Heroes Emerge From the SF Chinatown Sex Trade

Julia Flynn Siler’s new book recounts the heroic acts of Donaldina Cameron and Tien Fun Wu at the turn of the 20th century.


Photo courtesy KNOPF

Oh, that we could claim in 2019 that human trafficking and sex slavery are an anomaly of early American history. Contemporary historians and storytellers might wish that years after California ratified the 13th Amendment, Chinese girls and women had not been shipped to Chinatown. Their bodies were sold and abused there to feed the “pent-up demand for sex” of men, many of whom had arrived in the city and other locations across the West during the gold rush of 1848. For decades afterward and even today, the tragic trade has spread to other nationalities and races, at times gone underground, waned, or flourished. Statistics overall prove sex trafficking continues.

The sole comfort might be that for every tragic tale like this one, there are heroes who actively counter or spread awareness of the crimes committed against marginalized, underrepresented people. Chronicled in journalist and author Julia Flynn Siler’s new nonfiction book, The White Devil’s Daughters, heroes emerge as the Bay Area’s vicious, late 20th-century sex trade is unveiled.

Siler digs into archives and private records to tell the real life stories of young women who fled their country or dire situations to seek refuge but encountered grand scale evil. Primary among the heroes featured are two immigrant women: Donaldina Cameron, a Presbyterian missionary and daughter of a Scottish sheep farmer, and Tien Fun Wu, a Chinese woman sold as a young girl into household slavery by her father to cover his gambling debts. They swim against the tides of the Chinese syndicate, racism, sexism, anti-immigration sentiment, the law, men claiming to be Christian — or not —  who turned their backs on the situation and more. Their “women’s work” at the Occidental Mission Home at 920 Sacramento St. forms a foundation. The home’s evolution is a cornerstone and a quasi metaphor representing solidity, sisterhood, independence and safekeeping.

Intensely well-researched as was her first book (Lost Kingdom), the lives and activities of Cameron and Wu — early feminists, agents for change, civil rights activists, some men, and yes, women faithful to Christian or other religious beliefs and practices — are riveting and personal. Siler provides sweeping perspective on the era’s racism, immigration, and women’s position in society. She draws intriguing parallels between prostitution and marriage, establishing contrast between justice and the law but never allows facts to bog down the narrative. Photographs throughout the book offer vivid reproductions of San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. Even more striking are images of young girls made victims of sex trafficking. If there is a mandate delivered, it is to step up and make difference, to break the laws of convention, possiblly even break actual laws. The task is daunting — all the more reason to act.

The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown by Julia Flynn Siler (Knopf, May 2019, 448 pp., $28.95)

This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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