The Chinese Exclusion Act was proposed to prohibit the immigration of Chinese laborers to protect jobs of white workers. It was passed in 1882 for 10 years but extended for decades until 1943 before it was repealed.
This legislation also prevented many Chinese immigrants already in the United States from bringing wives and children from China.
As a consequence, it unintentionally created a lucrative opportunity for Chinese tongs to bring Chinese women to the United States, many only just past puberty, for sexual purposes. They deceived many of these women and led them to believe they would be married off to wealthy Chinese bachelors or “Gold Mountain men.” Instead, they were held captive and forced to become “sex slaves.”
Unlike “prostitutes,” who could be said to have some degree of choice in deciding their sexual lives, the “sex slaves” had no control over any aspects of their lives.
The front page of the San Francisco Call on May 3, 1900 described in detail the devious method that unscrupulous Chinese tongs devised to bring over young Chinese girls with false documents on ships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. They made huge profits by selling the girls into slavery to fulfill the sexual needs of the thousands of bachelor Chinese laborers, not to mention the sexual desires of American men.
Such profiteering from the exploitation of Chinese women was not limited to Chinese organizations. Some Chinese who had American born daughters would send them to China to live. They could then sell their documents to women in China who wanted to emigrate to the United States in hopes of a better life, only to be sold into slavery.
Three young Chinese girls who escaped their captors and received refuge at Chinatown Mission Houses in 1897 claimed that their own mothers had sold them into slavery. Their captors argued that the girls were stolen from them, and threatened one mother that if she could not bring her daughter back, she would receive "a touch of Chinese justice."
The magnitude of the problem led to a petition to the President of the United States requesting that there be an end to the enslavement of Chinese women into forced prostitution.
It is not known how many signatures were submitted on the petition and whether it had any impact on the problem.
Concerned Protestant missionaries led by Donaldina Cameron who led police raids to rescue many sex slaves in San Francisco testified in 1901about the extent of the problem and urged city officials and police take action to terminate this deplorable exploitation of Chinese women as sex slaves.
A newspaper article in 1919 asserted that the Chinese sex slave problem was being solved and that the work of missionaries such as Donaldina Cameron was instrumental in rescuing many girls and bringing the problem to the attention of the public.
In addition, by the 1920s there were more American-born Chinese women who were prospective brides for Chinese immigrant men. By then, society became more tolerant toward marriages of Chinese immigrant laborers and non-Chinese women. These factors reduced the demand for Chinese sex slaves.