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The Stories from the Past

One of the many reasons I write books is because I always learn something new. Today, I’d like to share the stories of two impressive American women I didn’t know before I started my current book writing project. Many of you probably have never heard of them, either.

One of the most popular series streaming on Netflix is “Warrior.” It’s about 19th-century Chinatown in San Francisco. One of the leading female characters is named Ah Toy. She is an exotic and enchanting woman who runs the most prominent brothel in Chinatown. Ah Toy has a secret few know: she is a lethal warrior. This character isn’t entirely fictional. During my book research, I discovered that Ah Toy was an actual historical figure. To understand her story, it is crucial to be familiar with the historical context of the era. 

Since the late 1840s, Chinese immigrants have come to America to seek a better life. First, they tried to find their fortune during the gold rush, and then they toiled in challenging environments to construct the transcontinental railroad. Back then, most Chinese immigrants were men, and most of them were indentured laborers sponsored by wealthy merchants who expected to get their investments back by taking a cut from the wages of Chinese laborers.

These Chinese laborers would save every penny they could, return to China to get married and father children, and then leave their families in China while returning to California to make more money and send it home. They couldn’t afford to bring their wives and families to the U.S. Thus, there weren’t many Chinese women in California, and most of them were trafficked to the U.S. by smugglers and sold either to brothels as prostitutes or to wealthy Chinese businessmen as concubines, sometimes for as little as $300. 

Miss Ah Toy was said to be only the second Chinese woman arrived in San Francisco in 1848. She came to America with her husband (who was a merchant), but he died of illness on the boat. At age 19 and newly widowed, Ah Toy found herself in a strange land all alone. Without either language or other marketable skills, her survival depended on selling the most valuable possession she had, herself. Ah Toy became the first recorded Chinese prostitute.

Besides being beautiful, Ah Toy quickly demonstrated that she was also intelligent and entrepreneurial. By 1851, she became the madam of the most prominent brothel in Chinatown, counting police officers and well-known politicians of San Francisco as her clients.

Besides brothels, shops, and restaurants, Chinatown was dominated by tongs—Chinese gangs. Mainstream American institutions, charitable organizations, and even many government agencies didn’t extend their services to Chinese immigrants and Chinatown. Tongs, associations for Chinese immigrants, emerged out of the necessity to look after newly arrived Chinese immigrants and provide services to existing Chinese residents, including lending money to Chinese business owners, settling disputes in the community, and arranging for the remains of Chinese workers to be sent back to China for traditional burial.

Gradually, tongs evolved into gangs that also ran illicit drug trades and human trafficking, collected “protection fees” from local Chinese businesses, and fought among each other over turf wars. It is fair to say that tongs had done more to terrorize fellow residents in Chinatown than helping them. Leaders of tongs in Chinatown were particularly annoyed that a woman ran the most successful brothel in their territory.

In 1852, Yee Ah Tye, head of a tong, demanded Ah Toy pay him a “protection fee.” Had the incident occurred in China, Toy would have paid the extortion without uttering a word. After all, prostitutes were regarded as one of the lowest of the low social classes in China, only slightly better than beggars and criminals. But after living in America for a few years, Toy had been Americanized: she knew she had rights that weren’t recognized in China, and she had legal means to defend herself that weren’t available to people like her in China. Rather than sucking up and paying the extortion, Ah Toy did something very American—threatening to take Tye, the gang leader, to court. 


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