In preceding posts I have explored prostitution in the old west, looking at the girls themselves, the madams and pimps. As we have seen there were many levels of prostitutes from the mistresses, paramours, the high end girls , dance hall girls, crib girls and the lowly streetwalker. The bottom of the barrel was the girls reduced to the hog ranches outside forts and along trails.
But the most pitiful of all was the China Girls. These poor unfortunate creatures were not even treated like humans. Having no value in their home country they were often sold into slavery by their own families. A girl child was only a mouth to feed and had no value but what they could be sold for.
In 1894, A Chinese woman named Ah Toy landed in San Francisco, tall willowy in shape and beautiful to the eye she was a instant sensation. She had left China with her husband who died a few weeks into the voyage, she became the captains mistress. Once the voyage was over it did not take long for her to notice how the men of San Francisco followed her with hungry eyes.
She rented a two room house, built a stage in one room with a partition that had hole cut into it. She hired a couple of big Chinese Men to stand guard and collect one ounce of gold for a short show. Dressed in a fine silk gown, slit to her waist on each side and nude underneath she would twist and turn a make exotic moves, she soon had the men stomping and shouting. Soon the block was lined with men standing line and shouting for their turn. Business was so good she soon rented several more places,. Chinese women were hired too preform in shifts, twenty four hours a day. However many men started paying in brass instead of gold causing Ah Toy to rethink he options.
Soon she was sending agents back to China to purchase unsuspecting females and importing them by the ship load. She would select the best and most desirable ones for her self and sell the rest a auction. Some were bought by gentlemen to be used until they tired of them, then they would resale them when the novelty wore off. These unfortunates had no say in their future, and no protection. After the Civil War was over and slavery was abolished it did not apply to the wretched creatures. They were not considered as human, not until 1910 with The Mann act made it illegal to transport women over state lines for immoral purposes, did any legislation exist. But Chinese slave girls lasted into the 1920’s.
Ah Toy after picking the girls for her own purposes, would often turn the other women over to the captain and the crew to break them in. Many of these girls ranged from 11 to 22 years in age. Their lives were embarking on a road of living hell. Before being sold the vast majority were herded into a vast underground vault known as the Queen’s Room. Here they were under the supervision of older prostitutes who were of no value on the street. These older women taught the younger girls how to please men, and were taught to sing,”Chinese Girls very nice, you come inside please, I make you very happy.” Hard word’s for a 11 year old to intone.
Once they were sold they had to sign a contract for their new employer, not being able to read or write they signed with a mark. Their contracts usually read along the following lined
For the sum of________paid into my hands on this day, I__________,promise to prostitute my body for the term of_____years. If in that time I am sick one day, two weeks will be added onto my contract. If more than one a additional month shal be added. If I runaway, or excape I am to be held as a slave for life. Signed __________ . As soon as they signd they handed over the money they received, to pay for their board and keep.
As you can see once interred into the profession there was no excape. Girls became valuable property, in the 1850’s, girls who were bought for mere pennies ,were going for the rate of $100, later they were worth even more. even babies as young as 1-one year were purchased to be raised as future prostitutes, what hope or future could these unfortunates have.
The pretty one were used in bar room” s, dressed in silk, powdered and perfumed, they served drinks and had to service customers requests. Once the fee was paid, they had to submit to his desires no matter how perverted it might be. Those who failed to please were whipped or branded with hot irons.
The less fortunate of these girls were sold to the crib owners. Here they were placed into a small crib that had only the one locked door and a barred window that faced the street. The room had a narrow bunk with a thin mattress ,usually canvas filled with straw, a chamber pot under the bed and a small table with wash water. This would be her home for the rest of her miserable life. Fed a rice gruel twice a day as long as she was productive. She was taught to stand at her barred window and expose herself to potential customers. Her English was improved to say in a sing-song voice, “Two bittee lookiee, flo bittee feelee, six bitteedoee.”
A excerpt from a\the ” the Barbary Coast”, a newspaper of the day quotes Herbert Asbury, as saying, “The only entrance to the crib was a narrow door, in which was set a small barred window. Occupants of the den took turns standing behind the bars and striving to attract the attention of passing men. When a interested male stopped before the crib, the harlot displayed the upper part of her body and cajoled him with seductive cries and motions.”
Chinese girls who able were very clean women ,they washed every day and shaved their bodies when possible making them desirable short term companions. How ever many became wild eyed and fearful lashing out at anyone, causing them to be chained to their beds and administered narcotics. Six years for a crib girl was a long time. They started to feel the misery and degradation in their teens. Few made it twenty years and were old hags of little value by then.
When she was of no further use as a prositute a girl was placed in a small windowless cell, with a small bowl of rice and a candle. It was understood that she was to die by the time the candle burned down. If she did not die she had the choice of killing herself or being murdered. When the door was opened after the time the candle was to last, usually a day, the men came to remove a corpse, They never came out without one.
All Chinese, both male and female were called “The Heathen Chinese”.They maintained the customs of the old land, men wore their hair in long queues and wore silk slippers, the women were kept carefully hidden in their locked dens. Therefore the crib girls were not considered humans and had no champion. Basking in its lusty sinful heritage, San Fancisco took pride in its raunchy Barbary Coast reputation.
In 1873 church women began to become involved in the plight of the women of China Town. A mission was constructed at 902 Sacramento Street, manned by volunteer rescue workers. In 1895 a formidable force became involved in these rescue efforts.
I am going to break here, this portion of the story can stand alone. At a later date I will finish with the efforts of a dedicated woman named, Donaldina Cameron, who marched into battle with China Town’s crib owners to rescue these forgotten young women.
Till later, thanks for stopping by.