The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.
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The first Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States in the mid-19th century and faced discrimination and racism that made their lives difficult in many ways.
It was no different for Ah Toy (1829-1928) and Tien Fuh Wu (1886-1975), but as women, their lives were even harder, thanks to an added layer of sexism. Their opportunities were even more limited, with sex work as one of their few options. Toy and Wu—who both experienced the limitations of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which went into effect in May 1882—represented two sides of the industry. The former used sex work to empower and as a means of upward mobility, while the latter dedicated her life to saving those who were forced into the work against their will.
Using the system to her advantage
Toy landed in San Francisco in 1849 when she was 20. While she had originally traveled with her husband from China, he died at sea. Toy became the ship captain’s mistress, who gave her so much gold that she arrived in California with a small personal fortune.
Once in the city, Toy, described as tall, with piercing brown eyes, noticed the looks she would get from men. So—figuring they would pay to get a closer look, and capitalizing on the fact that she was one of only a handful of Asian women in town—she decided to use it to her advantage and started doing peep shows, charging men an ounce of gold for a look. She soon became the most well-known Chinese prostitute and madam, and one of the highest paid, in San Francisco.
In a society where women (of all races) made up less than 20 percent of the population, there wasn’t much else Toy (or any woman) could do outside of sex work, and with her intelligence and entrepreneurship, she became one of the best in the business at the time.
As a madam, Toy opened and ran a chain of brothels within only a few years of her arrival. She also helped other Chinese brothels expand. In a society where women (of all races) made up less than 20 percent of the population, there wasn’t much else Toy (or any woman) could do outside of sex work, and with her intelligence and entrepreneurship, she became one of the best in the business at the time.
While brothels were often targeted and exploited by law enforcement, Toy was known to utilize the court systems to protect herself and her businesses. Surviving records show her appearing in court about 10 times. Her cases included suing some miners who tried to pay for her services using brass fillings instead of gold ounces, as well as suing a notorious Chinese leader for extortion when he demanded Toy’s employees pay him a tax.
By 1854, Toy’s luck in court ran out with the case of People v. Hall, which extended a California law that Black and Indigenous people couldn’t testify in court, to include Chinese people as well—because lawmakers wanted to see their racism reach all non-white folks across the board. The law wasn’t directed toward prostitution, but as a result, Toy was no longer able to protect herself, especially from the Chinese tongs—organizations sometimes tied to criminal activity—who wanted to control her and her businesses. This, paired with an anti-prostitution law that passed that same year, eventually led to Toy leaving California, announcing her departure for China in 1857. But she only stayed in China for a couple years, returning to California by 1859. Toy lived a quiet life for the remainder of her days. She died in 1928 in San Jose at the age of 98.
From rescued to rescuer
Wu arrived in San Francisco from China as a child in 1892. She had been sold by her family to pay off her father’s gambling debts. While her birth year is listed as 1886, no one knows for sure, and it’s said she was somewhere between 6 and 10 years old when she got to California.
At this time, the Chinese Exclusion Act was well underway, so like many Chinese during this time, Wu arrived as a paper daughter, under her new name (Wu’s original name is unknown since she was so young when she immigrated), with documentation claiming to be related to someone already in the United States.
Wu was initially sold into domestic slavery. She would have likely been forced into sex work once she reached her teens, but according to the public media site KQED, she was rescued within two years by the nearby Occidental Mission Home for Girls—whose work focused on “(intervening) on behalf of vulnerable young Asian immigrants.” After living at the home for a little more than a year, Wu met 23-year-old Donaldina Cameron who initially came to the home as a sewing teacher. But once she learned the residents’ histories, Cameron set to work rescuing as many other Chinese girls and women as she could from servitude and sex trafficking.
Not only was Wu vital as a translator on rescue missions...she often pointed to her own scars from when she was enslaved to show that these girls and women could trust her and her “white devil” colleagues.
Given her history, Wu rightfully distrusted adults and initially butted heads with Cameron. But she eventually began working with the other woman, who was referred to as “Lo Mo” or Old Mother (and soon, Wu’s relationship with Cameron did begin to resemble a mother-daughter relationship). Not only was Wu vital as a translator on rescue missions, but according to KQED, she often pointed to her own scars from when she was enslaved to show that these girls and women could trust her and her “white devil” colleagues. Wu also advocated for these girls and women in court.
Although the mission home—which is now called Cameron House and serves San Francisco’s Chinese community—received threats of violence, Wu was singled out more often since she was also Chinese and seen as a traitor by brothel owners. This never stopped Wu—though Cameron frequently made sure her younger colleague never went out alone.
Wu worked alongside Cameron until the latter retired in 1934. Although she took on more responsibilities at that time, Wu did not take on Cameron’s role as she was aware that as a Chinese woman, she’d face prejudice, making the organization’s work more difficult than it already was. It would be more than a decade and a half before Wu retired in 1951. And when she did, she moved to Palo Alto, into the cottage next door to Cameron. They lived side by side until Cameron’s death in 1968. Wu died in 1975 and was buried next to Cameron—her “Lo Mo”—in Los Angeles’ Evergreen Cemetery.
Published on May 31, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.
Art by Vivian Lai
Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.