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Prostitution was rampant in the old American West. With the exception of Oregon and Utah, the initial areas of settlement were overwhelmingly populated by young, single men, creating a market for vice.
Two women came into the foyer to meet her. The people who had arranged her trip had promised her a well-paid job in San Francisco. She climbed the steps and pressed the bell in hope of being let in. But for Jeung Gwai Ying, who had arrived in America that summer, it was a place of degradation. The house at Sacramento Street has a haunted history. Once they were seated, Wu and Cameron gently urged the teenager: tell us your story.
They were forbidden to come and go as they pleased, and if they refused the wishes of their owners, they faced brutal punishments, even death. Starting inand continuing over the decades, thousands of mostly Chinese girls and women entered the home.
She saw a young Chinese woman standing outside, her coat unbuttoned despite the cold, and swung open the heavy wood doors to let her in. For Jeung, who was raised as a traditional Chinese girl, having her long hair cut off was the first of many violations.
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To her right, heavy metal bars protected the windows. I had an address — Sacramento Street — and a description. They outfitted her in fashionable clothes and escorted her to the beauty shop down the street, where the hairdresser bobbed her hair, tucking her black locks behind her ears.
They led Jeung to an ading parlor, which had a comforting Chinese carpet on the floor and Cantonese hangings on the walls. Search for: Search Button. Put another way, Jeung could earn more for her owners in a single evening than most women, hunched over their sewing machines in tenements throughout Chinatown, could make for themselves in weeks. The doorkeeper peered through the grated window.
Soon after her sale, Jeung was moved into a second-floor apartment on Jackson Street. Was it the thought of the long evening ahead that made her run? One was a white woman in her sixties with a halo of silver hair, the other a bespectacled younger woman who spoke to Jeung in Cantonese. She darted south, through the crowded sidewalks of the quarter, her coat flying open.
She arrived only to discover that she had come to the wrong place. It provides counseling services, domestic violence intervention, food distribution, adult ESL, computer classes, support groups, after-school and summer programs, sports, arts and camping experiences, leadership development and volunteer opportunities. I first visited Cameron House in ; by then, it was mostly famous for being haunted. The streets had darkened. Excerpted with permission of Alfred A. One crisp morning, I dodged the crowds in Union Square and walked past a pair of stone lions up a hill.
Cameron served as legal guardian to most of the girls and teens living in the home. They escaped their bondage, they found refuge in an ungainly brick house on Sacramento Street, and they embarked on a fight for freedom that continues today. If she were recaptured, she would likely be beaten as punishment or forced into a drugged passivity from which she might never escape. The white woman who answered the door took pity on her and led her through the streets to the place she hoped to find.
She did not speak the language of the largely white world that surrounded Chinatown, but she realized that her brief outing to the hairdresser — one of the few instances when she was left to her own devices — gave her the chance she needed to escape.
The desperate conditions that led thousands of women to take shelter at the home are among the most searing stories from the saga of Chinese immigration to America. She had one goal in mind: to reach the place of safety that her owners had warned her not to go. She urged the hairdresser to work faster by curling only the ends of her hair, hoping she could slip out of the shop before her owners came back for her. The minutes passed.
Her owners, a pair of women with severely pulled-back hair and penciled brows, set about making Jeung more appealing to men in America. Slave owners intentionally spread rumors of girls who had run away from their Francisco to the homes in Chinatown run by missionaries, only to die of eating poisoned food there.
The girls and young women had lived there under the care of two remarkable immigrant women — Donaldina Cameron, the youngest daughter of a Scottish sheep farmer, and Tien Fuh Wu, a former household slave sold by her father to pay his gambling debts. She was calm enough to put her coat back on before leaving the shop, but she did not take the few extra seconds needed to button it up — perhaps because her swelling belly strained the fabric. Around her, laundry dangled from metal fire escapes, chickens squawked in bamboo cages on the sidewalk, and the scents of dried fish drifted through a neighborhood known as Little Canton.
Instead, she was led to an apartment in Chinatown and ordered to strip naked as bidders examined the swell of her breasts and the curve of her narrow hips. Over the years, thousands of young women were offered protection at a rescue mission on Sacramento Street.
Their size and sheer opulence were almost unimaginable to a girl raised in prostitute in Hong Kong. So, as Jeung left the cold street and entered the warm beauty parlor with its acrid scents of perming agents and scorched hair, she hit upon a plan. Those who fled there were taking a leap of faith. They provided food, shelter and the teachings San the Christian faith to members of an asian immigrant community who faced discrimination and violence in San Francisco and across the West. Five months pregnant, she was certainly aware of the risks to the child growing inside her.
By now, it was nightfall and too late to turn back. After pushing through shoppers and workers returning home, they climbed the five steps to the bolted door of Sacramento Street, a squat building straddling a steep hill.
A lock clicked. I pushed one of the tall doors open and walked into a dark, wood paneled foyer. For months, the teen had been imprisoned in a second-floor apartment and repeatedly raped. An unlikely pair, they defied the conventions of their time and even, occasionally, broke laws to help other women gain their freedom. She ran a block and a half to a house on Washington Street with an arched brick entryway lit by a Chinese lantern. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, many women in Chinatown ended up working as prostitutes, some because they were tricked or sold outright by their families.
She pushed the doorbell once and then again.
Jeung had no other options. Donaldina Cameron with young Chinese women on the steps of the Cameron House. Did she dread the prospect of stepping into her silk gown, only to step out of it hours later, entertaining the first of one or more customers that evening? I was looking for a five-story structure built with misshapen red bricks — some salvaged from the earthquake and firestorms that razed much of the city in Above the main entryway, I peered up at century-old lettering that read:.
In careful handwritten script, the book lists more than eight hundred names of women and girls who took refuge at the Mission Home from its founding in until January Further clues about their lives are buried in immigration records at the National Archives, and a few of its residents, such as Wu, left moving firsthand s.
But the first set of potential buyers balked at closing a deal to purchase her, perhaps sensing she might cause them trouble.
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Jeung caught her breath at the entrance to the house that had served as a door to freedom for thousands of enslaved and vulnerable girls and women. The slave trader, Wong See Duck, threatened to brutally punish or kill her if she did not act meekly and comply. Jeung endured the same humiliating ritual again and then for a third time.
She had been instructed to get her hair done to prepare herself for a trip later that evening to San Jose, fifty miles south of San Francisco, where she would entertain a group of men at a banquet. She had high cheekbones and full lips and looked several years younger than her real age of eighteen, making her a valuable prize.
Few people are aware of it, because human trafficking and sex slavery, until recently, have been largely unexamined corners of the American experience. She had nowhere to go if she attempted to flee. If there was a clock ticking on the wall, Jeung must have watched it with rising dread.
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The scent of Chinese food drifted through the house. Cameron House Est. I climbed the steps and pressed an intercom button.
Her fear and frustration were evident. But for more than fifty years, exclusion laws had barred most Chinese from entering the United States, so they had also given her a story about a Chinese American family she was supposedly reing in the States.