Introduction

Leaving China & the
Journey Across the
Pacific

Cultural Traditions

Women in Early
Chinatowns

Anti-Chinese Violence
& Women's Resistance

Chinese Women at
Work

Educational
Opportunities

Women in Cultural
Work

The Great Depression
and War

Conclusion

Additional Resources


 

 

 

Chinese Prostitute, Jackson Street, San Francisco.
Collection of Peter Palmquist, Private Acquisition

By 1870, with early Chinatowns mostly populated by single men, fifty to seventy percent of the adult Chinese females in San Francisco were prostitutes. 23 Restrictive immigration laws exacerbated the shortage of Chinese women. Language, cultural barriers, anti-miscegenation laws, and penalties for interracial marriage prevented most Chinese men from having sexual relations with white women and, as a result, many Chinese men turned to prostitutes.

Most Chinese prostitutes were kidnapped, lured, or purchased by procurers in China, brought to America by brokers, and sold to brothel owners in humiliating basement slave “dens”.  Many were teenage girls, young children, or even babies when they arrived in the United States. Despite the high purchase price of Chinese girls--from one to two hundred dollars for a female baby to $1,500 or more for a teenage girl--they frequently faced physical and mental abuse. Journalists at the time reported that a four year old girl could bring in “speculative prospects” anywhere between fifteen to two thousand dollars.  Many starved. Others suffered from syphilis and were left to die unattended and alone. Chinese prostitutes had an average life span of just four years in the trade. 24

Chinese slave girls were often kept in a street-level “cribs” facing busy streets. They were forced to solicit men who passed by; their owners or madams would then unlock the pen and draw a curtain while the girl serviced her customer.

“A green mansion is a place of filth and shame
Of lost chastity and lost virtue
Most repulsive is it to kiss the customers on the lips
And let them fondle every part of my body
I hesitate, I resist;
All the more ashamed, beyond words.
I must by all means leave this troupe of flowers and rouge;
Find a nice man and follow him as his woman.”

---Written by a Chinese prostitute in California, circa 19th century 25