Prostitution in the Earlv Chinese Community, 1850-1900


by Mohini Sridharan '00

Few women were in the first wave of Chinese immigrants to America in the mid-nineteenth century. For example, in 1850, there were only 7 Chinese women versus 4018 Chinese men in San Francisco and in 1855, women constituted only two percent of the total Chinese population in America (Takaki, 1998). These low numbers can be attributed to Chinese cultural values and financial considerations which prevented women from traveling alone. Additionally most of the Chinese men were afraid to bring their wives and raise families in America because of the racial violence they found themselves subject to. Growing Anti-Chinese sentiment in America and harsh working conditions with few labor opportunities, which mainly used a migratory reserve of Chinese laborers, reduced the opportunities for entry of Chinese women. These skewed male to female ratios in the Chinese community led many of the men to seek sexual release in brothel houses. Prostitution was so rampant that in 1870 census manuscripts, 61 percent of the 3536 Chinese women in California had their occupations listed as prostitution (Takaki, 1998).

Chinese prostitutes were found in mining outposts, railroad camps, agricultural villages and Chinatowns in Sacramento, Marysville and San Franciso (Takaki, 1998). The nature of their work differed for the prostitutes who worked in high class brothels where they were decked up in silk and satin and displayed for the men to choose from and the prostitutes who worked in cribs on the streets where they were treated like virtual slaves. In most of the cases the prostitutes were not there by choice. Many of these women were lured to America under false pretenses or sold by their impoverished families and some cases they were abducted. Trafficking women was a very lucrative business that was often run by tongs in Chinatowns. It was easy to make 850 dollars a year off even a low grade prostitute (Takaki, 1998). Life for these women was abusive and often short. Most often the women became drug users to escape from their sordid reality or in other cases were beaten to death or were victims of venereal diseases.

The presence of the Chinese prostitutes was soon recognized by the Americans. Sensational stories of the cruelty of the Chinese Prostitution trade were common features in books and newspapers. Claims were made like "not one virtuous Chinawoman has been brought into this country" (Yung, 1995). Prostitution was seen by Americans as further proof of the immorality of the Chinese and the repression of their women by their patriarchal cultural values. This attention resulted in two Protestant mission homes, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Mission home, taking it open themselves to rescue these women (Yung, 1995). Under the combination of anti-Chinese prostitution legislation and the rescue work of these missions, the number of Chinese prostitutes decrease dramatically after the 1870's and in 1880 only 24 percent of 3,171 Chinese women in California were designated as prostitutes in the Census manuscripts (Takaki). Between 1870 and 1900 more than a thousand Chinese women sought refuge at these missions. Many of these women then went on to marry Chinese Christians and began establishing some of the earliest Chinese families in mainland America.



In the 1800s the sexual interactions of Chinese immigrants was tightly controlled through immigration and segregation laws. This resulted in the rise in prostitution in the early Chinese communities in the United States. The lives of these women who were for most part tricked, bought or abducted into the trade was oppressive. In the nineteenth century, police and legislation singled out Chinese prostitutes for condemnation because they were allegedly responsible for corrupting the moral fabric of the American society. They were accused of "disseminating vile diseases capable of destroying ..whole nations" (Yung, 1995). Laws like the one passed by the California state Legislature in 1866 seeked to suppress Chinese houses of ill-fame" (Yung, 1995). After the Chinese exclusion act was passed in 1882, the Chinese prostitutes were cited as one of the main reasons behind the ban on further Chinese immigration. This reasoning would result in the growing concern of Japanese government when the number of Japanese prostitutes in America increases in 1 880s (Ichioka, 1988). The Japanese who were very sensitive to their national image took measures against the growth of the trade not so much because they were concerned about the plight of the Japanese women who were forced into prostitution but as a prevention measure against a Japanese exclusion movement similar to that against the Chinese Thus, the blame for the racist Chinese exclusion law passed by the federal government came to fall on largely on the shoulders of the Chinese prostitutes.

The impression, born in the mid nineteenth century, that all the Chinese women were prostitutes has colored the public perceptions of Asian women for more than a century. I see shades of similarity between the exploitation of these Chinese prostitutes and the similar sex trade that is still rampant in the late twentieth century especially in the San Francisco's China Town. The trade depends on marketing exotic degrading images of Asian women as cheap, submissive sexual objects, as commodities rather than people. Economic forces have continued to exploit the Asian women's sexuality. Asian American women work in the sex industry, in massage parlors, strip joints, bars, informal brothels or as mail-order brides in homes. These women, similar to the earlier Chinese prostitutes, also face poverty, imprisonment, deportation, racist and sexist violence, rape and isolation. Additionally these women still lack basic information on health risk of their occupations and access to health services. The negative images of early Chinese prostitutes can be seen to have set a trend that impacts Asian American women and Asian immigrants in the United States even as we head toward the twenty-first century.


Yung Judy (1995): Unbound Feet. University of California Press.

Takaki Ronald (1998): Strangers From a Different Shore. Little, Brown and Company.

Ichioka Yuji (1988): The Issei. The Free Press, Macmillan Inc.