[RELIGION] San Francisco's Cameron House Helps Chinatown Immigrants
- The bane of The City's slave trade
BY MICHAEL SVANEVIK AND SHIRLEY BURGETT
Special to The Examiner
When Donaldina Cameron, a New Zealand-born Scot, arrived in San
Francisco via Southern California five years before the end of the
19th century, her intention was to devote a "single year" working in
the Chinese Presbyterian Mission at 920 Sacramento St.
Cameron, then 25, soon became aware of and repulsed by
conditions of slavery in Chinatown, unquestionably The City's most
conspicuous social evil.
The mild-mannered missionary girl found herself gradually
transformed into a zealous social reformer. She became fanatically
committed to wiping out the horrors of yellow slavery.
The overwhelming majority of Chinese gold hunters who had
streamed into California during the 1850s had been male. By 1852,
the Chinese population of the state was already close to 25,000.
And, if records can be believed, there were 2,000 men for every
Slavery was a fact of life in China. For centuries, young girls
were taught to think of themselves as creatures almost purely for
the enjoyment of men, and were sold as merchandise to be wives,
concubines or prostitutes.
This ancient custom was transferred to California during the
Gold Rush. Most of the female captives, "imported in bulk," were
sold for immoral purposes. State officials, who enriched themselves
with bribes paid by Chinese slavers, refused to recognize the
existence of this state of affairs.
A blind eye
San Franciscans, who even then seemed to take pride in The
City's growing reputation for sin and depravity, regarded yellow
slavery with indifference. That these girls were Asian apparently
made it easier to accept. Chinese simply weren't regarded as "real"
This traffic in young girls, some no older than 4 or 5 years
old, was enormous. The youngest were sold as domestic dredges.
Others became concubines. Most, referred to as "daughters of joy,"
were forced into vile forms of prostitution where their life
expectancy was five to six years. More than 90 percent became
infected with venereal diseases.
While a few, usually the most attractive, were dressed in silks
and placed in sumptuously furnished parlor houses for a high-paying
clientele, the majority were locked into tiny cribs that were
clustered along Washington and Jackson streets.
These cribs -- narrow cells -- accommodated two to six captives
behind barred doors. Girls were required to please all comers, most
of whom were white. Patrons paid 25 to 50 cents for sexual services.
Young boys were admitted for 15 cents.
Crib girls usually emerged once a week to be paraded through
Chinatown wearing dog collars attached to leashes. When noticeably
ill, girls were confined in darkened rooms (often
called "hospitals") without food or water until death. Unwanted
children born to these girls were taken and sold into bondage.
The Presbyterian Mission spearheaded reform against this vile
institution as early as the 1870s, when director Margaret Culbertson
instituted raids to liberate captive children.
Donaldina Cameron became Culbertson's assistant in 1895 and
assumed direction of the movement two years later. She perfected
rescue techniques and constantly sought girls in trouble.
The once shy Cameron became the scourge of the Chinese
underworld. She came to know every back alley and rooftop in
Chinatown. She undertook rescues of young captives who requested
assistance or when maltreatment of a child was reported.
When access to a parlor or crib was denied her, she relied on an
unofficial alliance she developed with San Francisco Police Sgt.
Jack Manion, commander of the so-called Chinatown Squad. He
sympathized with Cameron and ordered his men to "give her whatever
Police officers in plain clothes gained entry, pounding down
doors with sledgehammers, crowbars and axes. Few withstood this
onslaught. Although plans for such raids were carefully kept secret,
word of them often leaked and slave girls were herded into
passageways, tunnels or secret rooms.
Cameron's rescue missions were not restricted to San Francisco.
Records show that she led raids in virtually every city on the
In this process, Cameron came head to head with city
authorities. She readily admitted that it was necessary "to break
the letter though not the spirit of the law." She also admitted that
there was no written law to uphold "entering a house and carrying
off a child."
Not all girls came willingly. Many became so frightened at the
appearance of Cameron that they jeopardized their own rescues. At
least some were forced into the mission against their will.
On those occasions when rescues failed, girls were submitted to
unspeakable punishments. At least one girl was known to have been
beaten to death as a warning to fellow chattel to stay away from
the "white devil."
The activities of Cameron and the Presbyterians endangered a
very lucrative operation. Slave girls represented big money both for
the brokers who imported them and corrupt officials who looked the
other way. During the 1850s, girls sold for between $100 and $500.
By the end of World War I, prices had risen to as high as $7,000.
Yellow slavery flourished until the 1930s.
While many Chinese in San Francisco admired Cameron's efforts,
holding her in the highest esteem as "the Mother of Chinatown," her
enemies saw her as fanatical and dangerous. They did not take her
efforts lightly and continually worked to discredit them.
Admired and hunted
On one occasion a dynamite bomb was disarmed on the steps of 920
Sacramento. That she wasn't simply eliminated by her foes surprised
many. However, it came to be believed that, given her many admirers,
any assault on her person would plunge Chinatown into bloody tong
At least temporarily, rescued girls, ranging in age from 3 to 18
years old, were housed, fed and cared for at 920 Sacramento.
Cameron's biographers credit her with having liberated as many as
3,000 young girls. In most cases, she became their court-appointed
The fate of the girls is more difficult to determine. Some were
deported while many others went to school and learned trades. The
majority appear to have become wives of "good" Chinese Presbyterians
who, by then, were living throughout the West.
Donaldina Cameron retired in 1938. Four years later the Chinese
Presbyterian Mission was renamed Cameron House in recognition of her
But for her, the ultimate recognition came during World War II
when young Chinese-American soldiers passed through San Francisco en
route to the Pacific. Hundreds visited Cameron, bringing gifts from
their mothers -- women who owed their lives to her.
Donaldina Cameron died in 1968 at the age of 98.
c. Copyright 2002 by Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett.
Contact them at svanevik@... or (650) 574-6371.