Primary Source: 19th Century Human Trafficking

The horror and battle over sex slavery

Noel C. Cilker
13 min readMar 5, 2019

On February 23, 2019, newspapers around the country broke news of a human trafficking ring bust in Jupiter, Florida. On a routine inspection at a massage parlor, a health inspector suspected that the employees were enslaved, sparking an eight-month investigation that ended in arrests of the traffickers and rescue of some of the women (some women had been moved away by the time authorities closed in).

A similar ring existed in 19th century California. At the onset of the Gold Rush in 1849, men from all over the world swarmed the state, turning the west coast into a veritable fraternity. Males made up over 90% of San Francisco’s population. It didn’t take long for unscrupulous, enterprising businessmen to figure out that, after gold, what lonely men wanted most was women.

All ethnic groups exploited women to meet that demand, but the Chinese turned the importation of girls and women into an industry. Brothel madams such as Ah Toy bought and sold girls to fill her bawdy houses and coffers, but it was the tongs — those secret, fraternal organizations — that transformed the business on mass scale. In China, girls were less desirable than boys, and starving parents often sold their girls to feed their families. The tongs swooped in to take advantage.

A newspaper reports on the “Sale of Female Celestials.”

Ah Toy was a well-known brothel madam who came to California from Canton in the early Gold Rush. After giving peep-shows and establishing her brothels in San Francisco, she became one of the first importers of Chinese girls. She took at least one trip back to China to procure females to sell and to staff her own brothels. The following story, wired from the west coast, was run in the Weekly Arkansas Gazette in 1855.

From the California Times and Transcript we learn that the notorious Ah Toy, who has been the keeper of a house of ill fame in San Francisco for the last three years, has lately left for China. She brought to this country a year ago, on her return from a visit, six or eight women, whom she had purchased at $40 each. Their passage cost $80 each. She has from time to time sold out her stock at the rate of $500 to $1,000 each, to Chinese merchants and gamblers. On leaving for China she disposed of the lot remaining at $800 each. The Times and Transcript understands from Mr. Carvalho, the Chinese interpreter, that these women dare not resist in these transactions, so much are they in dread of their tyrannical countrymen.

A former slave girl recounts her experience.

In the 1800s Chinese marriages were often arranged by a matchmaker, and the bride and groom would not meet until the day of their wedding. Chinese agents working for the tongs used this to trick girls in China into believing that a match had been made, and that a husband was waiting for them. The girls would go with them, none the wiser, which resulted in their kidnapping. One girl, who later escaped captivity, tells of her ordeal in the 1892 article “A Stain on the Flag.”

She urged me to go at once, as my husband was waiting. I went reluctantly, but I thought she spoke true. We went down on the steamship Hankow. She took me to a house, where we had a room together; but I saw nothing of the man who was to be my husband. After six days the woman left me in charge of a man, who said I had not got to my husband yet, and that I should have to go on a steamer a few days’ journey before I saw him. . . .

There was a man on board who all the time was teaching me what to say. He coaxed me to be quiet, and told me I would have a rich husband and a fine time in California.

He said I was to say I had been to California before, and had left a year ago. He said I was to tell them my husband was a ladies’ boot maker living on Jackson Street near Dupont, and told me if I made any mistake in my words, and made any fuss, there would be a foreign devil come and take me away to the devil prison, and I should never see my husband. . . .

I cried very much, but it was of no use. The man who brought me over said I must go, and so the money was paid and I was bought. One thousand five hundred and thirty dollars were paid for me. I saw the money paid, and I was taken on the twenty-sixth of last month of last year and placed in her den. They forced me to do their bidding, but I cried and resisted. I did not want to lead this life. They starved me for days, tying me where food was almost in reach of me, which looked so good. Then they beat me time after time, and threatened to kill me if I did not behave right.

A slave girl in holiday attire in San Francisco, c. 1900 (Arnold Genthe)

A former trafficker confesses all.

In April 1899, the San Francisco Call ran a sensational piece. Suey Hin, a madam and sex trafficker, had converted to Christianity and freed her seven slaves. Speaking to reporter Helen Grey, Suey Hin, herself a former slave, exposes the dark underbelly of human trafficking.

That trip I brought home four girls besides Ah Lung. You see it was not hard to smuggle the girls into this country then. You can’t do it so easy now. Sometimes they come, only sometimes now. You see the Hop Sing tong fix it with the Custom House. They swore to the officers that the children were born here and went to China to visit. Some witnesses come and they say they knew the girl who wants to land was born here, and they tell all about it. Then they say they know she is the same because they saw her when they went back to China. It was not hard to swear them into this country.

Then I went back once more. That was only a year ago and I brought back six girls. They did not seem to be with me when we got to the landing, but I watched them. I made the girls learn the answers to the questions the highbinders [gangsters] said would be asked by the Custom House. I told the girls if they made any mistakes the white devils would get them. I said white men liked to eat China girls, they like to boil them and then hang them up to dry and then eat them.

A prostitute bemoans her condition.

Chinese sojourners to California sometimes wrote songs about their experiences, much as other travelers wrote in their diaries. The song below is one of the few Chinese primary sources to survive from the 1800s.

A green mansion [a brothel] is a place of filth and shame,

Of lost chastity and lost virtue.

Most repulsive it is to kiss the customers on the lips

And let them fondle every part of my body.

I hesitate, I resist;

All the more shamed, beyond words.

I must by all means leave this troupe of flowers and rouge;

Find a nice man and follow him as his woman.

A Chinese girl in a “crib,” a low-class brothel with horrific conditions. (California State Library)

A trafficked girl’s transaction receipt.


Loo Wing to Loo Chee —

April 16 — Rice, 6 mats, at $2 . . . . . . . . . . . $12

April 18 — Shrimps, 50 lbs, at 10c . . . . . . . . . 5

April 20 — Girl, $250 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 250

April 21 — Salt fish, 60 lbs at 10c . . . . . . . . . . 6


Received payment,


Victoria, B.C., May 1, 1898.

A contract binds a girl to her masters.

Trafficked girls were commonly sold into prostitution and forced to sign coercive labor contracts. The draconian terms usually kept them bound for life, which, because of the awful conditions, was not often very long.

The contractee Xin Jin became indebted to her master/mistress for food and passage to San Francisco. Since she is without funds, she will voluntarily work as a prostitute at Tan Fu’s place for four and one-half years for an advance of 1,205 yuan (U.S. $524) to pay this debt. There shall be no interest on the money and Xin Jin shall receive no wages. At the expiration of the contract, Xin Jin shall be free to do as she pleases. Until then, she shall first secure the master/mistress’s permission if a customer asks to take her out. If she has the four loathsome diseases she shall be returned within 100 days; beyond that time the procurer has no responsibility. Menstruation disorder is limited to one month’s rest only. If Xin Jin becomes sick at any time for more than 15 days, she shall work one month extra; if she becomes pregnant, she shall work one year extra. Should Xin Jin run away before her term is out, she shall pay whatever expense is incurred in finding and returning her to the brothel. This is a contract to be retained by the master/mistress as evidence of the agreement.

Receipt of 1205 yuan by Ah Yo.

Thumb print of Xin Jin in the contractee.

Eighth month 11th day of the 12th year of Guang-zu (1886).

Rescued sex workers with Donaldina Cameron in San Francisco. (San Francisco Public Library)

Congresses outlaws “lewd and immoral” female immigrants.

In 1875 the U.S. passed the Page Act, which banned “undesirable” immigrants, focusing heavily on East Asian females. In addition to restricting immigration, the law was used to raid and break up Chinese brothels, while White brothels were left alone.

SEC. 2. That if any citizen of the United States, or other person amenable to the laws of the United States shall take, or cause to be taken or transported, to or from the United States any subject of China, Japan, or any Oriental country, without their free and voluntary consent, for the purpose of holding them to a term of service, such citizen or other person shall be liable to be indicted therefore, and, on conviction of such offense, shall be punished . . . .

SEC. 3. That the importation into the United States of women for the purposes of prostitution is hereby forbidden; and all contracts and agreements in relation thereto, made in advance or in pursuance of such illegal importation and purposes, are hereby declared void; and whoever shall knowingly and willfully import, or cause any importation of, women into the United States for the purposes of prostitution, or shall knowingly or willfully hold, or attempt to hold, any woman to such purposes, in pursuance of such illegal importation and contract or agreement, shall be deemed guilty of a felony . . .

California Representative Horace F. Page, who authored the Page Act. (Find A Grave)

Chinese female immigrants are scrutinized in Hong Kong.

After the passage of the Page Act, the United States, with permission of the British government, established an interrogation process at the port of Hong Kong. Chinese women hoping to immigrate to the U.S. were asked these questions by the Tung Wah Hospital Committee (an association of prominent Chinese businessmen) to weed out prostitutes or slaves.

Have you entered into contract or agreement with any person or persons whomsoever, for a term of service, within the United States for lewd and immoral purposes?

Do you wish of your own free and voluntary will to go to the United States?

Do you go to the United States for the purposes of prostitution?

Are you married or single?

What are you going to the United States for? What is to be your occupation there?

Have you lived in a house of prostitution in Hong Kong, Macao, or China? Have you engaged in prostitution in either of the above places?

Are you a virtuous woman? Do you intend to live a virtuous life in the United States?

Do you know that you are at liberty now to go to the United States, or remain in your own country, and that you cannot be forced to go away from your home?

Five young Chinese girls, rescued from prostitution in San Francisco, c. 1890. (Arnold Genthe)

A missionary describes a daring rescue.

Donaldina Cameron, a Presbyterian missionary, was a pioneer in fighting Chinese slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown from the 1890s until 1934. She often undertook daring raids to rescue Chinese girls from their captivity, earning her friends and enemies throughout the neighborhood. Nicknamed “The Angry Angel of Chinatown,” Cameron wrote a pamphlet titled “The Yellow Slave Trade” in 1911.

Much planning and plotting followed the receipt of the above letter [from an enslaved girl pleading for rescue]. We learned that the girls’ keeper would pass with them along a certain street after dark, conducting them from a day hiding place to the night resort. It was decided to attempt the rescue on the street at that time. Again a rescue party was called. Quietly assembling as dusk began to fall, each person was assigned to their post of outlook. A certain whistle was to summon all together should the girls appear. After but a short time of suspense, softly but distinctly the signal came from the dark shadows of a side street. Joy lent wings to our feet; we soon reached the spot where our two good friends had just seized the trembling slave girls, while their owner was desperately trying to force them on. At sight of the ‘Seen San Pau’ (Teacher Mother, Donaldina Cameron), they seized our hands and turned with us to flee for safety. A providentially-sent taxicab arrived at the critical moment when we feared the gathering mob might rob us of our rescued girls. Hailing the chauffeur and not waiting for explanations, we were driven quickly to Police Headquarters, where the interesting experiences of the evening were reported, and we were permitted to leave for the city under safe escort.

Our two little friends have taken again their real names, Ah King and Ah Young. They are bright, sweet girls, and have taken their places in the Home, contented and happy.

Donaldina Cameron (lower left) supervises the rescue of a child prostitute, early 1900s. (Cameron House)

Traffickers use the law to win back their slaves.

Human traffickers did not slink into the shadows when their property was stolen. Using threats of violence was one way to combat missionaries such as Donaldina Cameron; another was appealing to the law itself, as Charles Frederick Holder describes in his 1897 article “Chinese Slavery in America.

This child was valued at $1,500, and her owners began a legal contest which well demonstrated the power and influence of the society of slave-dealers. Kum Wah, through an American lawyer of ability, attempted to have the guardianship of the Presbyterian Mission superintendent set aside, and Mah Sing, a keeper of a brothel, appointed in her place. For weeks this case was fought by the Chinese slave-dealers and the Christian women of the Presbyterian Mission, the American lawyer attempting by every means to drive the latter from the court. The Chinese societies engaged in this traffic have a large fund for the prosecution of disputed cases, and aided by American lawyers and the writ of habeas corpus they are often successful in regaining possession of these human chattels. . . .

The missions of San Francisco and their managers are, naturally, the object of attack, and the high-binders and slave-dealers make every possible attempt at retaliation. Repeated efforts have been made to kidnap rescued girls, the managers threatened with death and marked by the hatchet-boys for destruction. But their good work goes on, girls and women being rescued by the law, and by force when the law is not applicable to the case.

A Chinese highbinder in San Francisco, 1899. (Bancroft Library)

The United Nations struggles with an ongoing problem.

Over a century later, human trafficking persists. In 2009, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released an extensive report detailing the immensity of the problem. Has any progress been made from the 19th century to the 21st?

After much neglect and indifference, the world is waking up to the reality of a modern form of slavery. The public and the media are becoming aware that humans prey upon humans for money. Parliaments are passing appropriately severe laws. The judiciary is facing its anti-slavery responsibility, with more prosecutions and convictions. Civil society and (to a lesser extent) the private sector are mobilizing good-will and resources to assist victims. . . .

Yet internationally standardized data are still not available, a limitation that hampers the sharing of information between and among states, and with the UNODC. Aggregated statistics cannot be put together, neither at geographic nor thematic levels. . . .

We do not have as yet the logical categories needed to establish multidimensional data bases. We should be, but we are not, able to segment today’s slave markets into their components (demand, supply, trafficking, and related prices). We must, but cannot, catalogue (for lack of data) the different types of slavery: exploitation through child-begging in Europe is different from what goes on in a brothel, or on a street corner in Australia. Preventive measures must also be adapted to take into account that an Asian father sells his under-age daughter under circumstances different from what forces an African teenager into a rag-tag army of killers, or what pushes an illegal immigrant into a sweat shop in the Americas. Measures to rescue victims and punish criminals must vary accordingly.

I plead with social scientists in academia, and especially in governments, to work more intensively with UNODC to generate the logical categories and the statistical information needed for evidence-based, antislavery policy. The crisis we face of fragmented knowledge and disjointed responses intensifies a crime that shames us all.

Antonio Maria Costa

Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Protesters march around the Colorado state capitol building on the fourth annual Human Trafficking Awareness and Advocacy Day, February 25, 2016. (Getty Images)

I am currently working on a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

Follow me to read more. Please share this post and your comments.



Noel C. Cilker

I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.