It was nearly dusk on Dec. 14, 1933, when a Chinese teen named Jeung Gwai Ying fled from a hairdresser’s shop to a “safe house” in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Trafficked from China and forced into prostitution, Jeung sought freedom for herself and her unborn child. She was greeted by Tien Fuh Wu, a former slave who’d become a key staffer at the home. In Cantonese, Wu asked the teen to tell her story. Later, Wu would provide support for Jeung as she testified in court against her traffickers, who were convicted.

In the early decades of the 20th century, Wu was a key player in the fight against sex trafficking, a pervasive form of slavery in the West. But like many other Asian activists and anti-slavery pioneers, her name and story have been all but erased from most contemporary histories, in favor of stories that cast her white colleagues — women and men — in heroic, larger-than-life roles.

Most accounts of the rescue home at 920 Sacramento St. focus on the work of its longtime superintendent, Donaldina Cameron, a white Presbyterian missionary. As the youngest daughter of a Scottish sheep rancher, she had lived on a 19,000-acre sheep ranch in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1880s before moving to San Francisco to work at the rescue home in 1895. Cameron was a tall, auburn-haired woman with a Scottish lilt who fascinated headline writers and the public alike. She regularly staged dramatic rescues of so-called slave girls from their owners, in her Victorian era’s parlance.

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Asian women fought the West’s slave trade. And then they were written out of history by Julia Flynn Siler

Aug. 4th, 2019