Ah, San Francisco—a tourist mecca with cable cars, the Golden Gate, steep hills and more. But the city’s cosmopolitan image doesn’t quite match up with its rough-and-tumble, often racist history, as demonstrated by two new books that might cause you to look at its past differently.
Already a bustling seaport while Los Angeles was still in its infancy, San Francisco in the mid-19th century was a major entry point to the American West and beyond. At the height of the California gold rush, thousands of men streamed in from China in search of jobs. Women followed, of course, and many encountered challenging and dangerous conditions—including involuntary prostitution. In The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Julia Flynn Siler recounts the history of these girls and women, as well as the social pioneers who battled Chinatown gang leaders and the city bureaucracy to rescue them from sex slavery and indentured servitude.
At the center of the story is Donaldina Cameron, a Presbyterian missionary nicknamed the “White Devil” by her many opponents in an attempt to keep their victims from fleeing to her. Operating from the Occidental Mission Home at the edge of Chinatown, Cameron provided a refuge for escapees, even seeking them out and spiriting them away from their captors. (Ironically, once safely at the mission, the girls and young women were subject to strict supervision, partly for their safety, and required to convert to Christianity.)
Siler tells the stories of many of these women in episodic fashion, with short chapters that keep the reader turning the pages. Heart-tugging personal stories include the history of Tien Fuh Wu, who was brought in the arms of a policeman to live at the mission as a child, and Tye Leung, who fled at age 12 to avoid an arranged marriage with an older man. Both women became trusted aides at the mission.
Iconic San Francisco historical events are prominent in Siler’s book, including the 1906 earthquake and fire and two outbreaks of the bubonic plague in the first decade of the 20th century. David K. Randall focuses on the plague in Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America From the Bubonic Plague. Chinatown is again the locus of events, as the first victim of the city’s plague outbreak in 1900 was a Chinese immigrant, and city officials immediately ordered a quarantine of the neighborhood.
Racist leaders demanded that Chinatown be burned down, and corporate interests minimized the threat of danger to “European” residents of the city. It took a man of science with a compelling personal story, U.S. Public Health Service official Rupert Blue, to convince civic and corporate leaders that only the eradication of rats—and the fleas that carry the plague virus—would stop the disease’s spread. Randall brings Blue to life through letters to his family and co-workers and convincingly maintains that, had his efforts not been successful, the disease would have spread across the continent and San Francisco would not be the dream destination we know today.