Donaldina Cameron scurried up a steep, narrow staircase, through a skylight, and across the flat rooftops of San Francisco’s Chinatown. “Hurry, hurry!” she called to Tien Wu, her interpreter. Speed was essential. The “tong” slave owners could whisk Chinese girls out of sight faster than the young missionary could trace them.

Suddenly, the man standing watch for them on the sidewalk below gasped—the two women had disappeared down an opening in the roof of a distant building. They would surely be caught! The evil slave owners would be thrilled if the fahn quai (foreign devil) met with an accident. A moment later, much to the watcher’s relief, Lo Mo (Donaldina’s Chinese name) opened a front door down the street and admitted police to rescue several desperate, young slave girls.

Donaldina’s childhood prepared her well for a life of adventure and service to the people of Chinatown. She was born in 1869 on a New Zealand sheep ranch, the youngest of seven children and the adored baby sister. Two years later, after hearing of better opportunities for sheep ranching in the United States, her father relocated the family to the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Allan Cameron taught his children to “love all people.” One night, Donaldina pressed her nose against the windowpane of a hotel room overlooking Chinatown. Her brother and sisters had tired of watching the long, swinging pigtails and black costumes in the streets below. However, “Dolly,” even at a young age, was already fascinated by the almond-eyed, golden-skinned Chinese.

An adventurous tomboy with a joyful and buoyant spirit, Donaldina rode horseback on her family’s ranch, delighted in picnics and escapades, and always found a way to make herself useful. What a shock it must have been one day when a girlfriend went looking for Dolly and found the teen atop a windmill, making repairs! Later in life, rooftop rescues would hold no fears for such a brave heart.

Donaldina felt no “call” to missions, but in 1895 she answered this request from a family friend: “Would you be willing to help at the Chinese Home? You could teach sewing and assist Miss Culbertson. Her health is delicate, and she is overburdened. Will you come for just one year?”

Dolly’s imagination soared. To be needed in a vital work! Of course she would go and help bear someone’s burden. She knew she could “...do all things through Christ which strengtheneth...[her]” (Philippians 4:13). She would need that strength; 26-year-old Donaldina had no idea what she was in for.

On the day Donaldina arrived at the Presbyterian Mission Home, she was greeted with an apology: “You’ve come at a particularly stressful time.” Miss Culbertson handed her a letter that contained these words: “Your religion is vain....By what authority do you rescue girls? If there is any more of this work...blood may flow. We send you this warning. To all Christian teachers.”  

Miss Culbertson smiled calmly as she told Donaldina: “Today, sticks of dynamite were found on the front porch. It was enough to blow up a city block. Perhaps you would like to reconsider your decision?”

No, indeed! Donaldina could not resist a challenge. She threw herself wholeheartedly into the work of rescuing Chinese girls from the “yellow slave trade.”

There was money to be made for slave traffickers during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Chinese were no longer allowed to emigrate from China to the United States, leaving the Chinese men who were already in the U.S. without female companionship. Consequently, Chinese girls and women were smuggled into the country, often with the aid of white immigration officials. Even girls as young as 5 years old were bought and sold as household slaves for wealthy Chinese who now lived in the U.S.