“The Chinese themselves will never abolish the hateful practice of buying and selling their women like so much merchandise, it is born in their blood, bred in their bone and sanctioned by the government of their native land” ( 121). –Donaldina Cameron1
In the House of the Tiger is a novel that Knox vividly embodies Donaldina Cameron, a mission woman, who dedicated her life in rescuing and protecting many Chinese slaves from the abusive Chinese slave system. At the beginning of the novel, readers are introduced to a mysterious woman named “the Tiger Lady” that many corrupt Chinese men and women watch out for as they are trafficking Chinese girls. As the novel progresses, reader’s become aware that “the Tiger Lady” is actually Donaldina Cameron and the “House of the Tiger” is the Mission Home she manages for rescued Chinese slaves. Using the inspirational story of Donaldina Cameron, Knox is able to exemplify how one American woman sacrificed her whole life in saving Chinese slaves to give them the opportunity to be educated, loved, and free.
The youngest daughter of Allan and Isabella Cameron, Donaldina Cameron was born in 1869, two years before her parents moved to California. Despite her mother’s death in 1874 and her father’s precarious health and financial condition, young Donaldina Cameron was mainly supported by her older sisters( 78).2 Because her father’s death cut off her plans to attend Normal School, she entered into evangelical work with less preparation than most home matrons. In 1895, twenty-five years old and looking for distraction from a broken engagement, she volunteered to assist Matron Margaret Culbertson at the Chinese Mission Home. Culbertson, who was in ill health, needed all the help Cameron could offer, and more. After Culbertson’s death in 1897, Cameron filled much of the resulting void; by 1900, she had been appointed superintendent of the home, a position she made into a lifelong career(78).3 Cameron lived in the Mission Home from her mid-twenties until national mission officers forced her to retire after she turned sixty-five. However, while she was managing the Mission Home Cameron spent most of her life defending Chinese women immigrants from stereotyping, sensationalism, and ideas of racial determinism(118).4 In addition, Cameron became a dedicated worker in rescuing Chinese slaves.
Donaldina was a master at rescuing Chinese girls and women; rescues included Donaldina finding Chinese girls and women under trap doors, behind false walls, and making nighttime raids into different areas using an axe or sledgehammer. 5Not only did she physically save Chinese slaves, but Donaldina also became skilled at protecting already rescued girls from writ of habeas corpus, a legally sanctioned law wherein slave owners could accuse a girl of a crime and have her removed from the Mission Home.6 Many slave owners, specifically members of the fighting Tongs did not take the loss of their “property” lightly. Because many Chinese girls were rescued and protected by Donaldina, the Mission Home and its inhabitants were under constant legal threat and physical assault from slave owners.7
Among slave-owners Donaldina was known as the “foreign devil” or “white devil;” however, among Chinese the girls and women she was known as Lo Mo or old Mother. 8In addition to her work at the Mission Home, Donaldina also established the Ming Quong Home for Chinese girls and the Ching Mei Home for Chinese boys. 9 In 1906, a great San Francisco earth quake and fire destroyed the Mission Home. Because of this catastrophe, Donaldina moved her Chinese refugees and staff to Marin County and then to Oakland. It was not until 1908 the Mission Home was rebuilt. In 1942, the Mission Home was renamed Donaldina Cameron House and is now a family service agency that serves low-income Asian families and immigrants.10 Overall, Donaldina dedicated her life to fight for the freedom of Chinese girls and women in the courts, at the podium, and against social prejudiced attitudes that were alive in the United States during the 20th century.
1Pascoe, Peggy. Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Authority in the American West, 1874-1939. New York & Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.
5Thomas, 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>.