Leaving China & the
Journey Across the

Cultural Traditions

Women in Early

Anti-Chinese Violence
& Women's Resistance

Chinese Women at


Women in Cultural

The Great Depression
and War


Additional Resources




Chinese American Women Enslaved

These five young girls in San Francisco’s Chinatown have been identified the by Library of Congress as child prostitutes.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-84552

While Chinese men entered the U.S. as free laborers, most Chinese women in the mid to late nineteenth century came enslaved, kidnapped from the port cities in Southern China or sold by destitute families. From San Francisco to Los Angeles, from Sacramento to Seattle, most of the first Chinese American women were seized and shipped to the West Coast of the United States, sold in “dens” and kept in brothels. Many died from abuse and disease. Some served out the terms of a slave contract. Others courageously ran away.

Organized prostitution of enslaved Chinese girls and women became common in the boomtowns of San Francisco and Sacramento. Chinese women trapped in brothels lived extremely isolated lives in Chinatowns and mining camps that stretched as far inland as South Dakota.  

Some of the Chinese slaves fled to rural towns from the dens in San Francisco, but others, hidden in remote towns across the West, did not move willingly from the city and increased the demand for prostitutes, which raised their economic value.

Some Chinese prostitutes were rescued from slavery by sympathetic observers who would slip a note identifying and locating the girl under the front door of a mission, such as the famous mission of Donaldina Cameron. Other Chinese prostitutes fled to the missions on their own. Often missionaries required the runaway Chinese prostitutes convert to Christianity. The missions often educated the girls, and some former prostitutes became committed to missionary work themselves. 22