Tien Fu Wu had no idea how old she was when her father took her from her Zhejiang home and sold her. She later estimated that she was between six and ten when she entered the U.S. in 1892 as a “paper daughter,” falsely identified as a relative of an established Chinese merchant in San Francisco.
Upon arrival in that city she was sold to the owner of a Chinatown brothel to work as a servant and then to a family where she took care of an infant while still a small child herself. After two years of labor and mistreatment, she was rescued by a missionary, her body covered with burns and bruises that had been inflicted upon her by her owner.
Tien was so small that at first her rescuer overlooked her since the child was reported to be twelve years old and Tien seemed far too tiny to be that age. She was taken to the Mission Home, a refuge for Chinese women and girls who had been sold into prostitution and domestic servitude.
Established by Presbyterian women in 1874, the Mission Home was established to provide sanctuary for Chinese women who had been brought to San Francisco as prostitutes. In the late 19th century, prostitution was still legal in that city but slavery and “involuntary servitude” had been banned by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Even so, Chinese women were removed from ships to public auctions, where they stood naked in front of potential buyers. Some of them were as young as twelve.
In 1871 the first prostitute to escape a brothel and ask for help started a small revolution, as other Chinese women learned that missionaries would give them a safe place to stay and would help them find other ways to live their lives.
When San Francisco became affluent, its demand for servants was almost inexhaustible and traffickers turned to the importation of Chinese children to fill that demand. In response, the Mission House, in the company of police officers, turned their attention to the rescue of the mui tsai, the “little sisters,” who had been sold as domestic slaves, as Tien Fu Wa had been.
A year after Tien became a resident of the Mission Home, twenty-five-year-old Donaldina Cameron arrived to work there as a teacher. By 1900 she had become the superintendent, a position she held until 1934, when she turned sixty-five. Through the years, Tien became her closest friend and colleague; Cameron was known as Lo Ma or Old Mother to the residents of the Mission House while Tien was called Auntie Wu. When Tien retired in 1951, she and Cameron lived next door to each other and were buried close together in the same cemetery.
Throughout the bubonic plague that ravaged San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1900 to 1908, into the destruction of the 1906 earthquake and the fire that left Chinatown “in smoldering ruins” with its “entire population...homeless,” these two women spearheaded a crusade against human trafficking and immigration issues, to the extent that Cameron was known as the “White Devil of Chinatown.”
The Mission House still stands at 920 Sacramento Street, under the name of Cameron House. It is said to be haunted, and as Julia Flynn Siler says, it “has a haunted history.” Through her careful research and brilliant use of narrative, that history breathes again in a work of nonfiction that holds more excitement and heroism than many novels.~Janet Brown