The Child Slave Who Helped Rescue Thousands of Women in Chinatown

In 1894, when Tien Fuh Wu was rescued from a Chinatown gambling den, she was covered in so many burns, cuts and bruises that it brought tears to the eyes of the police officers who'd come to retrieve her. The two missionaries leading the rescue worked out of the Occidental Board's Presbyterian Mission House, five blocks away on Sacramento Street, and Wu would go on to spend most of her life there—first as a defiant child, and later as the tenacious rescuer of thousands of young women and girls just like her.

Wu had found herself in San Francisco two years earlier, after her father had sold her to pay off his gambling debts. Somewhere between the age of six and ten, Wu—under the pretense of going to visit her grandmother—was escorted to a boat. Her father locked her inside a cabin onboard with only a toothbrush and washcloth, told her to eat her supper, and left without saying goodbye. (She never saw her family again, despite attempting to locate them decades later.)

From her native province of Zehjiang, China, Wu was first taken a hundred miles north to Shanghai, then onto San Francisco via steamship. There, she was forced to work in a brothel, the Peking, as a "mui tsai." The phrase literally means "little sister," while her role was that of a domestic slave. When her owner at the brothel fell into debt, Wu was sold to the gambling den on Jackson Street. There, she was subjected to rigorous household chores, and physically abused by her new owner.

When the children sold into the Chinatown mui tsai system reached their teens, they typically transferred from a life of domestic slavery into one of forced sex work. At the turn of the century in San Francisco, this kind of trafficking was rampant, and largely ignored by city authorities. The only real challenge to the system came in the form of missionaries, keen to free the imprisoned women from what they saw as a life of sin and convert them to Christianity.

920 Sacramento Street, where Tien Fuh Wu worked with Donaldina Cameron to rescue hundreds of women sold or tricked into a life of slavery and/or sexual abuse.
920 Sacramento Street, where Tien Fuh Wu worked with Donaldina Cameron to rescue hundreds of women sold or tricked into a life of slavery and/or sexual abuse. (Matty Messner)

Fifteen months after Wu was rescued, 23-year-old Donaldina Cameron arrived at the Mission Home at 920 Sacramento Street to teach the girls how to sew. By the time she was 25, she had become Superintendent. Initially the willful child and the strict teacher butted heads, but over time, they grew to form a relationship that more closely resembled that of mother and daughter. As all of the girls in the home tended to do, Wu affectionately called Cameron "Lo Mo," meaning "Old Mother." In turn, Cameron referred to her young friend as "Blessed Tien."

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Due to her need for a Chinese translator, Cameron employed girls from the Mission House to act as her aides. When Wu was in her teens, Cameron's favorite aide, Leung Yuen Qui, contracted tuberculosis. Wu not only volunteered to nurse the gravely ill woman, but was witness to her death and the emotional devastation it caused Cameron. It was this that prompted Wu to step up to take Qui's place.

"I offered to help her in the work," Wu said later, "because I felt very sorry for her, realizing how terribly crushed she was over her co-worker's death." It was the beginning of a working relationship that would last both of their lifetimes and save the lives of thousands of trafficked girls and women.

Earning $5 a month, Wu translated for Cameron during court cases and helped supervise the Mission House. (According to Julia Flynn Siler's account of the period, The White Devil's Daughters, one staff member described Wu as a "a stern taskmaster... but she was very kind and fair... so the girls trusted her.") Most important of all, she accompanied Cameron on dangerous rescues, some of which took many months and intense investigation to orchestrate.

Wu's role was of vital importance, not just for the sake of her ability to translate, but also because she put the rescued girls at ease. Brothel and slave owners commonly spread fear of "White Devils" to stop the women in their possession from seeking help. Many of those girls believed they would be in even greater danger if taken into the charge of white people. Wu—sometimes pointing to her own scars as evidence of her understanding—was the only one who could truly reassure them they were safe.

In 1908, a booklet titled Dragon Stories was released by Oakland's Pacific Presbyterian Publishing Company, in an effort to draw attention to the good work being done by the Chinatown missionaries. In it, a character believed to be at least partially based on Tien Fuh Wu was written about as a brave and determined hero, "excited" and "eager for the fray." In the stories, she was presented as forcing her way into brothels, warmly reassuring young girls, and fearlessly getting them out of harm's way.

Wu's bravery cannot be overstated. Though everyone working at the Mission House received threats of violence for the work they were doing, Wu was targeted more than most because she herself was Chinese and therefore viewed as a traitor by the brothel owners in her midst. She was sent so many threats for doing rescue and interpretation work that, after each major rescue, Cameron would routinely stop her 4' 11" cohort from going out alone for weeks at a time.

One infamous and racist letter called Wu a prostitute, a "stinking sow," and threatened, "If God has eyes, he will certainly punish you. You have overreached yourself and in so doing, negroes, dogs and thunder will come after you."

Based on the history of the Mission House, if God's eyes were indeed watching over it, they offered nothing but protection. Though the building had to be reconstructed, not only did the organization survive the 1906 earthquake, everyone living and working there also survived the flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919. This despite most of the women in the home being struck down with the illness. Wu and the home's Assistant Superintendent, Ethel Higgins, are credited with nursing everyone back to health.

Today, the Mission House continues to provide invaluable services to the Chinatown community. It offers over a thousand low-income and immigrant Asian families assistance in the form of counseling, domestic violence intervention, food distribution, after-school and summer programs, adult classes and more. Though it was renamed Donaldina Cameron House in 1942, the original Mission House sign remains in brickwork over the main entrance.

Today, 920 Sacramento Street is named Donaldina Cameron House, but the original Presbyterian Mission House sign remains in the stonework over the main entrance.
Today, 920 Sacramento Street is named Donaldina Cameron House, but the original Presbyterian Mission House sign remains in the stonework over the main entrance. (Rae Alexandra)

By the 1930s, as Cameron readied herself for retirement, Wu took on even more responsibility, making public appearances to raise funds and awareness, while also dealing with the immigration woes of the women in their care. She also acted as a travel guardian for women who had testified against slave dealers. (They called her "Auntie Wu.") As if that weren't enough, she even vetted potential grooms for the girls, investigating both their morality and financial security to be sure that the women would be safe in their new homes. Wu herself turned down a multitude of suitors. "Men are very useful," she once said, "when it comes to moving furniture."

When Wu eventually retired in 1951, her beloved "Lo Mo" had long since settled on California Avenue in Palo Alto. Cameron offered Wu the cottage next door, and the two lived side-by-side until Cameron's death in 1968. Wu is said to have been at her mentor's side, reading from a Bible until the very end. When Wu passed away seven years later, she was buried next to her friend in Cameron's family plot at the Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Her small headstone belies the huge importance of the life she lived. It reads only: "Tien Fuh Wu 1886-1975."

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