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[COMMUNITY] Historiography of 19th Century Chinese Immigrant Public Women

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  • madchinaman
    Historiography of Nineteenth Century Chinese Immigrant Public Women Carol Huang City College of New York http://www.advancingwomen.com/awl/fall2005/19_2.html -
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 17, 2006
      Historiography of Nineteenth Century Chinese Immigrant Public Women
      Carol Huang
      City College of New York


      "Whenever women continue to serve as boundary markers between
      different national, ethnic and religious collectives, their
      emergence as full fledged citizens will be jeopardized."
      Deniz Kandiyoti, "Identity and Its Discontents : Women and the
      "There has been no single historical canon or permanent story, but
      an evolving argument rewritten by each generation."
      Benjamin J. Barber, An Aristocracy of Everyone


      Chinese immigrant women arrived in America's West in the mid
      nineteenth century. Their arrival marked the beginning of Chinese
      American women in the United States of America [1]. They left very
      few documents of their own. They were assumed to have followed the
      Chinese men to the West after the gold rush to serve the men. A
      majoritity of them were called "One Hundred Men's Wives" or
      prostitutes [2]. In the Western construction and conceptualization
      of Chinese women of this particular time, they have been portrayed
      as victims of patriarchy and the capitalist system.

      Their histories up until the emergence of Women's Studies in the
      1970s were mostly written by the missionaries who worked in China,
      Mission Home workers in the US who rescued them and journalists who
      sensationalized them. Since they did not leave much in the way of
      primary sources, it is very difficult to write their histories.
      Their experience poses a great challenge for any one who wishes to
      conduct research on them. Among the issues involved in their
      history, one of the major areas of contestation lies in the Mission
      Home education which claimed to educate a great number of Chinese
      immigrant women during this period [3].

      Traditionally, up until 1970s, the consensus about the history of
      the Mission Home Educated Chinese immigrant women was that a
      majority of them were prostitutes because Chinese custom did not
      allow women to follow their husbands to the United States of
      America. Only indecent, poor or kidnapped women such as prostitutes
      came to the "Gold Montain". The pre-1970 consensus holds that during
      the Progressive Era when the Wild West began to make its transition
      to a more family oriented community, the Chinese women were rescued
      by the Christian Mission Homes and were reformed/educated to be good
      Victorian Christian women. Then under the miscengenation law, they
      were married to reputable Chinese merchants, and according to the
      pre-1970 view that was the origin of Chinese American Family in the
      United States. Chinese American communities contested many facts
      involved in this type of discourse. For instance, they considered
      the numbers of women rescued to be heavily exagerated. They were
      also very dubious about the Westernized education received by this
      group of women. Furthermore, they asked how the Chinese American
      Communities dealt with this shameful origin of their female
      ancestors? Nonetheless, Mission Home education had a long-lasting
      impact on the education of Chinese women and Chinese American
      families during the exclusion era.

      In the past three decades, the history of Chinese immigrant women in
      the 19th Century has been retold and reinterpreted with rather
      creative ways of doing history. By analyzing the shifting of
      perspectives and innovative ways of using existing documents in
      viewing and interpreting the experience of Chinese immigrant women
      in the Nineteenth century, the article intends to uncover some of
      the hidden ideology and long muffled issues to further discuss the
      re/construction of the origin of Chinese American women and their

      Women as Stigmatized Chinese Self-consciousness: East Meets West

      The image of women as victims of Chinese tradition is a stereotype
      in which both Western scholars and Chinese May Fourth (1917-24)
      Western-educated intellectuals were complicit. During the May Fourth
      discourse, "women" became a figure for the struggle between
      tradition and modernity. "Women became the 'stand-ins' for China's
      traumatized self-consciousness" (Chow, 1991, p. 170). The result was
      to link the female body with the health and the strength of the
      nation by advocating the abolition of foot binding and
      other "traditional" social practices such as polygamy.

      Influenced heavily by missionary reports and the wish to "modernize"
      China as the "White man's burden," and because many Chinese
      immigrant women were brought to the United States of America to
      be "hundred men's wives", the working class woman's image,
      especially that of the prostitute, dominated the American West.
      Gradually, women of the footbinding merchant wife's class were also
      viewed as slaves of male control and abuse (Pascoe, 1990; Yung,

      Chinese prostitutes were associated with heathen practices, female
      infanticide, and viewed as the victims of the powerful and abusive
      patriarchy. The discourse on Chinese prostitutes in the American
      West is reflected in the American Protestant's early writings on
      women of China. Given the interest in "civilizing" the Chinese, it
      is not surprising that missionary reports on "women's status" in
      China emphasized their victimization and weakness. This discourse
      paved the way to justify intervention. Missionary views were also
      skewed by the fact that missionaries tended to work among the poor.
      Reports of Chinese women's subordination were thus used to validate
      Western ideas about China's perceived cultural backwardness, which
      in turn justified the imperialist agenda. Footbinding, in
      particular, was denounced as a symbol of Chinese barbarity and an
      indication of the urgency of missionary interventions in China but
      prostitutes become the dominant symbol in the American West after
      the Page Act, whereby all Chinese women who applied to enter the
      United States of America were suspected being prostitutes (Peffer,

      Chinese Prostitutes and the Progressive Era

      The Chinese prostitutes arrived in the United States during the
      Progressive Era. The medical-legal and moral discourse of the time
      soon prohibited their bodies as a site for pleasure. Instead they
      were incorporated into two generally constructed master images of
      the prostitute, both profane: one a ruined, destroyed, victimized
      body; the other, a destroying body, a disease that spreads and rots
      the body politic (Bell, 1994; Connelly, 1980; Rosen, 1982). With the
      rapid development of industrialization and urbanization, the
      prostitutes became a political subject to be controlled during this
      era. Chinese prostitutes were marked as the evil of the Chinese
      community and as "the foul, contagious disease," "a particular phase
      of the Chinese question", with their potential of "infusing a poison
      into Anglo-Saxon Blood" (Sawtelle, 1878). They were the first group
      from a different shore to be targeted by the first gender specified
      immigration law, the Page Act, because they were Chinese immigrants
      and because they were women (Peffer, 1986; 1999). Other than the
      moral high ground generally used in the discourse and legal action
      against Chinese women in the Progressive Era, the control of Chinese
      women also met the purpose of controling the growth of the Chinese
      population in the United States.

      The inforcement of extremely restrictive immigration policy such as
      Chinese Exclusion Act and anti-Chinese sentiments was very effective
      in reducing Chinese population in the United States of America. By
      the time the distinguished Chicago sociologist Robert Park (1925)
      proclaimed in his now classic essay "The City" to examine the
      development of "moral regions" in the process of urbanization, he
      would have found that the Chinese moral regions in the previous
      periods from 1850-1900 had been moved several times through city
      zoning ordinance and finally disappeared and that, furthermore,
      there was only a small number of Chinese women left to be studied.
      In 1908, Donaldina Cameron in San Francisco had only one or two
      slave girls to rescue, and in one case, when Cameron went into a
      brothel with policemen to rescue the Chinese prostitutes, the
      Chinese on the promise did not even resist; she just took the women
      she found because the owners of this slave-girl were so intimidated
      by her (Martin, 1977, p. 114). Even though later on Japanese scholar
      using glabol traffiking of women as frame work to examine the
      population of the Mission Home Resuced women and found that the 1909
      Mission Home records showed that the rescued were about one-third
      Japanese (Ichioka, 1977). Nevertheless, the Chinese prostitutes
      dominated the discourse and media attention at the time, and Cameron
      blamed the Chinese Secret Society's total control of the trade for
      stopping her from rescuing more prostitutes (Martin, 1977, p. 97).
      In general, San Francisco saw the Chinese bachelor society in its
      quick formation from the period of forbidden Chinese women (Page
      Act, 1875) and followed by forbidden Chinese family (bachelor
      society) and forbidden workers (Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882).
      Chinese men did come and worked and left as they were designated to
      by their importers and social engineering through immigration
      policy, mostly without their women (Peffer, 1986).

      The Contestation Initiated in the 1970s

      As a partial result of such discourse, Asian American women's
      history was dominated by prostitute discourse; for instance, Yuji
      Ichioka's (1977) article "Ameyuki-san: Japanese Prostitutes in
      Nineteenth-Century America" appeared in Amerasia Journal. Her
      approach was to establish a broader international even global
      perspective on Japanese women who were transported to China,
      Southeastern Asia and Americas as prostitutes. Her article was
      followed by studies on picture brides, war-brides, mail order
      brides, and camp-town women in the same issue of the journal.
      Trafficking Asian women as sex workers dominated the discourse on
      Asian American women and reinforced the strong association with the
      exoticized image of them.

      Gradually this prostitute beginning would be contested by the Asian
      American communities with a new wave of immigrants who arrived after
      1965 with more professional status and with Asian American
      communities establishing their own research agenda as a way of
      talking back to the previous research done on this group of women.
      Yet the fascination with the fate of these women in the nineteenth
      century keeps attracting new scholars to devote their energy to find
      out more about them.

      How They were Studied: A Retrospective

      Slave Women Rehtroic and Justification of the Mission Home Rescue

      Following the image of the coolie trade for Chinese male workers in
      the Americas, Chinese women's arrival soon routed them into the
      image of slaves, kidnapped prostitutes. Missionary reports on the
      Chinese women's status in China offered the interpretation of these
      women's inhuman social conditions. After their arrival, they were
      targeted by the anti-Chinese movement in the American West as a tool
      to attack and contain Chinese population. The construction of
      Western Christian workers as the vanguard to save the Chinese
      prostitutes is crystallized in the career of Donaldina Cameron.
      Since the year of Cameron's retirement, here have been two full-
      length books on her (Martin 1977; Wilson 1931). This is Cameron's
      mission statement:

      They are the first Christianized and educated women to enter the
      Chinese communities in these places, so there are great
      opportunities for them to scatter the good seed they carry with them
      from the Home ... In their lives are the words fulfilled, 'I will
      sow them among the heathen and they shall remember me in far
      mountains. (Martin, 1977, p. 115)

      The imperialistic ideology of the Christian mission was very clear;
      the containment of the Chinese women here in the American West
      became a part of the mission to save the Chinese race through
      Christianity. According to the formation of contained or
      ideologically converted Chinese women in Amerrica, they would be
      agents to change and contain China. The Chinese women here also
      served the purpose of submitting to the white women's power and
      boosting the White women's sense of superiority. All the literature
      of the mission home described Chinese women as "hidden away"
      or "heavily guarded" regardless of whether they were wives or
      prostitutes. It is interesting to note that they were guarded and
      hidden away not from the White men but from the White Christian
      women. As the mission home women assumed their duty to rescue their
      unfortunate Asian "sisters," the White men were released from the
      yoke of the traditionally male-controlled trade; Chinese men took
      the total blame for the women they brought into this country. As
      Judy Yung points out, "their [mission home workers] work had a
      damaging effect on the Chinese community and on the moral psyche of
      the rescued women ... and helped to perpetrate negative stereotypes
      of the Chinese." (Yung, 1995, p. 55)

      Women Workers and Women's Studies' Perspectives

      This othering process which saw all Chinese women of this period in
      the de jure way as all potential prostitutes and the de facto way as
      all slaves continued until the first feminist rebuttal written by
      Lucie Cheng Hirata, "Free, Indentured, Enslaved: Chinese Prostitutes
      in Nineteenth-Century America" published in Signs in 1979. As the
      title indicates, Cheng's research attempts to change the general
      assumption that all Chinese prostitutes were slaves. The
      word "prostitute" was used instead of a euphemistic term
      like "public women" to indicate the feminist view of prostitution as
      a profession.

      The publication of Lucie Cheng's research[4] can be traced to the
      emergence of Chinese women as a subject of Western scholarly inquiry
      with the movement of the women's studies in the 1970s. As stated by
      the general editor of Signs in its 1976 special issue on Chinese
      women, "If there is a subject that seems of the utmost pertinence to
      those concerned with women, culture, and society, that subject is
      China" (Stimpson, 1976, p. vi). The statement intended to treat
      material on Chinese women (along with that on Soviet and third world
      women) as data for the formation of general theories on patriarchy
      or women's liberation in the first line of women's studies projects
      (Teng, 1996). Lucie Cheng's article immediately created the first
      critique of such a project. It points at and blames the patriarchy
      and male domination in a cross-national context, not only attacking
      the patriarchy (east and west) but also challenging the racial
      injustice in the immigration practice at the turn of the century and
      painting a gloomy picture of the long-praised mission home rescue.
      Her article was also influenced by the emergent Asian American point
      of view symbolized by Amerasia Journal which published Ichioka's
      article on Japanese prostitutes of the same period with a focus on
      the trannational trafficking of Japanese women in China, South
      Eastern Asia, and America.

      Cheng emphasizes the view that prostitutes are sex workers and
      analyzes the political economy of this group of women under the
      context of the expansion of American capitalism and imperialism. She
      opens her article by indicating the political economy of these women
      in the Chinese, American, and Chinese-American contexts:

      In societies undergoing rapid industrialization, prostitution serves
      a double economic function. It helps to maintain the labor force of
      single young men which is in the interest of the capitalists who
      would otherwise have to pay higher wages to laborers with families
      to support. In addition, prostitution enables entrepreneurs to
      extract large profits from the work of women under their control and
      thus accumulate considerable capital for other investments. Further,
      in multiracial areas, prostitutes of minority or colonized groups
      can also provide cheap labor themselves. (Cheng, 1979, p. 223)

      In a revision of her article, Lucie Cheng obviously sensed the high
      percentage of Chinese women who were in the prostitution trade and
      changed her title to "Chinese Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth
      Century" in Women of America: A History, (Berkin & Norton, 1979).
      Women in this area were the majority of Chinese immigrant women in
      the United States during the Progressive Era. Since her
      investigation was focused on San Francisco and its nearby areas, she
      sensitively changed the location from America to California. The
      change of title indicates the sensitivity developed among Chinese
      American scholars and their attempt to see the community as non-
      monolithic with various regional differences.

      The manual census data of 1870 analyzed by Cheng revealed that 71%
      of Chinese immigrant women were prostitutes, though she speculated
      that the misconception and miscommunication of the census takers
      might have contributed to such a high percentage. The fact shocked
      the community of scholars[5].

      Cheng's biggest achievement in the article is to discover a brief
      period of free competition where Chinese women had the opportunity
      to be a free agent and enterpurenure before the trade became totally
      controlled by males and the life story of the no-name heroine in
      this initial brief period whom Cheng depicts as

      a twenty-year-old prostitute from Hong Kong who landed in San
      Francisco late in 1848. A free agent serving a predominantly non-
      Chinese clientele during a period of affluence, she accumulated
      enough money to buy a brothel within two years and retired the widow
      of a wealthy Chinese man. (1979, p. 8)

      This is the beginning of a reconstruction and reclaiming project to
      recover the history of this group of women. Cheng also begins to
      protest the numbers of women rescued by the Mission Home. She
      mentions this in the last two paragraphs of her article, protesting
      Cameron's claim in 1898 that she rescued 3,000 Chinese women. Cheng
      argues that the number according to her estimate and the mission
      home records was only 600 Chinese women (Judy Yung estimates in her
      1995 book that it was about 1,500 using Pascoe's collection). In
      Lucie Cheng's article, the slave girl and the prostitute were not
      distinguished, later Judy Yung would make a clear distinction
      between the two. Even though Cheng suspected that some young girls
      in the brothels were slave/servants and not prostitutes, she did not
      make any distinction between these two groups of women. Lucie Cheng
      also began to discuss the issue related to their clients. Using
      court cases, police records, and public documents, she concluded
      that the prostitutes in the lowest end served mixed ethnic, working
      class groups, and most of the high-class prostitutes served only
      Chinese. She is the first to notice that a high percentage of
      children of American-born Chinese were born in the brothels.

      Critique on the Mission Home Education

      In 1983, Laurene Wu McClain furthered the thesis proposed by Lucie
      Cheng's article and elaborated on the criticism of Cameron in her
      article "Donaldina Cameron: A Reappraisal." McClain examined the
      Mission Home Rescue movement and concluded that it was out of pace
      with the late nineteenth century Social Gospel movement, which saw
      the poverty and hardship experienced by the working class in the
      process of industrialization in the urban areas and promoted such
      structural reforms as factory inspection, child labor laws, and
      regulation of big business. This trend gradually influenced the
      foreign missions as well. They spoke less of the conversion of
      heathens and more of improving social conditions. The movement did
      not have any effect in changing the ideology of the mission home
      women who saw prostitutes as a moral and not a social problem. This
      is the first attempt to critically review Cameron and the Mission
      Home women's position in the larger context of Christian social
      movements. Obviously, her conclusion is that the Mission Home women
      were lagging behind in the progressive thought and activity of their

      Following these two critiques of Mission Home rescues, Peggy Pascoe
      (1989) focuses on the marriages of Mission Home educated women from
      1874 to 1919 and interprets the success of this kind of marriage as
      the result of two gender systems in conflict, namely, the Victorian
      American gender system exemplified by the Christian women's clubs
      and societies organized to save the Chinese prostitutes from
      brothels and to educate them in the Mission Home, and the
      Chinese "traditional system," Confucian patriarchy, as exemplified
      by its victims-- the Chinese prostitutes. Pascoe depicts the rescued
      Chinese women as their own agents who understood the conflict of the
      two gender systems and used the knowledge to their advantage. They
      volunteered to be rescued and educated by the Mission Home so they
      could live as respected wives of the Chinese American middle-class

      Pascoe depicts this group of Chinese prostitutes with feminist elan,
      portraying them as capable free agents who were able to see through
      the pretense of the Victorian women who rescued them from Chinese
      male oppression. The Chinese prostitutes took advantage of the
      racial conflict situation, since women were a rarity at this time
      thanks to the Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act. There were
      more than enough Chinese men who wanted to marry these women. In her
      article, the story goes like this: A Chinese prostitute would spot a
      decent Chinese male customer with whom she then developed a mutual
      admiration with the intention to marry. Because the price of
      redeeming her was enormous, the prostitute would leak the
      information of her whereabouts to the mission home women, who would
      contact the local police to raid the brothel and rescue her. After
      being carefully guarded and defended in court to gain her
      freedom/confinement, while at the same time having Cameron take
      custody of her and becoming an inmate of the Mission Home, she would
      be educated in the Western style and learn Victorian/Christian
      values. After receiving the proper education and reform, the Chinese
      woman would become an eligible woman to be married off by the
      Mission Home to her Chinese suitor. At this time, she would inform
      the man she loved tthat he could come to propose to her, and the
      Mission Home would act as the woman's adopted American parents to
      bargain for better treatment before marriage. After the wedding, if
      the husband did something that was considered not moral, such as
      being unfaithful or abusive, the wife would return to the mission
      for help and use the White parents' power to regulate her husband's
      behavior. Through the Mission Home, the middle class Chinese
      American men got their Western educated and reformed wives, and the
      Chinese prostitutes became the respected wives of the Chinese
      American middle class. First, the author assumes to romanticize the
      vitorian love concept and love as the foundation of marriage for the
      Chinese women in the West who were receiving a prison type of
      education in the Mission Home. Second, the comic dramatization of
      rescue and the claim of agency of the Chinese women on their own
      fate were rather interestingly full of feminist excitement, but the
      reality might be very different looking from the Chinese immigrant,
      illiterate, poor women's point of view. Furthermore, the fluidity of
      identity of this group of women deserves our attention. In Lucie
      Cheng's article, they were Chinese women and Chinese prostitutes.
      Pascoe names them differently. They became Chinese American women.
      Furthermore, they were wives of middle-class Chinese American men.
      It seems to imply that Westernization was a way for Chinese women to
      become Chinese-American women, that through Mission Home's "prison
      education" or "reform education" or "western education" and
      Christianization, they were entitled to be American. Pascoe's
      approach is one of the best examples of the underlying forces of
      ideology speaking: the ability to determine who deserves the
      entitlement of nationality and citizenship.

      After much criticism from Chinese American communities, Pascoe
      revised her thesis of gender systems in conflict in her book
      Relations of Rescue (1990) to review the experience of the Mission-
      Home-rescued Chinese immigrant women in a larger movement of
      Protestant missionary women to establish female moral authority in
      the West at the turn of the century. Under such a movement, no
      single group of minority women escaped the fate of being rescued.
      Shifting her gender system in the conflict thesis to explain the
      processes of the justification for the Mission Home women's need for
      the rescue mission, she painted an image of Chinese women that
      evolved in the literature of missionary reports combined with the
      reports of home visits by Mission Home women and their attempted
      briberies to have Chinese send their girls to school. The image of
      bound feet and carefully guarded wives of the merchant class and
      their slave girls gradually transformed and reconfirmed the
      Protestant's view that Chinese women needed to be liberated and
      emancipated. They concluded that Chinese were not only buying and
      selling girls and prostitutes but also wives.

      Pascoe shifts her focus from the gender systems in conflict to the
      power relationship between the rescuing and the rescued. She
      elaborates on the matron's relationship with the inmates and the
      cultivation of native helpers and demonstrated the limitation of the
      rescue from the greater societal racial discrimination that offered
      very few alternatives or job opportunities for the rescued women.
      She also critiques the Mission Home's industrial vocational
      education that was doomed under the broader racial, social, and
      cultural ideology. After all, the gender system functioned in a much
      wider scope than the Mission Home, and the matrons themselves were
      also the victims of this genderized society, as symbolized by the
      life of Donaldina Cameron.

      Pascoe gives a much clearer picture of the Mission Home inmates in
      this later work. Most of Chinese women rescured by the Mission Home
      were slave girls and so-called U.S. borderers: women waiting for
      immigration judgment using Mission Home as a way to remain in the
      United States. Pascoe concludes on the rescue effort of the Mission
      Home: "Whatever their ideological limitations, mission workers
      should be remembered for their insistence on battling against this
      exploitation of women" (1990, p. 55).

      Struggles during the Exclusion : Benson Tong's Study

      In 1994, Benson Tong applied the methodology designed by Parent-
      Duchatelet, namely the taxonomy of prostitutes which served as a
      model for the British investigation of prostitutes from the 1840s to
      1880s, to his research on the Chinese prostitutes of nineteenth
      century America. Tong produces the Chinese prostitutes as a new
      historical anthropological figure using such social science
      procedures such as professional testimony; personal observations
      recorded in the newspapers and private family papers; memoires;
      interviews with administrative officials of the mission home and
      rescued prostitutes; archival research into business directories;
      fire maps prepared by the insurance companies; files of prisons,
      police, and hospitals; and the manuscript schedules of three U.S.
      census records on population, property deeds, and contracts. With
      these documents, Benson Tong reconstructs the stories of these
      prostitutes. He concludes that they were their own agents in some
      ways under an extremely difficult situation. They managed to make
      the best out it by struggling their way out of the trade to become
      the decent wives of Chinese men. "Chung Liang" (become good) in
      Chinese being the most traditional route for women in prostitute
      class in China. Benson Tong concludes that within the 10 years from
      the 1870s to the 1880s, many Chinese prostitutes did manage to marry
      and left the trade. But his interpretation is not very convincing
      (see reviews of the book by Chan, 1998 and Wei, 1996). For instance,
      in applying two sets of statistics, one cited the congressional
      testimony of Rev. Otis Gibson saying "80.5 percent of Chinese women
      engaged in sexual commerce in 1870 had either left the business or
      moved out of the city by the 1880s" (Tong, 1994, p. 100), while
      another one, from Su-cheng Chan's study[6] on the 1880 census,
      stated "Based on her statistics, 2 to 4 percent of the married
      Chinese women fell into this [prostitute] category" (Chan, 1991, p.

      Tong(1994) further concludes that

      The difference between Chinese and non-Chinese prostitutes is
      accounted for by the simple fact that only affluent people could
      redeem indentured Chinese prostitutes. Secured in a comfortable
      marriage, most Chinese women who left the trade rarely had to face
      the bleak prospect of returning to prostitution. (p. 175)

      As Cheng points out in her 1979 article, given that most
      prostitutes' careers lasted only four to five years and given the
      bleak environment they were living in, there were various factors to
      be considered before any such rosy conclusion can be reached. For
      instance, in the 1870s there were 1,428 Chinese prostitutes working
      in 159 brothels in San Francisco; and in 1880, there were only 435
      working in 101 brothels. There were various ways to interpret the
      figures, based on the immigration regulation and corruption, zoning
      ordinances, race violence and migration to the inner states, and
      high death rate of women in this trade.

      Benson Tong further pieced together the story of Ah Toy-- the no-
      name prostitute in Lucie Cheng's article who was the second Chinese
      woman to arrive in the United States of America in 1854 as a free
      agent. He uncovered many police reports and court documents about
      her. Devoting eight pages to her, following Lucie Cheng's initial
      thesis that there was a brief period when Chinese women entered the
      American West as free agents and not as endentured slaves, Benson
      Tong attributed the demise of Ah Toy to the struggle between a free-
      agent prostitute's fight against the controlling Chinese gang and
      organized trade of Chinese prostitutes which he concludes as "the
      hallmark of Chinese prostitutes after 1860 and would constitute the
      main feature that distinguished this Chinese vice from that of the
      Euro-American" (p. 176). But he did not explicitly elaborate his new
      found evidence for instance, the compounded elements of constant
      police raids from the police reports and tightening regulation
      against Chinese prostitutes, changing city ordinance and zoning
      regulation in San Francisco. The housing deeds showed that Ah Toy's
      business was rather lucrative and that she was able to buy two
      houses and expanded her business within two years after her arrival.
      But later her prison records police files, and police reports
      actually show that Ah Toy's demise was not so much the result of the
      growing violence of the Chinese gang's control. IT was mostly due to
      police raids, arrest, and outside social interventioin such as the
      Mission Home rescues and the power struggle within the Chinese
      community which eventually led to the breakup of her business. She
      was forced to sell her houses and left for China in 1857.
      Immigration records show that she returned to California in early
      1859. On March 20, 1859, she could not even pay a $20 fine and was
      remanded to the county prison. In July, she was arrested again for
      running a brothel. Benson Tong concludes that by "the early years of
      the 1860s, Ah Toy no longer played a significant role in San
      Francisco prostitution" (Tong, 1994, p. 13).

      In a later chapter, he showed the gradual process of rezoning the
      red light district that forced the Chinese prostitutes to a well-
      defined segregated area by the summer of 1859. These zoning
      ordinances also marked the Chinese society's relocation into a
      ghetto and retreat to a semi-self-contained inner colony which
      coincides the same fate Ah Toy faced. Reading these two chapters
      together, we get a more complete picture of how the personal story
      of Ah Toy corresponded and collided with the Chinese ethnic
      community's attempt to gain control of itself by going underground
      in various areas which caused severe criticism and extreme racial
      violence against them. We might be able to draw a different
      conclusion from that of Benson Tong that it was racial violence
      beyond the Chinese community's control and not the Chinese gang
      violence that contributed to a greater role of Ah Toy's demise. From
      this point of view, Ah Toy's life story took a rather different
      turn, telling of a Chinese entrepreneur woman's fate in the time
      just before the Page Act.

      Benson Tong also devoted one chapter to the Chinese history of the
      late Qing Dynasty to explain the reasons for trafficking of Chinese
      women in the United States. This reintroduction of China into the
      studies of Chinese Americans is a new trend in the 1990s, with more
      immigrants from China becoming more visible in our society as China
      is now open for social research. Tong's work also marks the return
      of Asian American Studies to a more global and transitional approach
      in the 1990s.

      Inclusion into the Good Women's Story: Judy Yung's Work

      Following Benson Tong's thesis of returning this group of women to
      the Chinese wife's collective, Judy Yung includes them in her work
      to reclaim the origin of the merchant wife class: Unbound Feet--A
      Social History of Chinese American Women in San Francisco. Using the
      image of bound feet to characterize the women immigrants in the
      first part of the book, Judy Yung meant to reconstruct the untold
      stories of the merchants' wives (her great-grandmother was one) and
      of their doubly segregated existence in this country, but she also
      embraced the prostitutes since their numbers can not be ignored.
      Focusing her attention on a later period than that of Benson Tong's
      study, Judy Yung was able to interview some of the women who
      are/were still alive to tell their stories--a great advantage and a
      contribution to oral history. Yet using bound feet or unbound feet
      as a symbol for all immigrant women of this time is problematic, for
      the majority of them were not merchants' wives and therefore, there
      were not many bound feet to begin with. Most of them were working-
      class women with natural feet. The custom of footbinding did not
      apply to them. But Judy Yung is right that bound-feet merchant wives
      and natural-feet prostitutes and maids/servants were from different
      social classes, but in the United States they were channelled into
      the same category by their ethnic identity : that of "slave women"
      in the discourse on Chinese women for almost half a century in the
      United States. Judy Yung's attempt to reclaim the Chinese women's
      origin with the merchants' wives' history is understandable under
      the context of the long publicized history of sexualized and
      exoticized Chinese prostitutes. It is an attempt to break away from
      the image set up by the Page Act. Following this discourse to regain
      the wife class's history, George Peffer's 1999 book If They Do Not
      Bring Women Here also focuses on the history of wives. Judy Yung and
      George Peffer's claims are legitimate in light of the contested
      numbers of prostitutes recorded by the census takers and the works
      on rescued prostitutes, furthered by Pascoe's detailed work to
      dispel the myth on the numbers and identities of women rescued.

      Judy Yung's most insightful observation of this group of Chinese
      public women came from her interpretation of the social classes of
      Chinese women as late as the 19th Century in the United States of
      America. In applying a theory developed by Yu-ning Li and Yu-Far
      Chang's on traditional occupations or social roles available to
      women in China, namely wife, concubine, servant, and prostitute in
      interpreting the social and economic position of women in
      traditional Chinese society, Judy Yung brought us to examine the
      social classes of women in the American West during the Progressive
      Era in an unique and insightful direction. The book was published in
      Chinese in 1975 and translated into English only in 1992. Yung
      explains women's social classes in the United States at this
      particular time with her great-grandmother's immigration interview
      record and the little girl her grandmother claimed was her daughter.
      Actually, that little girl was her maid. Yung did not mention the
      fate of this little girl, but she shows how this group of women
      entered the States. Through this family history, she contests the
      research on the statistics of this class of women/girls by John W.
      Stephen's 1976 article[7]. It states that only 2% of Chinese women
      were listed as "young servants" in the 1870 census. Yung considers
      their numbers to have been more significant than their percentage
      showed and devotes many pages to describing their roles in the
      Chinese immigrant society. She concludes that their lives paralleled
      those of European female indentured servants, who made up almost one-
      third of the female population in ante-bellum America. She shines
      light on the heretofore ambiguous status of Mui Tsui and helps to
      distinguish the long-confused, misinterpreted, and interchangeable
      designations of "slave girls" and "prostitutes".

      According to Yung, most of the servant girls (Mui Tsui) had to go
      out and run errands for their bound-feet mistresses. For this
      purpose, many of them were allowed to go to English classes offered
      in church. Compared to their mistresses, Mui Tsui were much younger
      when they came to the United States and were more socially mobile
      than their mistresses because there were so few young and available
      women. They had more encounters with the non-Chinese communities and
      had more opportunities to be educated if their mistresses allowed
      them to study. From Yung's analysis, we can assume that the first
      group of Chinese American women came from this class. Later
      examination of the Mission Home rescue records proved this was the
      case. Since the wives of merchant class were able to travel back and
      forth, many would choose to raise their children in China like Judy
      Yung's great-grandmother and grandmother, so they became the first
      group of women who were transnationals. Because of this practice,
      Chinese Communities have many children who were born in the United
      States but were raised in China. Yung further concludes that the
      Feminist influence and emancipation of this group of merchant wives
      was not a direct result of their encounter in the hostile extremely
      anti-Chinese environment in the United States but the social
      acceptance of progressive women in China pushed by Western educated
      intellectuals, as Yung's family history showed.

      One of the greatest achievements of Yung's Unbound Feet is the more
      complete life story of Ah Toy through oral interviews of witnesses
      and careful search of local newspapers. She was the second Chinese
      woman to arrive in the United States in 1855. Speaking English and
      having bound feet, she came to the United States from Hong Kong
      to "better her condition", and had a rather long career from 1848 to
      the 1860s. She was last seen selling clams on a beach in Santa Clara
      before she died. Yung also recovers Ah Toy's obituary in a local
      newspaper in 1928 that shows Ah Toy lived a long life (almost one
      hundred years old when she died). Judy Yung also identifies her
      picture in one of Genthe's photographs taken in San Francisco's old


      Even though the histories of Asian American women are a "relatively
      undeveloped" area in Asian American studies (Chan, 1998, p. 18), the
      research on this group of women is rich and fruitful. In the past
      seventy years the same group of Chinese women was claimed by
      different collectives. They were extracted by the missionaries from
      the Chinese society during the late Qing dynasty as a target for
      intervention to modernize and Christianize the Chinese. Once they
      arrived in the American West, they were seen as slaves and a symbol
      of Chinese vice. Mission Home women claimed them for their own
      purpose of proving their moral superiority in the West. After they
      were rescued, they became part of the Mission Home collective and
      then, as they were reformed, Americanized wives of Chinese middle
      class men. In the 1970s their histories were reconstructed by
      feminist scholars using the women-centered approach initiated by
      Lucie Cheng. Later in Pascoe's works, they were seen as capable,
      while living under extreme oppression, of being their own agents who
      could use the conflict between Chinese and Victorian gender systems
      to their advantage and as minority women to boost the White
      Protestant women's sense of superiority. As Asian American Studies
      emerged as a field, these first immigrant women reentered the
      Chinese American community as unsubmissive women. Their overpowering
      presence becomes a stigmatized and contested story of the origin of
      Chinese American women when the wives' stories began to emerge in
      the 1980s. Not until 1995, through reconfiguration and
      reconstruction of the historical facts within Asian American and
      women's studies scholarship, were their numbers challenged, and
      consequently there was an attempt to revise the account of their
      origin to greater diversity and to include wives.

      This process of reclaiming their histories indicates strong
      developmental linkages among several academic disciplines such as
      Chinese women's studies in the Chinese language developed in China
      and Taiwan, Women's studies in the West which constructed Chinese
      along with the Third World women's oppression as part of the data to
      analyze the patriarchy (Teng, 1996), Asian American studies which is
      a branch of Area Studies established during the Cold War Era, and
      more recent global/diaspora studies within Asian American Studies
      (Hune, 1991).

      The research on them shows Asian American scholars' and communities'
      strong desire to rediscover their untold stories by looking at them
      through different lenses, paradigms, and theories in the social
      sciences. Women's studies and Asian American studies are paving a
      new way of interpreting history of this group of women immigrants.
      The inclusion of Chinese material and the returning of Asian
      American Studies in the 1990s to its transnational and global
      approach also contributed to some of the missing links about this
      group of women.

      We also realize that, as historians, we are limited by the scarcity
      of documents left by these women. By reviewing their his/herstories,
      I found several areas that were generally ignored by the
      researchers. One is the discussion of the clients and another one is
      the possibility of biracial children born by this group of women.
      The picture from all researchers put together is that the higher the
      status of the prostitutes, the more ethnically selected their
      clientele were. The lower they went, the more public they were. Yet
      Ah Toy's life story contradicts this hypothesis. The main question
      here is rather simple: What did it mean that they were "public
      women"? Did the "public" also have a racial as well as a class
      boundary? If that was the case, the question becomes: When did they
      stop being "public" to other ethnic groups and become ethnic public
      women only for Chinese men? Were the biracial children mothered by
      the prostitutes considered by the mainstream as ethnically Chinese
      under the one drop rule? Were they able to cross the racial line?
      How were they treated by both the Chinese community and the White
      community? Are there documents that can explain these aspects? Why
      were these mixed-race children not discussed in any of the writings?

      Judy Yung's 1995 work indicates that the Mui Tsui class and the
      prostitute class were actually the first ethnic beginnings of the
      Chinese American Community during the exclusion, segregation, and
      anti-miscegenation period. Unlike their transitional or home-bound
      (China) mistresses of the merchant class, the majority of these
      women raised their American-born children here and not in China.

      Most important of all, the literature has given us the vivid
      adventure of Ah Toy: the rise and fall of a brave and dramatic
      woman, pieced together by Lucie Cheng, Benson Tong and Judy Yung.
      Still without a family name (it might as well be this way), she did
      put up a great fight against male control of her trade in the
      Chinese community in the American West and against racial
      discrimination against Chinese and Chinese American women during the
      anti-Chinese era. Her fate was very much linked with the development
      of tightening restrictions against Chinese immigrants starting from
      the control of women immigrants. Regardless of the odds she faced,
      she lived a quite colorful, adventurous, and full life. In this
      case, the researchers have joined together to realize and locate a
      social imagination project (Mill, 1954) where we find that the
      intersection of personal history with the predominant official
      stories that we are so used to. Their findings transform and change
      our view of history enabling us to consider the possibilities of
      alternatives still to be found.

      The fact that the investigation of non-elite, non-mainstream, non-
      popular female activity reqires not only a deviation from the well-
      documented, and official accounts which are usually skewed by
      orientalism and Americanization but also a transformation of
      historical understanding and a revaluation of what is considered to
      be significant. Such an investigation demands that we become
      literate in what may appear, through the lens of traditional,
      mainstream representation, to be only condused, random, or violent
      incidents and our strong desire to write an alternative
      his/herstory. In the process of recovering the history of this group
      of women, Asian American historians demonstrate their social justice
      leadership in reclaiming and reconstructing a different origin of
      Chinese American Women.


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      According to Yung (1995), the first Chinese woman to arrive in the
      American West, in 1854, worked as a domestic servant to a missionary
      family. The second one arrived in 1855 is from Hong Kong. the famous
      Madame Ah Toy. [return to article]
      From 1880 to 1920, about 49,000 Chinese entered the United States
      and about 5 percent of them were women. According to the census data
      in 1860 to 1900, many women were categorized as prostitutes. [return
      to article]
      Mission Home claimed to save about 3000 Chinese women from the 1890
      to 1900, which meant that one eighth of Chinese women in the US were
      rescued and reformed by Mission Home. [return to article]
      Chang later changed her name back to Lucie Cheng but her most famous
      piece of work has to be cited under Hirata. [return to article]
      [return to article]
      [return to article]
      "A Quantitative History of Chinatown in San Francisco 1870 and 1880"
      in The Life Influence and the Roles of Chinese in the United States
      1776-1960 published by San Francisco Historical Society of America,
      1976, cited by Yung, 1995, p. 13. [return to article]

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