On a recent visit to San Francisco, I took an Alley tour of Chinatown where our guides told us the story of Donaldina Cameron (July 26, 1869 – January 4, 1968). Born in New Zealand to Scottish parents, Donaldina Cameron moved to California with her family when she was two years of age.
Initially joining The Presbyterian Home (a mission home caring for Asian women) in San Fransisco as a young sewing teacher, Donaldina became its superintendent at the young age of twenty-five. Situated on the edge of Chinatown, the home was a place of refuge for young Chinese girls smuggled illegally into the US to work in the sex trade or as indentured servants.
Fearing an influx of Asian immigration to the US, the government had enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This prohibited the immigration of (primarily) Chinese labourers, but it especially banned the immigration of Chinese women unless they were already married to a US citizen. Needless to say, this skewed ratio of men to women and set the stage for a massive illegal sex trade. (The act was only repealed in 1943, with a Californian law prohibiting Asians from marrying whites not repealed until 1948. In other states, similar laws were repealed only in 1967.)
Depending on which side you were on, Donaldina was known as the Angry Angel of Chinatown, the Jesus Woman or the White Devil. With the help of the police – and a sledgehammer or two – she broke down the doors of places she knew women were being held, rescuing as many as she could and gaining guardianship so they could not be returned to their slave owners. Estimates are she saved 3,000 such women, but only 600 were actually recorded on her books. Still, 600 is a not insubstantial number.
Once the women were freed they resided at the Presbyterian Home where they converted to Christianity and were taught English and western housekeeping skills. While some women accepted this conversion and went on to call Donaldina ‘Lo Mo’ (Foster Mother), others weren’t so happy about the loss of their culture. The girls left the home only to marry Christian men
The original home was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. The women fled the building only for Donaldina to realise their guardianship papers were still inside; without those, the girls could be snatched back by their former owners. Donaldina returned to the damaged house to retrieve the papers, getting out just before the building was dynamited to create a firebreak in an attempt to halt the fire raging through the city.
The house was rebuilt in 1907 on Sacramento Street.