The Majority of Chinese Women and Girls in the U.S. Were Prostitutes in 1870

The vast majority of immigrants who came from China in search of gold in California starting in 1848 and during the 1860s to work on the construction of the western part of the transcontinental railroad were primarily young men.  Most were not married, or if they were, did not bring their wives because they hoped to return to China after they made enough money.

In 1870, there were approximately 58,000 Chinese men and about 4,000 Chinese women and girls identified in the U.S. Census so it is obvious there were few marriages created between Chinese men and women. Anti-Chinese sentiments, as well as Chinese preferences for marrying a Chinese partner, left these thousands of Chinese without sexual outlets, aside from forming homosexual liaisons, a topic that is understudied as a taboo topic, or patronizing prostitutes. In 1870, about 61 percent of the roughly 4,000 Chinese women in California were prostitutes, according to Ronald Takaki in his landmark 1998 study, Strangers in A Different Land. It should be noted that most of these women, some actually barely into puberty, and at least one girl 6 years-old, were coerced or involuntary participants controlled by unscrupulous Chinese.

I was startled by this huge statistic.  For 4,000 females, 61% would be over 2,400 prostitutes. By the way, their patrons were not limited to Chinese men, as "yellow fever" existed among white men even back in the mid-19th century. I decided to check census listings for Chinese women born in China but living in the U.S. in 1870 whose "occupation" was listed as "prostitute."  I should add I saw some towns where the occupation of many women was keeping house" or as "public."  I wonder if those were polite terms for "prostitute." ( I also saw one where the census taker wrote "whore" for one woman's occupation).

I found page after page of census records full of prostitutes. Below are 2 pages for San Francisco in 1870.  Seeing lists of actual names of these prostitutes, many under the age of 15, was more distressing than looking at statistics.

I hasten to add that a place like San Francisco also had many other occupations for Chinese men including cook, peddler, tailor.  jeweler, doctor, barber, cigar maker, and of course, laundryman.

In contrast, in small mining towns such as Silver Bow, Montana, most of the Chinese men were miners along with two laundrymen to wash their clothes and a couple of prostitutes to fulfill their carnal needs. (Note that the census taker did not bother recording their names. All men were listed as  "Chinaman" and the two prostitutes as "Chinawoman"!

Thankfully, a decade later in the 1880 census, although still unacceptably high, there was a big drop in the percentage, 24, of Chinese women working as prostitutes.

Writer Gary Kamiya presented an excellent account of the factors responsible for the high number of Chinese prostitutes and their living conditions in San Francisco in the late 19th century.


The Bizarre Way in which Chinese Gained The Right to Testify in Court

In People v. Hall in 1854, the testimony of Chinese against Hall, a white man accused of murder was disallowed as Chinese were assumed to be inferior to whites. A murder trial involving Chinese testifying against Chinese in 1882 strangely opened the door for Chinese immigrants to testify in court trials.

Yee Shun, a 20-year old Chinese, was visiting a Chinese friend in his laundry in Las Vegas in the New Mexico Territory when a Chinese shot and killed another Chinese during an argument. Chinese witnesses claimed that Yee Shun was the murderer and in 1882 he was sent to prison where he sadly later killed himself.

The irony of Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun is that although an innocent man, Yee Shun, was convicted, the acceptance of the testimony of Chinese witnesses set a precedent for the acceptance of testimony from Chinese in subsequent court cases.

It is no consolation to Yee Shun but Albuquerque plans to create a memorial, View from Gold Mountain, to the Yee Shun case.
A model of the planned artwork for downtown Albuquerque memorializing the landmark Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun case that gave Chinese the right to testify in courts. 


Shortage of Chinese House Boys After 1882 Exclusion Law

The threat to work for white labor led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which helped white workers.  However, as reported in an article in 1908 in the New York Sun, it also created an unexpected crisis for white households that wanted to enjoy cheap Chinese domestic servants to cook, clean, and look after young children. Furthermore, when Chinese domestics learned enough English they quit domestic service in favor of opening their own businesses.This shortage forced whites to turn to other 'orientals', the Japanese, for domestic help.

        There were cultural differences between the "Orientals" whether Chinese or Japanese, and their white employers that created problems, but some of the encounters were rather amusing. Here are two examples of Chinese houseboys creating 'problems' for their white employers.

Japanese houseboys also presented some amusing conflicts with their employers.


Who Were These Five Chinese Men?

This photograph of five dapper looking young Chinese men has appeared on several different websites. On some, but not most of these sites, a caption identifying them is included. 

Were They Involved In the 1871 Los Angeles Anti-Chinese Massacre?

In 2019, the photo appears in a header on a post on the blog of KCET-TV, a Los Angeles PBS station, which might lead one to infer they had been involved in the 1871 Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre.

Were these men affected by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act?

A post on the Library of Congress website about immigration includes the image with a caption, "Chinese American men" on a page about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

Were these 5 Chinese in Mississippi?

Another website, primarily concerned with U.S. slavery, included the photo in on a post about early Chinese immigrants in the Mississippi Delta bearing the caption, "Coming to Mississippi."

But, in an earlier post on this blog in 2015, I noted that the photo is of a studio portrait of five Chinese men in Georgetown, Colorado taken sometime between 1890 and 1910.

The actual photo at the Denver Library Archives shows that all of these uses of the photo were misleading.  The 5 men in the photo were posing for a studio portrait in Georgetown, Colorado, sometime between 1890 and 1910. Two of the 5 men are identified by name, Wa Chin and Tang Wa-Shun.

The photo raises some intriguing questions. One wonders why these men chose to have a formal portrait.  How were they related to each other?  What was their occupation?

The lesson is that this photo, and undoubtly many others, that accompany articles about Chinese immigrants are inaccurate, but were included as illustrations of Chinese, even though the specific individuals in the photographs had nothing to do with the articles they accompany.


Chinese immigrants to the U.S. had it easy...

Compared to the gauntlet that Chinese immigrants to Australia faced a century ago, their countrymen coming to the U.S. had an easier, but still difficult, time gaining entry.

Chinese seeking entry to Australia not only had their mug shots taken but also handprints of both hands as in the sample below.

Moreover,  from 1901 to 1958  Chinese had to pass an outrageous "Dictation Test."

Below are other examples of 50-word texts for the Dictation Test that most Chinese would probably fail.

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