09 May 2012

The Donaldina Cameron House

My sketch of Chinatown's "Angry Angel"

Last weekend I ventured into San Francisco's Chinatown to research one of my favorite women in history, Donaldina Cameron, a strong Scottish-American woman. At age 26, she accepted an invitation from family friends to spend a year working in the Presbyterian foreign mission home in Chinatown, leaving her home in the San Gabriel Valley. She stayed for the rest of her life.

Chinatown in 1895 was segregated from the rest of the city. Populated with tens of thousands of men working the mines, its census data regarding wives numbered only in the hundreds. Countless women and girls were being abducted from China, smuggled into California. and forced into servitude, sexual and otherwise.  

Her first night in the house, Donaldina participated in what would be the first of a lifetime of dangerous rescues: abducting a young woman from a brothel with an armed police escort and a Chinese interpreter (also female). In later raids, she was known to carry an axe and her canny perception of where girls may be hidden beneath wall panels or floorboards. 

The home sought to teach the women the skills they needed to build their own lives and families: reading, writing, sewing. Many found husbands, whom they met properly in the home's front parlor. The first Chinese American woman to cast a vote in 1912, Tye Leung Schulze, was a "rescue" who later became an interpreter for Cameron.

It is estimated that Cameron helped 3,000 women and girls. She never married and had no children, biologically speaking. 

Today the "Cameron House" is very much alive, an active hub of the native and immigrant community in Chinatown offering programs in health, education, employment, and counseling. I was lucky enough to be there to attend the yearly "Cameron Carnival" and speak to kids who had spent from first grade until senior year in high school in the youth programs there. There are those who can trace their family back to a "rescue girl" and can visit the spot where their great great grandparents met: the front parlor.