marry a rich Chinese man if they came to the United States. However, when many innocent Chinese women entered the United States, many of them were sold into sexual slavery. In his article, Holder also gives an example of how a Chinese woman believed she was going to get married to a Chinese man(290).7  When she arrived in the United States, she was quickly taken to a boarding house  called the “The Queen’s Room,” which she was told  belonged to her   future husband. In addition, the  Chinese girl was given rich wardrobe and told to wear it to look attractive for her wedding.  Instead of  marrying the husband she was promised, Holder points out the Chinese girl was really on exhibition  for highbinders, slave dealers, speculators, brothel keepers, and others interested in buying her.(290).8 For young Chinese women, prostitution was what they were mainly used for. The life of a Chinese prostitute was horrible; Most Chinese women died of the harsh physically treatment within five years.

Besides prostitution, most of the younger Chinese girls were sold into domestic households. The little Chinese girls were called Mui Tsai’s became household servants where they were often burdened with heavy labor and endured severe physical punishment.9

Knox exemplifies a Chinese slave experiencing the brutal hardships of domestic servitude in the House of the Tiger

“She could only ask the question of the heavy baby for whom it was her duty to care, but the poor baby was a little captive too, and could but blink its almond eyes in reply. Whence this child had come Ah Ching knew not, nor indeed cared. She only knew it was too heavy for her poor, aching back” (9-10). 10

As Mui Tsai’s got older, they were eventually also sold into prostitution. With the help of the Presbyterian Mission Home, many young Chinese women and girls were rescued, and even some of them got to reunite with their families back at home. The Presbyterian Mission Home offered security and liberation from slavery; however, many Chinese highbinders, specifically the members of the fighting Tongs, did not take the loss of their “property” lightly. Many highbinders, slave owners, and brothel owners went to court against the Presbyterian Mission Home to try and regain their possession of human chattel.11 Though some Chinese girls and women were legally forced back into prostitution and domestic servitude, many more were saved with the help of the California police enforcement and supporters of the Presbyterian Mission Home.12

Works Cited:

1 Thomas, Vicki. “Donaldina Cameron: Missionary, Social Worker, and Youth Advocate.”Encyclopedia of San Francisco. San Franscisco Musem and Historical Society. Web. <http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/c/cameronDonaldina.html>.

2 Thomas, Vicki. “Donaldina Cameron: Missionary, Social Worker, and Youth Advocate.”Encyclopedia of San Francisco. San Franscisco Musem and Historical Society. Web. <http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/c/cameronDonaldina.html>.

3 Holder, Charles F. “Chinese Slavery In America.” The North American Review 165.490 (1897): 288-94. JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25118876>

4 Knox, Jessie J. In The House of the Tiger. New York& Cincinnati: Library of the University of Michigan, 1911. Making of America Archive. University of Michigan & Cornell University. Web. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/agw6821.0001.001/1?xc=1&g=moagrp&q1=in+the+house+of+the+tiger&view=image&size=100&gt;.

5 Thomas, Vicki. “Donaldina Cameron: Missionary, Social Worker, and Youth Advocate.”Encyclopedia of San Francisco. San Franscisco Musem and Historical Society. Web. <http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/c/cameronDonaldina.html>.

6 Thomas, Vicki. “Donaldina Cameron: Missionary, Social Worker, and Youth Advocate.”Encyclopedia of San Francisco. San Franscisco Musem and Historical Society. Web. <http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/c/cameronDonaldina.html>.

7 Holder, Charles F. “Chinese Slavery In America.” The North American Review 165.490 (1897): 288-94. JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25118876>

8 Holder, Charles F. “Chinese Slavery In America.” The North American Review 165.490 (1897): 288-94. JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25118876>

9 Thomas, Vicki. “Donaldina Cameron: Missionary, Social Worker, and Youth Advocate.”Encyclopedia of San Francisco. San Franscisco Musem and Historical Society. Web. <http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/c/cameronDonaldina.html>.

10 Knox, Jessie J. In The House of the Tiger. New York& Cincinnati: Library of the University of Michigan, 1911. Making of America Archive. University of Michigan & Cornell University. Web. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/agw6821.0001.001/1?xc=1&g=moagrp&q1=in+the+house+of+the+tiger&view=image&size=100&gt;.

11 Thomas, Vicki. “Donaldina Cameron: Missionary, Social Worker, and Youth Advocate.”Encyclopedia of San Francisco. San Franscisco Musem and Historical Society. Web. <http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/c/cameronDonaldina.html>.

12 Thomas, Vicki. “Donaldina Cameron: Missionary, Social Worker, and Youth Advocate.”Encyclopedia of San Francisco. San Franscisco Musem and Historical Society. Web. <http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/c/cameronDonaldina.html>.

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