The “Strangely Alluring” Ah Toy

What did the famous Gold Rush madam look like?

Noel C. Cilker
4 min readApr 22, 2019

For the last five years, I’ve researched, written about, and wondered about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in San Francisco. She arrived in 1849 from China, lured by the news of gold and risking everything for a new life. Then her husband, with whom she was traveling, died. She was on her own.

What would she do? Would she call the whole thing off and return home? Would she roll up her sleeves and press on? These and a thousand other questions drove me to hunt down her story: where she went, what she ate, whom she dealt with, how she earned money, how she survived, how she started her brothel, how she thrived, and how she lost it again.

But one thing I’ve always wondered . . . what did she look like? What was it that drove men to her?

She was apparently beautiful to behold. I haven’t come across any photographs of her, nor do I expect to, and neither have paintings, drawings, or sketches come to my attention. And don’t trust the results from Google Images . . . they seem to think any black-and-white-and-old-timey-looking Chinese woman will suffice. In 2010, The San Francisco Examiner wrote a short paragraph about Ah Toy and slapped this picture next to it:

But there’s no proof that it’s her. A little digging brings up the description of the picture, which reads, “Portrait of a married Chinese-American woman in the 1870s.” Ah Toy was in her 40s in the decade of the 1870s, so it could be her, but most likely it isn’t. She disappeared from the San Francisco scene in 1859 and didn’t reappear in the news until her death in the 1920s. If she were to take a photo like this, it probably would have been during the height of her popularity in the early 1850s, but since the caption says otherwise, I highly doubt it.

Which is too bad, because it sounds like she was a real beauty. You actually didn’t have to be, in those days, for men to notice you. You just had to be a woman. With over 90% of the population being male (the wives were left behind while the men left to dig in the dirt), any woman was going to catch the eye and imagination of a young, virile, lonely man. So maybe Ah Toy wasn’t that amazingly gorgeous, but you wouldn’t know it by some of the men’s gushing commentary:

Elisha Crosby, 1878:

The first Chinese courtesan who came to San Francisco was Ah Toy. She arrived I think in 1850 and was a very handsome Chinese girl. She was quite select in her associates was liberally patronized by the white men and made a great amount of money.

Charles Duane, 1881:

She was a tall, well-built woman. In fact, she was the finest-looking woman I have ever seen.

The Daily Alta California, 1851:

Blooming with youth, beauty, and rouge…Ah Toy came into court…

Albert Benard de Russailh, 1851:

There are a few girls who are attractive if not actually pretty, for example, the strangely alluring Achoy, with her slender body and laughing eyes.

The Daily Alta California, 1851:

It would be well for the female dress reformers in the Atlantic States to send out here for a Chinese woman as a specimen.

Finally, there are conflicting reports about whether or not she had bound feet. Foot binding, the bygone Chinese practice dating back to the 11th century, was still en vogue for middle- and upper-class women in the 1800s. For Ah Toy, however, signs point to normal feet. She was likely a peasant in China, and likely part of an ethnic group of people called Hakka who did not bind their women’s feet. But the biggest hint that she didn’t have bound feet comes from this newspaper story in 1851:

Last evening, about eight o’clock, that portion of the city in the vicinity of the Plaza was aroused by a certain nondescript noise…. When we arrived near the spot whence the outcry was proceeding, we found her in full chase after a suspicious looking individual, who had the appearance of being a volunteer to the Indian War. The thief kept ahead for a time, but Atoy was too swift for him, seized him by the collar very much in the style of a police officer, and demanded a diamond pin which he and his party had taken away from her.

No foot-bound woman could have moved like that!

So while her appearance remains somewhat of a mystery, my goal in writing this book is that her story does not.

Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, 1854. Ah Toy’s brothel was only a block away. (Annals of San Francisco)

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

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Noel C. Cilker

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