THE WHITE DEVIL’S DAUGHTERS
The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown
By Julia Flynn Siler
When she decided to write a book about the fight against slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Julia Flynn Siler faced a conundrum. The most famous figure in that fight was a Presbyterian missionary named Donaldina Cameron, whose tireless efforts saved thousands of Chinese women and girls from sexual slavery and labor bondage. In that horrific practice, which flourished in the city from the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush until the 1930s, girls in China were kidnapped, tricked or sold by their parents and shipped to San Francisco, where they were forced to become prostitutes or household slaves.
Cameron, who dedicated her life to helping these unfortunates, had already been the subject of two biographies — “Chinatown Quest” (1931) and “Chinatown’s Angry Angel” (1977). But given how old those books are, and the fact that Siler had unearthed new information about Cameron’s work, she could have opted to write a fresh biography. However, doing so would have meant colliding with the now dominant academic discourse, which, critical of cultural imperialism, is averse to portraying minority groups as helpless victims saved by white do-gooders. Figures like Cameron — a white woman of Scottish descent who began to help rescue and educate sex and domestic slaves at the Presbyterian Mission Home in San Francisco when she was 25 — are now regarded with ambivalence. Siler emphatically shares this perspective, which made her task challenging: How to write a book that distances itself from the very subject it putatively celebrates?
Siler’s solution in “The White Devil’s Daughters” is to expand and fragment her narrative, breaking it up into 45 short, often free-standing chapters that highlight a heterogeneous mixture of characters and historical events, from Cameron’s longtime associate Tien Fuh Wu to the anti-Chinese riots of 1877 and the 1907 graft trial of Mayor Eugene Schmitz, which Siler points to as an example of the municipal corruption that hindered the fight against sex slavery. Using this scattershot approach to frame the work done by Cameron and other women at the Mission Home, she attempts to situate the group’s struggle in a broader context.
To some degree, she succeeds. She focuses commendable attention on exemplary but overlooked figures like Bessie Jeong, who fled to the Mission Home to escape a forced marriage and went on to become the first Chinese woman to graduate from Stanford; Yamada Waka, a Japanese woman who escaped sexual slavery in Seattle, converted to Christianity at the Mission Home and became a pioneering feminist; and above all Tien Fuh Wu, a former abused mui tsai (household slave) who became Cameron’s indispensable aide and friend.
“The White Devil’s Daughters” also spotlights several men who played an important role in the struggle for civil rights and equal opportunities for Chinese and Chinese-Americans, most notably Ng Poon Chew, a crusading pastor turned newspaper editor who was a lifelong supporter of the Mission Home. A gifted speechmaker known as “the Chinese Mark Twain,” Chew won over white audiences with his engaging manner and rollicking humor.
However, it is in dealing with this larger context, and with the specifics of the battle against sex slavery itself, that “The White Devil’s Daughters” falls short. In her determination to avoid offenses against multiculturalism, Siler presents a less than comprehensive view of her subject. For instance, she fails to explore in depth the Chinatown community’s murky relationship with the sex slave trade and the criminal tongs (secret societies in some respects resembling the mafia) that controlled it, along with opium dens and gambling. She notes that Chinatown’s leading institution, the Six Companies (mutual aid associations run by leading merchants), was opposed to the tongs. But she does not investigate how deeply embedded in Chinatown’s culture and economy — including within the Six Companies — the tongs were or examine the various reasons, including fear of tong hatchet men, that the Chinatown community was largely unwilling to challenge the groups’ bloody hegemony until after the 1906 earthquake.
Mindful of Orientalist clichés, Siler downplays the role of culture, in particular the genuine “otherness” of early Chinese immigrants, in shaping white attitudes. She cites Erica Y. Z. Pan’s 1995 study “The Impact of the 1906 Earthquake on San Francisco’s Chinatown,” but does not consider Pan’s key points that a Chinese refusal to assimilate helped inflame white prejudice and that the increasing “Americanization” of Chinese after the earthquake diminished it.
Siler also significantly underplays the contribution of the San Francisco Police Department, in particular its famous “Chinatown Squad,” in helping Cameron, Tien and others combat slavery. In her telling, until a good cop named Jack Manion took control of the Chinatown Squad in 1921, its members were either corrupt and winked at vice, or employed such brutal tactics that they outraged the community. About one of the squad’s pre-Manion incarnations, Siler writes: “They’d use their axes to smash into the fortified doors of gambling dens, busting up furniture, belongings and whatever else got in their way — without bothering with the legal pretext for their actions.” Some of the raids were indeed egregious and led to lawsuits from the community, but Siler doesn’t mention that the squad often targeted tong headquarters with the blessing of the Chinese consul and many merchants, who were happy to see the police break tong furniture and hurl tong members down stairs. The fact remains that Cameron could not have carried out most of her daring rescue missions without the squad’s assistance.
Finally, Siler shortchanges the drama of Cameron’s campaign against sex slavery, summarizing her action-filled early years at the Home almost in passing: “It had been nearly five years since Cameron had joined the staff of the Mission Home. She’d learned the ruses that traffickers and slave owners used to try to retrieve their human property.” And in the process, she omits crucial details about the sex trade. According to the scholars Peggy Pascoe and Benson Tong, many of the “rescued” girls and women at the Mission Home were brought there by suitors who had met them in brothels and wanted to marry them but couldn’t afford the fee demanded by the women’s owners. In Pascoe’s view, Chinese sex slaves often regarded their situations as a “temporary necessity” — a way of meeting a husband or making money — and tried to escape only when their owners egregiously mistreated them.
Despite such omissions, Siler has provided a usefully broad view of the fight against slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, one especially effective in giving voice to previously underappreciated figures who worked alongside Cameron or blazed their own important trails. Readers who can see past the book’s ideological overlay will find it a solid introduction to an inspiring and, yes, heroic struggle against a barbaric practice.