Donaldina Cameron, a presbyterian missionary, social worker, and youth advocate in San Francisco’s Chinatown, was born on 26 July 1869 in New Zealand.
She moved with her family, parents, two older brothers, and four older sisters to California in 1871. In 1874, when Donaldina was five, her mother died. When she was a child she had few contact and experience with immigrant populations. At nineteen, Donaldina was engaged, but for reasons unknown, did not marry. When Donaldina arrived in San Francisco, she was 25 years old. Soon she discovered the problem of “Yellow Slavery”. when a friend’s mother, Mary P.D. Browne, took Donaldina to the Presbyterian Home and begged her to help the cause. In 1873 protestant women launched the first attack on this reality.
The mission’s founder, Margaret Culbertson intrigued Donaldina’s mind with stories of mission, for these reasons she decided to dedicate one year to teach sewing and useful skills. Culbertson and the Presbyterian Home were a safe place for refugees, where to get an education. Culbertson and Cameron worked to rescue Chinese immigrants until Culbertson’s death in 1897. After Culbertson’s death in 1900, Donaldina became superintendent of the Presbyterian Home. She continued the mission of saving young Chinese immigrant women. This work was “the only foreign mission enterprise ever carried on in the United States”. Donaldina rescued more than 3000 Chinese immigrant girls and women from indentured servitude.
Related articles: History of the Chinese Diaspora
In 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese women from entering the United States unless they were already married to men in the United States. Originally passed to prohibit sex trafficking, it created a dangerous and illegal system where young women would present forged marriage papers that said they were already married to Chinese men in the United States. Single men could not send for Chinese wives, nor did the law permit them to marry non-Chinese wives.
The small ratio of Chinese women to men bred a rampant prostitution market. To feed this market, Chinese girls and young women, mostly from Canton, were bought, kidnapped, or coerced into a move to the United States. This phenomenon was dubbed the “Yellow Slave Trade”. The women were sold by their own families to criminal societies, called Tongs, as domestic servants or prostitutes. Girls in their teens were pressed into prostitution. The little girls were sold for household servants burdened with heavy labor and endured severe physical punishments. As they got older, they were frequently sold into prostitution as well. Chinese women lived brutal lives, usually dying within five years. In San Francisco, a Chinese organization, Chinese Six Companies, attempted to stop the criminal societies but collapsed because of an infiltration in the organization.
Friends and relatives of these girls and women started leave secret messages for Donaldina at the Presbyterian Home indicating the house where a girl was held captive. Rescues were often secret nighttime raids conducted with ax and sledgehammer wielding policemen. Donaldina quickly became a master at finding girls that had been hidden. She even spent a night in a San Jose jail while seeking the release of a Chinese woman. In fact, there were corrupt police who agreed to cooperate with the Tongs. The Mission Home and its inhabitants were under constant legal and physical assault from the slave owners. For these reasons, the house has trap doors and false walls. The girls she rescued called her affectionately, Lo Mo, or old mother. Tongs used to nickname her “Jesus Woman” or Fahn Quai, “White Devil”. In 1895 sticks of dynamite were found on the porch and in the window.
Donaldina became adept at protecting already rescued girls. The women forced to reside at the Presbyterian Home and convert to Christianity. They were only allowed to leave the home if they married a Christian man that Cameron approved of. In April 1906, a big earthquake and fire forced the evacuation of the Presbyterian Home. Donaldina braved the oncoming fire and military police to retrieve the records that gave her guardianship rights to her girls.
The Home was destroyed; it was rebuilt in 1907 at 920 Sacramento Street, where it still stands today. Cameron seeks to gain financial support for her mission. She also challenged popular preconceptions, such Chinese women were incapable of integrating into American society. Donaldina founded also two homes for Chinese orphans or the children of the rescued women.
The Chung Mei Home served young boys, while the Ming Quong Home was for girls. Donaldina retired from her missionary work and the Presbyterian Home in 1934 when “Yellow Slave Trade” ends up. Donaldina Cameron is credited with breaking the back of the Chinese slave trade in the United States. After she moved to the Palo Alto area. Before her death, she was considered a “national icon. She died on January 4, 1968. In 1942, the Presbyterian Home has renamed the Donaldina Cameron House. Cameron House works today as a comprehensive family service organization and multi-service agency for Asian communities, 920 Sacramento Street San Francisco, CA 94108.
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