Book Content Warning: Human trafficking and forced prostitution
The Paper Daughters of Chinatown by Heather B. Moore is a historical fiction novel rooted heavily in the lives of Donaldina “Dolly” Cameron, Tien Fuh Wu, and countless other women who rescued Chinese slaves and prostituted women in San Francisco. Through conversations and events inspired by meticulous studies of diaries, ledgers, newspaper articles, and other primary sources from the period, Moore captures the horrors of extensive human trafficking in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Chinatown and honors the small group of women who fought to end this slave trade.
When Dolly, a single woman in her early 20s, accepts a year long teaching post at the Presbyterian Home in Chinatown, she has no idea that the rest of her life will be spent rescuing Chinese girls and women from slavery and forced prostitution. Though hired as a sewing teacher, Dolly begins to accompany the home’s director on raids to help girls and women escape cruel masters.
Once safe, the girls could choose to leave or reside at the mission home until they were old enough to be capable of making their own way. Dolly quickly develops a loving bond with many of the girls, earning her the title “Lo Ma,” or “mother,” and fights fiercely to keep the girls from being returned to their masters even in the face of death threats from powerful slave owners.
Alternating chapters switch to Mei Lien, a fictional character who is eventually rescued by the mission home, to add a fuller perspective on the lives of the Chinese women themselves. The daughter of a destitute widow, Mei Lien is recruited by deceitful human traffickers who tell Mei Lien and her mother that she will go to San Francisco to marry a wealthy man in search of a Chinese wife. In exchange, they give Mei Lien’s mother a generous sum of money. Upon arriving in San Francisco, however, Mei Lien realises she has been tricked and is forced into prostitution under a notoriously cruel slave owner until she can pay off her contract. Mei Lien quickly becomes addicted to opium — slave owners would use opium’s addictiveness and painful withdrawal symptoms to keep the girls from fleeing. After several difficult months, Mei Lien finally finds safety at the Presbyterian Home.
This novel is packed full of historical facts. Each chapter begins with a quote from documents that provide first-hand insight into early 20th-century Chinatown, such as Presbyterian Home ledgers, Tien Fu Wuh’s diary, news articles from the San Francisco Chronicle, police reports, or account records from slave owners. Spanning several years, the novel addresses general historical events, such as the plague outbreak of 1900-1904 and the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, as well as little known stories specific to the Chinese slave trade. For example, a chapter is dedicated to Stanford students in Palo Alto protesting on Dolly’s behalf after one of the rescued daughters is returned to her master in a fraudulent court case. Moore also explains the many heartbreaking ways girls were taken from their homes in China and forced into slavery by sharing the names and stories of real girls who lived in the mission home. The level of historical detail is incredible—for anyone interested in Chinese history in California, this is an insightful novel full of starting points for further research.
Though the facts are very accurate, the clear intent to glorify Dolly and the Presbyterian Mission Home comes off as a bit simplistic and unrealistic. Even the most heroic and admirable of figures is flawed in some regard, yet the Dolly of Moore’s novel is a perfect saint. One point in particular left underdeveloped is the Christianization of the rescued girls. To an extent, the novel addresses the fact that the girls were required to be baptized, take Bible classes, and attend church each Sunday, yet the perspective of the girls on this forced conversion is left untouched.
After finishing the book, I was intrigued to learn more about Dolly and the Presbyterian Home. In my research I found that some girls were opposed to this forced conversion. Especially looking back at this time with a modern perspective, requiring the girls to participate in a new belief system in exchange for shelter is problematic. I also discovered that some of Dolly’s writings, which were distributed to raise support for the mission home and encourage acceptance of Chinese immigrants, had Orientalist tendencies and described the girls as helpless. This contributed to an overall attitude at the time that helping these Chinese slaves was a “white woman’s burden”. Though Dolly acted out of genuine love and concern, she was not free from the prevailing attitudes of the time that women needed to Christianize and civilize Chinese immigrants.
Inclusion of these details in the novel would not have diminished the valuable work Dolly did—she still helped over 2,000 women escape from slavery. Rather, it could have added an interesting, more nuanced perspective and led to conversations about the impact of colonialist thought in the context of immigration. The Presbyterian Mission Home was not as perfect as the novel makes it out to be.
Overall, The Paper Daughters of Chinatown is a fascinating, informative, and inspirational read. Dolly’s fearlessness and dedication to her Chinese daughters is gripping and the reader becomes just as invested in the mission home as Dolly herself. It will leave you critically examining history and reflecting on what you can do to correct the injustices in our society today.
Heather Moore has written over 50 publications, including historical fiction, thrillers, romances, and inspirational non-fiction. Several of her books have made the USA Today bestseller list. She is the six-time recipient of Best of State (Utah) for Literary Arts and four-time Whitney Award winner.
The Paper Daughters of Chinatown can be purchased here.