chinese prostitutes in 1900s




In California, between 1850’s to the Chinese Exclusion Act, most of the Chinese women who came to San Francisco were either slaves or indentured. They were often lured, kidnapped or purchased and forced to work as prostitutes at the brothels which is run by secret society of the Tongs of San Francisco. Chinese prostitutes also were smuggled and had worked at the Chinatown brothels in the Comstock Mines in Nevada. Chinese prostitutes were commonly known as prostitutes of the lowest order. “Both outcast slatterns and Asian slaves stood at the edge of the irregular marketplace, far more socially stigmatized than ordinary prostitutes.”
The demand for Chinese prostitutes in California was primarily due to the shortage of Chinese women and the prohibitions and taboo against sexual relations between Chinese men and White women. During the period of unrestricted Asian immigration from 1850 to 1882, more than 100,000 Chinese men but only 8,848 Chinese women entered the United States. The incredible sex ratio and the isolation of Chinese men from white communities generated nearly ideal demand conditions for prostitution, but white prostitutes rarely accepted Chinese customers. The same merchants and members of protective associations who had arranged passages and jobs for male sojourners leaped into the breath, supplying Chinese prostitutes to their own immense profit. These secret Chinese Tongs based in San Francisco controlled Asian prostitution in San Francisco and in the mining towns such as Comstock, Nevada. The Hip Yee Tong, the secret society that reportedly started the prostitution trafficking in 1852. “These organizations, the tongs, soon monopolized the control of vice—prostitution, gambling and opium. The Hip Yee Tong in 1852 was founded for the sole purpose of importing sing-song girls (prostitutes). The members enriched themselves at the expense of the girls and their customers.”
Chinese prostitutes were almost always imported as indentured servants or mui jai. The women were usually between the ages of 16 to 25. Mui jai were girls who had been sold into domestic service or labor by their poor parents. Their owners were expected to provide them with food and housing and to match them with husband when they become of age. But some were sold by their masters in China for $70 to $150 and then resold in America for $350 to $1,000 or more. It was a wholesale and retail operation. Like the price of merchandise, the price of prostitutes fluctuated depending upon supply and demand. During the times of war and famine in Chines, when there was an increase in the sale of daughters, prices dropped. Prices rose in the United States whenever stringent laws were passed to suppress Chinese prostitution.
An estimated 85 percent of the Chinese women in San Francisco were prostitutes in 1860, 71 percent in 1870, and 21 percent in 1880. “At the time of the Spanish-American war there were over 400 singsong girls in the Chinese Quarter. Yet they could not keep up with the city-wide demand for their services, much less fill the requirements of the State at large. The disreputable houses, together with gambling dens, constituted a firm economic base for the fighting tongs.”
Upon their arrival in San Francisco, these young Chinese women were taken to the barracoon, which were also known as the “auction block” or “Queen’s Room,” the barracoon was closed guarded room large enough to house fifty to one hundred women. In the barracoon women, like livestock, were put on display for sale. They were stripped for inspection and sold to the highest bidder. They were forced to sign service contract, which only a few of them could read the terms, and thumbprinted. The contracts usually states that for the girl was indebted to her new master for passage from China, which cost about $500 to 700 in 1860-70’s, she will serve as a prostitute for four to five years without wages.
The luckier girls were sold to well-to-do Chinese as concubines or mistresses or to the parlor houses to serve upper-class gentlemen. The lowest less-fortunate women were confined in cribs, rooms no larger than four-by-six feet, where they were forced to hawk their trade to poor laborers, teenage boys, sailors, and drunkards for as little as twenty-five to fifty cents. When hopelessly diseased, they were left alone to