It was nearly dusk on December 14, 1933, when a teenage girl walked towards a hairdresser’s shop in Chinatown. Around her, laundry dangled from metal fire escapes, chickens squawked in bamboo cages on the sidewalk, and the scents of sizzling wok oil and Chinese cabbage drifted through a neighborhood known as Little Canton.
Even in the depths of the Great Depression, San Francisco’s Chinese quarter drew tourists, who came to see its swaying red lanterns and taste its pork dumplings. But for Jeung Gai Ying, who had arrived in America that summer, it was a place of degradation. For months, the teen had been imprisoned in a second-floor apartment and repeatedly raped.
So, as Jeung left the cold street and entered the warm beauty parlor with its acrid scents of perming agents and scorched hair, she hit upon a plan. She did not speak the language of the largely white world that surrounded Chinatown, but she realized that her brief outing to the hairdresser—one of the few instances when she was left to her own devices—gave her the chance she needed to escape.
Jeung’s journey to the United States had begun earlier that year with hope and a ruse. The people who had arranged her trip had promised her a well-paid job in San Francisco. But for more than fifty years, exclusion laws had barred most Chinese from entering the United States, so they had also given her a story about a Chinese American family she was supposedly rejoining in the States. As she crossed the Pacific aboard the S.S. President Cleveland,
Jeung studied the more than one hundred pages of a “coaching book” containing notes on her false family’s history. When she arrived in July 1933, she flung the book into the sea, as instructed, and successfully passed through immigration by reciting the details she’d memorized.
She soon realized the job she’d expected was not waiting for her. Instead, she was led to an apartment in Chinatown and ordered to strip naked as bidders examined the swell of her breasts and the curve of her narrow hips. She had high cheekbones and full lips and looked several years younger than her real age of eighteen, making her a valuable prize. But the first set of potential buyers balked at closing a deal to purchase her, perhaps sensing she might cause them trouble.
Jeung endured the same humiliating ritual again, and then for a third time. The slave trader, Wong See Duck, threatened to brutally punish or kill her if she did not comply. If she refused to submit, he warned her that he would take her to “a very dark place.”
Reluctantly, Jeung abandoned her defiant stance. If she hadn’t, she feared she would never be able to return home to her family. The price the buyers paid for her was $4,500—more than ten times what the procurer had given her mother in China as an advance on her supposed earnings.
Soon after her sale, Jeung was moved into a second-floor apartment on Jackson Street. Her owners, a pair of women with severely pulled-back hair and penciled brows, set about to make Jeung more appealing to American men. They outfitted her in fashionable clothes and escorted her to the beauty shop down the street, where the hairdresser bobbed her hair, tucking her black curls behind her ears. For Jeung, who was raised as a traditional Chinese girl, having her long hair cut off was the first of many violations.
Jeung’s value to her owners lay in her earning potential as a prostitute. With her bobbed hair and alluring clothes, Jeung commanded $25 a night and turned over all but $4 of her nightly earnings to her owners. Twenty-five dollars a night was a high sum in Depression-era America, where the average wage for a female garment maker was just $30 a month. Put another way, Jeung could earn more for her owner in a single evening than what most women, hunched over their sewing machines in tenements throughout Chinatown, could make for themselves in weeks.
Jeung’s ostensible purpose in visiting the beauty shop that afternoon was to have her hair “marcelled,” a technique named after a French hairdresser in which waves would be pressed into her hair with a hot iron. She had been instructed to get her hair done to prepare herself for a trip later that evening to San Jose, fifty miles south of San Francisco, where she would entertain a group of men at a banquet.
Was it the thought of the long evening ahead that made her run? Did she dread the prospect of stepping into her silk gown only to step out of it hours later, entertaining the first of one or more customers that evening? Five months pregnant, she was certainly aware of the risks to the child growing inside her.
It was one of the few times she’d been left alone since arriving in America, and Jeung had just half an hour in the shop before one of the women would return to collect her.
The streets had darkened. The minutes passed. She had nowhere to go if she attempted to flee. If she were recaptured, she would likely be beaten as punishment, or forced into a drugged passivity from which she might never escape. Slave owners intentionally spread rumors of girls who had run away from their owners to the homes in Chinatown run by missionaries, only to die of eating poisoned food there.
She urged the hairdresser to work faster by curling only the ends of her hair, hoping she could slip out of the shop before her owners came back for her. If there was a clock ticking on the wall, Jeung must have watched it with rising dread. She was calm enough to put her coat back on before leaving the shop, but she did not take the few extra seconds needed to button it up—perhaps because her swelling belly strained the fabric.
She darted south, through the crowded sidewalks of the quarter, her coat flying open. She had one goal in mind: to reach the place of safety that her owners had warned her not to go.
She ran a block and a half to a house on Washington Street, with an arched brick entryway lit by a Chinese lantern. She climbed the steps and pressed the bell in hope of being let in. She arrived, only to discover that she had come to the wrong place. Her fear and frustration was evident. The white woman who answered the door took pity on her and led her through the streets to the place she hoped to find.
They hurried toward Nob Hill, where the grand mansions of California’s railroad and mining barons had been replaced by hotels with names like Fairmont and Mark Hopkins. Their size and sheer opulence were almost unimaginable to a girl raised in poverty in Hong Kong. After pushing through shoppers and workers returning home, they climbed the five steps to the bolted door of 920 Sacramento Street, a squat building straddling a steep hill.
Jeung caught her breath at the entrance to the house that had served as a door to freedom for thousands of enslaved and vulnerable girls and women. To her right, heavy metal bars protected the windows. She didn’t know it at the time, but the windows of the home weren’t barred to keep the residents of the home inside, but to prevent the women’s former owners from smashing through the glass to retrieve their human property.
By now, it was nightfall and too late to turn back. Jeung had no other options. She pushed the doorbell once and then again. The doorkeeper peered through the grated window. She saw a young Chinese woman standing outside, her coat unbuttoned despite the cold and swung open the heavy wood doors to let her in. Two women came into the foyer from other parts of the house to meet her. One was a white woman in her sixties with a halo of silver hair, the other a bespectacled younger woman who spoke to Jeung in Cantonese. Listening carefully to the frantic girl’s pleas, the Chinese woman translated her words into English.
“Protect me!” Jeung cried.
The women were the home’s superintendent, Donaldina Cameron, and her longtime aide, Tien Fuh Wu, who had worked together for four decades to protect some of the city’s most scorned residents. They led Jeung to an adjoining parlor, which had a comforting Chinese carpet on the floor and Cantonese hangings on the walls. The scent of Chinese food drifted through the house. Once they were seated, Wu and Cameron gently urged the teenager: tell us your story
On February 23, 1869, more than six decades before Jeung’s dash to safety, the China
steamed into the port of San Francisco carrying an unusual cargo. Waiting at the foot of the wharf was a crowd of Chinese merchants, customhouse officers, a health officer, detectives employed by the steamship company, and grey-uniformed police along with for-hire officers known as “specials,” armed with clubs and revolvers.
As soon as the ship’s crew lowered the gangplank, some of the waiting men rushed forward. Police and specials brandished weapons to hold the crowd back: what had caused the excitement was the presence of four hundred Chinese women onboard. It took “the united strength of the whole police force to prevent them from getting hold of the women,” wrote a reporter about the crush of presumably sex-starved men.
The officers searched the female Chinese passengers and their belongings for opium or other contraband before escorting them to the horse-drawn wagons waiting for them at the base of the wharf. Customs officials seized from the ship’s passengers thirty boxes of opium and 350 pounds of tobacco, which were later advertised for sale by the customs office at a public auction.
But by far the most coveted cargo onboard the China
that day was the women. Most were bound for the city’s brothels which operated openly in Chinatown. Prostitution was not classed as a criminal offence at that time, even though some reformers condemned it, and the police and specials helped assure that the Chinese women disembarking from the ship did not manage to escape into the crowd or get whisked away.
Outrageously, as one newspaper reported, the officers’ role was to guard the Chinese women bound for sex slavery “until the load of human freight was delivered at the destination fixed by the companies.”
The pent-up demand for sex came from solitary immigrants who’d left their families behind in China. James Marshall’s discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, on the south fork of the American River, in 1848, lured tens of thousands of poor Chinese men from the Pearl River Delta and the Guangdong province with the prospect of getting rich in California’s gold mines. They were drawn by job opportunities, since they could earn as much in one week of labor in America as what it would take several months to earn in China.
Arriving in steerage class from Hong Kong and other Chinese ports, the men fanned out across the West. They found work digging for gold in the Sierra foothills. They hauled away mud to create irrigation ditches in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and swung pickaxes to build the transcontinental railroad that connected California to the eastern United States.
By the 1860s, political and economic turmoil in the South China’s Pearl River Delta Region had turned a trickle of emigrants from China to San Francisco into a torrent. As America’s largest city west of the Mississippi, the port of San Francisco became the city with the single largest concentration of Chinese residents in America. Chinese who made their way to America in the nineteenth century called it dai fou
or “big city.”
Upon landing, most Chinese men joined a huiguan
, a district association founded along home-region lines, which functioned primarily as a mutual aid fraternity. Although these district associations operated nationwide, their headquarters were in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Eventually they became known as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, or the “Six Companies,” and the association operated as the representative of the Chinese in America.
Joining an association was crucial for most new immigrants as they sought lodgings and work. It could also ease their loneliness. For, from the start, San Francisco’s Chinatown was largely a society of men without women or children: many new arrivals were single and those who were married often left their wives at home in China. As “sojourners,” or immigrants who planned to eventually return to their families in their home country, many of the Chinese men who thronged the quarter’s crowded streets refused to cut off the tightly plaited single braids, known as queues, that hung down their backs.
Copyright © 2019 by Julia Flynn Siler. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.