Four years into my research for my recent nonfiction book, The White Devil’s Daughters, I came across a photograph that upended my under- standing of the role Asian women played in the fight against slavery. Snapped in the early twentieth century, it was a formal portrait of six women. Two were white; the other four were Chinese. All wore light-colored garments unsuited to their daily work in a group home where as many as sixty people lived at any one time. The white women in the portrait wore summer muslin gowns with delicate lace. The Asian women wore shimmering quipao gowns, whose high collars were joined by fabric frogs.
The setting was a light-filled parlor in the Presbyterian Mission House, an often- chaotic refuge for trafficked and vulnerable women in San Francisco’s Chinatown. After the photographer set up his camera, he arranged the six women in front of a dark, wood-paneled wall, placing the white woman with the Gibson Girl bun in the center of the frame. At the moment the shutter clicked, both of the white women gazed languidly off to the side. The four Asian women, in contrast, looked directly at the camera lens, as if any fear they might have felt as immigrants living in a time of virulent anti-Chinese racism was gone. The photograph gives equal visual prominence to both the Chinese and the white women.
This portrait came as a revelation to me. Asian activists and anti-slavery pioneers had been all but cropped out of the frame by
most photographers and historians from that time, in favor of portrayals that cast white colleagues—women and men—in heroic, larger-than-life roles. But this photo visually articulates the key role that Asian women played in a seven decades-long fight against slavery waged from the home. Taken by the photographer and journalist Louis J. Stell- man, possibly to accompany a newspaper feature story, it is one of three surviving images from that session preserved by the California State Library. Not only did it change my understanding of the dynamics between the characters in my history, but it also forced me to reexamine some early assumptions in my research.
Stellman’s photo challenges the enduring myth that has surrounded Donaldina Cameron, the woman with the Gibson Girl bun. It topples the mistaken belief that the Chinatown “safe house,” now renamed in her honor as Cameron House, was an opera- tion she ran single-handedly. It does this by showing us the people who actually ran the home. They were Chinese and white women who lived, worked, and ate together most days in a large house located at 920 Sacra- mento Street, an old brick building made of clinker bricks that had been salvaged from the 1906 earthquake and firestorms.
Together, the Chinese and white staffers fought the “slave girl trade”—a criminal sex trafficking enterprise that thrived between China and the U.S. Their work made for good copy. There were countless newspaper and magazine stories about the efforts to disrupt this profitable and violent business in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but most contemporary readers identified that crusade with just one woman. For nearly four decades, from the end of the Victorian era to the end of the Great Depression, that woman was Cameron, the youngest daughter of a Scottish sheep rancher and his wife. She arrived at the home in 1895 to teach sewing and became the home’s superintendent four years later. Tall, charis- matic, and articulate, she was typically the focus of the journalists’ often sensational stories of rooftop rescues and missionaries busting down the doors of brothels.
Cameron wasn’t the whole story, though. I came to realize that not only did she rely heavily on Asian colleagues to run the home on a day-to-day basis, but she also needed them to accompany her on the dramatic “rescues” that captured the public imagina- tion. Because Cameron did not speak or read Chinese, due in part to a tin ear for music and languages, her Chinese colleagues were often the first point of contact with the home’s staffers. In crucial immigration hearings and courtrooms, it was the home’s Chinese aides who translated and served as chaperones and guards to the vulner- able women. When survivors of trafficking rings testified to California State legislators in 1901, it was the home’s Chinese staffers who made sure their words were understood by the politicians who would ultimately, as a result of the hearings, pass one of Cali- fornia’s first anti-trafficking laws.
For decades, Cameron was the public face of the Mission House. She was resilient, courageous, and a highly effective fund- raiser, often spending weeks at a time cross- ing the state of California. She transfixed society ladies with stories of brothel raids and slave girls as a way to convince them to support her crusade. She travelled across the country checking up on the home’s far- flung former residents, many of whom had married, and raising money so her organization could continue its work of disrupting trafficking—and expand. Word spread and soon the home began overflowing with resi- dents. It then expanded—opening a new home designed by architect Julia Morgan in Oakland for younger residents. That second home became known as “Ming Quong,” or “Radiant Light.”
While Cameron was on the road, Asian staffers did much of the work of running the two homes. They’d feed, clothe, and maintain the health of its vulnerable resi- dents. Sometimes, they’d assist when babies were born or disease broke out, as during the outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Chinatown or the terrible flu pandemic of 1918–1919, which sickened nearly all the home’s residents and staffers. They’d work with law enforcement officers to assist girls and women who sought refuge at the home on Sacramento Street, in the shadow of Nob Hill. As many as 3,000 people passed through the home’s doors from the time it opened as a safe house in 1874 to the time its mission changed in the mid-1930s. Stellman’s photograph underscored my growing awareness that Cameron and the other white superintendents of the home could not have done their work without their Asian colleagues.
One Chinese colleague, in particular, became a key player in this long, and often violent fight against slavery. Tien Fuh Wu is one of the six women in Stellman’s photo- graph. She stands between the seated Cam- eron and the other white woman, probably the assistant Ethel Higgins. A former child slave sold by her father in China to pay his gambling debts, she ended up working as a servant in a Chinatown brothel before a policeman heard of her abuse and brought her to safety at the Mission House. With the help of a sponsor, she attended a prestigious boarding school in Philadelphia and then a Bible college in Toronto, before returning to work at the home in 1911. She spent much of the rest of her life as a staffer there, living and working closely with Cameron for decades. It was Wu, alongside the white colleague Ethel Higgins, who nursed to health the many residents sickened by the so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic more than a century ago. (None of the residents died from it.)
I’d begun to realize that Wu was a crucial part of the home’s story, yet I’d found very few photographs of her. I scoured news- papers, which focused on Cameron, and poured through archives, including those of the Yale Divinity School, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. Then, on a Friday afternoon in mid-November of 2017, about three years into my research, an unexpected email landed in my inbox. “Ms. Siler—I previously sent you information on the images of Donaldina Cameron you requested,” wrote Senior Librarian Marianne Leach. But she had discovered a new set of group photographs of Ms. Cameron, her staff, and students. She asked, “Are you interested in these further images or is the original set sufficient for your purpose?”
Was I ever! About a month later, the set of three remarkable black and white por- traits arrived. In the online catalogue, the sole person identified in the photograph is Cameron, which was typical of the many photographs I found of the Mission Home during my research. Luckily, by then, I’d done enough digging to understand what the photograph meant. I could also identify both Wu and Higgins.
Stellman’s photograph was taken after Wu returned to work at the Mission House at 920 Sacramento Street in 1911. (The series of photographs that Stellman took that day are not precisely dated: the California State Library notes indicate that they were taken between 1908 and 1915.) Her jaw is set. There’s only the barest hint of a smile in the uplifted corners of her eyes. It is easy to imagine Wu tallying up in her mind the day’s long list of tasks ahead of her. A woman known for keeping a detailed list of chores that residents jokingly called her “Book of Lamentations,” Wu was an exacting and disciplined housekeeper in her early years as a staffer at the home. Later on, she would travel solo across the country on the home’s business and plan and execute the rescues of trafficked women—an extraordinary role for an unmarried, Chinese-born woman at that time.
Wu’s solid shoulders fill her formal qipao. In the photograph, she’s not relaxed. But I can imagine she felt she’d earned her place alongside the other staffers. From reading Tien’s letters and researching her life, I know she was resilient and had a biting sense of humor, especially in her work of helping to arrange marriages for residents of the home. “Everybody is after me for girls,” Wu wrote to Cameron on a trip to Boston in 1915 where she checked up on a married former resident. “I might as well open a Matrimonial Bureau here in the east,” she joked, an acknowledgment of the role that the home played as a matchmaker over the years. Wu was the bouncer, the enforcer, and the toughest and most passionate defender of the home’s vulnerable residents. The arc of her life moved from overcoming her own vulnerability as a child to a lifetime of caring for others.
As I begin the research for my next book— an investigative history of an unsolved murder during California’s Gilded Age—I’ve become more aware of the power that images have to reveal truths that written records can’t show us. Stellman’s photograph of the women from the Presbyterian Mission Home has forced me to think more deeply about who was actually in charge of working with the trafficked women on a day-to-day basis. It was not who I first thought it was. Likewise, when I learned that Cameron and Wu were buried together in the same family plot, that discovery reinforced my belief that they were colleagues working alongside each other in a decades-long fight against slavery, rather than famed employer and unnamed staffer. I’m deeply grateful to the California State Library archivists for preserving this photograph and helping reshape the way we understand history.
Published in Bulletin 128 of the California State Library Foundation’s Bulletin. Please visit the Foundation’s website: www.cslfdn.org.