February 4, 2015

From the Archives: A 19th-Century San Francisco Chinese Woman's Autobiography


We are pleased to include below the first post in an ongoing occasional series titled "From the Archives." Our first contribution comes from Joshua Paddison.

Autobiography of an Unnamed Chinese Woman
Introduced and Transcribed by Joshua Paddison

The following unnamed Chinese woman’s life story, written “in her own words,” was published in San Francisco’s Presbyterian newspaper, The Occident, on August 5, 1885. At the time, she was an interpreter and resident at the local Presbyterian Mission Home for Girls. Presbyterian missionaries had been working with Chinese immigrants in San Francisco since the 1850s.

In the 1870s, California’s politicians had seized on the figure of the “sinful” and “diseased” Chinese prostitute to urge the necessity of halting immigration from China. This resulted in the Page Act of 1875, the federal government’s first restriction of immigration, which forbade Chinese “coolies” and prostitutes from entering the United States. Protestant missionaries in California generally supported the Page Act but argued that Chinese women could and should be cared for, “uplifted,” and transformed into “useful Christian women.” “What maketh us to differ from them?” asked Presbyterian missionary Samantha Condit in 1874. “God’s grace alone.”

Chinese women’s autobiographical stories such as this one appeared occasionally in California’s Protestant publications, offered as evidence of the progress missionaries were making as well as the redeemability of all of the world’s “races.” These narratives are a largely untapped resource for historians of Asian American history, offering evidence of both the benefits and costs accrued when Chinese Americans joined Protestant churches in the nineteenth century.


My home was in Onom, China, when I was three years old. I have ten sisters and one brother. And they all are married. My father was the richest man in that town, so we had a good home to live in at first. But afterward he lost all his money, and he went to another country to try to get work. But since he went there we have never heard anything from him. So my mother tried to find out where he was, and by and by a man came from where my father was. He told my mother that he was dead. She could not get along without money, so then she took me down to Hong Kong, and sold me to a woman for eighty dollars, and then she went back to her home. And that woman took me to her home, and got a teacher to teach me to sing, and paid one hundred and eighty dollars for him to teach me thirty pieces or songs only, in eight months.

I learned every one of them and I was then only eight years old. So I began to go out every day, to sing for the people at the hotels. Sometimes I earned eighty dollars in one night, sometimes more than that. So I went on every day and every night, without stopping, for six months, and then I had to stop because I was very sick for nearly a year, and that woman was afraid that I was not going to live any longer; not because she cared for me, but because she wanted the money that I could earn.

Not long after that, I began to get a little better; and so she took me and sold me again to another woman for three hundred and forty dollars, and she brought me to this country. She treated me just like her own little child. She was very kind to me indeed. I was only nine years and a few months old, and she told me to call her husband papa, and call her mamma. I staid [sic] with her until I was twelve years old, and, not long after that, she got a letter from her mother-in-law’s friends, saying she was dead; so she had to go back to China, not because she liked to go, but because that is our Chinese heathen way to worship the mother-in-law after she is dead. Papa wanted to take me with him, but mamma said that I didn’t need to go with them, because she was coming back very soon, and it would cost so much to take me along; so she left me in the care of a friend until she would come back; but her friend was one of the bad women, so she took me and sold me to a man for five hundred dollars for his third wife. And now came the time for me to fall into cruel hands.

Only a few months after that, he tried to take me to the country and sell me again. But his kind young brother had heard some other men talking about it, so he came to me and told me what his brother wanted to do; and after a few days, a man came [to] me and asked me if I was willing to go with him to the country the next week.

Then I said to him, “No, I don’t want to go any place”; and he said to me, “Your husband has taken some money from me, so you have to go with me.”

So then I did know what his brother had told me was true, and the next day I was trying to get away from him. I began at nine o’clock in the morning. I was very much afraid to let him find out what I intended to do, because if he knew, I could not get away from him, so I went to his other wife about twelve o’clock and told her that I wanted to run away from him. So she said to me, “Do as you like, because I know that he is not good for you to live with,” and then I ran off and he ran after me.

But I know God helped me get to the Mission Home. He told Miss [Margaret] Culbertson to give me back to him, because he had paid five hundred dollars to get me. But she told him she will not make me go with him unless I was willing to go, and I was not.

I have been in the Home about seven years, and have always had kind friends to take care of me, and last year I learned where my mother lives. I have a friend here who knew me when I was a little girl, and who is also a friend of my cousin, and he went to see my cousin, and began to talk with him about his aunt selling a girl, and she had never heard anything from her, and told my father’s name to him, all my sisters’ and brothers’ names, and also he told my name to him. So when he came to see me he said, “I went to see a friend last night, and he told me that his aunt had lost a girl of the same name, and as yours.”

Then I asked him her father’s name, and he told my father name to me I began to cry and told him to bring my cousin to me. So when he came to see me he asked if I was a Christian girl. I said, “Yes, I became a Christian three years ago.”

And then he said, “If your mother hears this she will be very sad to think about it.”

I said to him, “Why should she be sad?”

“Because,” he said, “when you a Christian you cannot pray to her when she is dead.”

But I wrote to her and told her all about God, and how he had helped me to get out of all the trouble, and how Jesus died for our sins. So a few months ago I got a letter from her, and she wants me to go home; and she said she is very sorry, and that I was a very foolish girl to be a Christian, because Chinese always pray to their father and mother when they are dead. But I am thankful to learn to love God, and I hope many other Chinese girls may learn to love Him too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I chinese. this is bad like stail fried rice and too like poopoo mixed with peepee.