Presbyterians and Prostitutes

When Chinese men from Canton arrived during the gold rush as contract laborers, they never intended to stay here. If a man could manage to save $100, he could return to his village and live out the rest of his days, never having to work again. But very few accomplished this goal, as gambling and opium took their toll. In order to enter Chinese heaven their bones had to be buried in China, and shipping the remains of men whom died in California back to their home became big business.

As the men never intended to stay in California, almost no women came as legitimate wives. Because of this and because of the very lowly status of women in China, many young women were sold into slavery as prostitutes by their families, or kidnapped by highbinders and shipped to the U.S.A. Upon arrival in San Francisco, their life was terrible, for they were indeed slaves, never permitted to be out of sight of their masters, and usually dying in a few years from syphilis or gonorrhea.

This situation had terrible consequences both for the women and for the children that were born in this circumstance. Female babies were abandoned or sometimes kept to become full prostitutes.

In 1895, a strong, young woman, Donaldina Cameron, a Presbyterian missionary, arrived in San Francisco to assist an elderly woman, Miss Culbertson, in rescuing some of these women and attending to the abandoned babies that were left on the door stoop of 920 Sacramento St., where they created a home for them. The work that Cameron did was both dangerous and heroic. Together with a tough San Francisco police inspector Jack Manion, they rescued nearly 1000 women, sometimes risking their lives as they worked down narrow twisting dark alleyways, searching the secret passages and behind the barred doors where the women were hidden. Manion headed the Chinatown Squad of white police and was one tough cop, but equaled in his bravery by Cameron.

The need was so great that another home was built in Marin County. Later in Oakland the first Ming Quong home was built adjacent to the Mills College Campus. During the First World War, the farms in Santa Clara valley desperately needed help to cut the apricots and to pick the prunes. The only farm that was willing to hire the Chinese girls from the Ming Quong home was owned by the prominent Cilker family.

In 1935, the Ming Quong home was moved from Oakland to Los Gatos, and all of the girls that stayed at that home had either been given up for adoption or had been abandoned babies. As they lived directly across the street from where I grew up on Loma Alta Ave., I knew of them and attended school with them. My father was a deacon in the Presbyterian Church that contributed to the support of Ming Quong. The girls kept very much to themselves with many household chores to do, but were quite friendly neighbors. As Ming Quong (or “Radiant Light”) outgrew the first cottage, they purchased the adjacent house and then later moved to the old Spreckles estate further up Loma Alta Ave.

Eventually, as the problem of prostitution in San Francisco Chinatown was solved, the purpose of Ming Quong changed and now it is a home for disturbed children with a location in Campbell.

Anyone interested in further information about Ming Quong should read “Chinatown Quest” by Carol Wilson or “Chinese Argonauts” edited by Gloria Hom.

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