Donaldina Cameron: The Angel of Chinatown

Donaldina CameronIt’s not uncommon for the ugly side of a society to get swept under the rug. But sometimes there’s a unique individual with the drive to take that rug outside, sling it over the clothesline and beat the ever-lovin’ tar out of it, while watching the particles of dust fly out into the light of day.

Donaldina Cameron was that kind of person. She jumped right into the very worst the West had to offer and devoted her life to cleaning up what others were all too happy to ignore. What did Donaldina Cameron do? She worked to end the “yellow slave trade” in San Francisco.

Somewhere Out There

Donaldina CameronDonaldina Cameron and her family emigrated from New Zealand in 1869. She was only two at the time her family settled in California. When she was just five-years-old her mother died, leaving her father to raise six children alone. During that time, shocking things were going on in the world . . . things that young Donaldina could not begin to understand.

Occidental Mission HouseIn 1873, a group of Protestant women began working to rescue Chinese women and girls from prostitution, sweatshops, and “domestic service” . . . all of which seemed a lot like slavery. They opened a refuge for these abused women, the Occidental Mission House, in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. They sure had their work cut out for them!

Gold Rush workersIn 1882, there were over 100,000 Chinese Gold Rush workers living in the San Francisco area. Yet the U.S. government established the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese men from sending for their wives and families and it prohibited them from marrying a non-Chinese woman. This created an environment in which prostitution and slavery could thrive. But, Donaldina knew nothing of those things. She was, after all, just a child, from a poor but respectable family.

When Donaldina was nineteen, she became engaged to marry, but for whatever reasons, the wedding never happened. One year later, in 1895, a family friend suggested that she spend a year working as a missionary at the Presbyterian Mission House, formerly known as the Occidental Mission House. She agreed to give it a whirl. What did she have to lose? The adventurous Donaldina packed her bags and set off to teach sewing to the residents at the Mission House. It was quite a proper position for a young woman. But it did not take long for Donaldina to see all that was improper about the plight of the women residents.

A Stitch in Time Saved Thousands

Chinatown in the 1800sChinatown in the late 1800s wasn’t exactly a picture-postcard tourist destination. It was dirty. It was crowded. And it was a veritable petri dish for communicable diseases. And there was Donaldina, teaching sewing classes to girls and women who had seen the seedier side of that life. She must have felt quite out of place.

Indentured servantsHow did it happen, she wondered…so many women and girls, abandoned and abused? She came to discover that in an effort to be reunited with their husbands, many Chinese women agreed to come to the U.S. as indentured servants. Most had naively believed that they would work for a few years, doing laundry or other household tasks, and then would be released. In reality, they had unknowingly signed thirty-year contracts. Given the hardships of their living conditions in this country, the odds of them even surviving for the duration of their contracts were slim.

Indentured servantsOther women and girls had been kidnapped from what was then Canton, China. These girls would work as unpaid house servants until adolescence, at which time they were sold into prostitution. Most of these “yellow slaves” survived only five years after being enslaved.

While the goal of the Mission House was to rescue these women and girls and to give them the skills needed to survive, it did not take Donaldina long to realize that she needed to do more than just teach them how to sew. Donaldina quickly became involved in rescuing them.

She became a Woman on a Mission

Donaldina CameronBy day Donaldina taught sewing and by night she became a 19th Century superhero. She went out with police officers to the ugly underbelly of Chinatown, in search of slave girls and prostitutes. They searched brothels and homes hoping to find the unfortunate “yellow slaves”. The ruthless owners would often hide their slaves in coal tunnels and secret rooms, to prevent their rescue. Donaldina responded by hiding the people she rescued in safe locations. The “owners” of the females were allowed by law to reclaim their “property”, if they could find them. But Donaldina and the people working with her knew that people couldn’t reclaim what they couldn’t find!

Donaldina CameronAs you might imagine, Donaldina and the Mission House made many powerful enemies. Chinese gangsters regularly threatened the Mission and its workers. Many young women in her position might have chosen to run back to their poor but respectable lives. But not Donaldina! When her year of service at the Mission House was completed, she agreed to stay on.

The Angel of Chinatown

In 1900, Donaldina became the superintendent of the Mission House. She was lauded as both a savior and a villain, depending upon which side of the fence you occupied. To the girls she rescued, she was “Lo Ma,” meaning Little Mother. To the Chinese gangsters and slave owners, she was “Fahn Quai,” meaning White Devil.

Great San Francisco EarthquakeIn 1906 disaster struck in the form of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, and the Mission House was destroyed by fire. When others were running for their lives, Donaldina was running back into the fire to rescue the records that proved her guardianship of the girls in her care. The home was rebuilt in 1908. It used bricks salvaged from the original building, but it was given a new and very appropriate name: Cameron House.

Cameron House

Donaldina CameronDonaldina worked at Cameron House until her retirement in 1934. Congress did not repeal the Chinese Exclusionary Acts until 1943. Ironically, that was the same year that anyone in the U.S. of Japanese ancestry was sent to internment camps. Social justice is a process, and Donaldina understood that. She also understood that when enough individuals joined together for a common goal, they could expedite that process. Donaldina is credited with saving nearly 3000 girls and women. She died in Palo Alto, California, in 1968, when she was 98-years-old.

Cameron House still exists today, and they continue Donaldina’s mission to help Asian immigrants. They provide youth programs and offer counseling, crisis intervention and food distribution to those struggling in the community. Isn’t it good to know there are still people who are not afraid to get out there and beat a few rugs?

Here’s a great little video about her life that I think you’ll enjoy!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

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