August 4, 2019
Asian women fought the West’s slave trade. And then they were written out of historyRoundup
tags: slave trade, women in history
Julia Flynn Siler is the author of “The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown.”
It was nearly dusk on Dec. 14, 1933, when a Chinese teen named Jeung Gwai Ying fled from a hairdresser’s shop to a “safe house” in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Trafficked from China and forced into prostitution, Jeung sought freedom for herself and her unborn child. She was greeted by Tien Fuh Wu, a former slave who’d become a key staffer at the home. In Cantonese, Wu asked the teen to tell her story. Later, Wu would provide support for Jeung as she testified in court against her traffickers, who were convicted.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Wu was a key player in the fight against sex trafficking, a pervasive form of slavery in the West. But like many other Asian activists and anti-slavery pioneers, her name and story have been all but erased from most contemporary histories, in favor of stories that cast her white colleagues — women and men — in heroic, larger-than-life roles.
Most accounts of the rescue home at 920 Sacramento St. focus on the work of its longtime superintendent, Donaldina Cameron, a white Presbyterian missionary. As the youngest daughter of a Scottish sheep rancher, she had lived on a 19,000-acre sheep ranch in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1880s before moving to San Francisco to work at the rescue home in 1895. Cameron was a tall, auburn-haired woman with a Scottish lilt who fascinated headline writers and the public alike. She regularly staged dramatic rescues of so-called slave girls from their owners, in her Victorian era’s parlance.
Cameron’s courageous contributions were impressive without doubt, but she was only one character in this tale of sex, violence and resilience. For decades, Wu was in many ways her “right-hand woman” — helping Cameron run the home, communicating with the trafficked women in Cantonese, and campaigning and advocating for them in court and elsewhere. Wu and other Asian staffers made Cameron’s work possible.
While researching my book about the San Francisco rescue home, I came to realize just how pervasive this “white savior” narrative is in the retelling of this horrifying chapter of Asian American history. In the archival material, press accounts and biographies I came across, the stories of white Christian women were invariably placed front and center, with barely a mention of their Asian colleagues who often did much of the work behind the scenes.
This is a pervasive problem in many historical narratives — making the white experience the central theme in accounts of people of color. The problem is compounded by widespread racist cultural stereotypes from the era that persist today that paint Asian women as either passive helpers or tragic victims, rather than as radicals or crucial central figures. I tried to take particular care to correct this imbalance — not just to tell the stories of Chinese activists who have been largely erased from mainstream history — but also give them the prominence they deserve.
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