Chinatown’s Avenging Angel
- Susan K. Marlow TOS Magazine Contributor
- Published Oct 30, 2013
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.
One evening early on, Miss Culbertson said to Donaldina, “I need your help tonight.” Donaldina was eager to participate in her first rescue. The young missionary followed her leader into dark dens that would terrify most tourists. “Stealing” slaves from the powerful tong lords was not for the faint of heart.
When the Mission Home’s courageous founder died two years later, Donaldina took over. Within ten years, the slave trade had been cut in half. Screams of “May all your ancestors curse you and turn you into a turtle!” did not deter this single-minded missionary. For forty years, Donaldina waged war against this evil trade. She knew every rooftop in Chinatown and was never afraid to accompany police on a raid. She had a special talent for detecting trap doors, loose floorboards, and secret panels—where the abused girls were hidden away during raids.
The slave masters tried to poison the minds of their slaves with lies, telling their captives stories of the terrible fate that awaited the girls if the foreign devil woman got hold of them. Many rescued girls screamed and kicked in terror on their way to the Home, but they soon discovered that Lo Mo (“Old Mother”) was the most tender of mothers.
Oftentimes, the slave masters presented false court papers to prove that a girl was a relative. One girl, Kum Quai, was forced to go with the men. But Donaldina—always attentive to the Spirit—heard a voice in her heart saying: “Go with her. She is yours.” She ran after the men, never letting Kum Quai out of her sight. Through a series of exhausting legal battles, Dolly finally prevailed. The girl was returned to Donaldina’s custody and a life of freedom.
The Mission Home became the most beloved (and hated) place in all of Chinatown. With the help of Godly lawyers and financial support from Christians in San Francisco, Donaldina rescued more than three thousand girls from a life of shame and abuse and gave them new hope. Many girls received Christ and returned to Canton, China, to help fight the slave trade at its source.
God kept Donaldina under His protection throughout her forty-year ministry. She remains the only foreign missionary who never left U.S. soil. Today, the Mission Home at 920 Sacramento Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown still stands. It has been renamed the Cameron House in Donaldina’s honor. For more history and pictures, visit www.cameronhouse.org.
Susan K. Marlow has a B.A. in elementary education and is a twenty-year homeschooling veteran of four. Homeschool mom by day, writer by night, she is the author of the Circle C Adventures and Circle C Beginnings series, and a new series, Goldtown Adventures. Susan and her husband, Roger, are now retired and live on a 14-acre homestead in Washington State. Learn more at www.susankmarlow.com.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.
Actual Journal Entries of Rescued Girls
- March 25, 1892: I received word . . . that a little girl about 9 yrs. old at the N.W. [corner] of Clay & Dupont Sts. was being badly beaten . . . I brought her to the Home. She was in pitiful condition, two cuts from a hatchet were vizible [sic] on her head—her mouth, face, and hands badly swollen from punishments she had received from her cruel mistress.
- Aug. 15, 1892: . . . we rescued [Ah Cheng]. She is very small . . . Looks like a midget—has an old and peculiar face.
- Jan. 17, 1894: Tien . . . was rescued . . . from her inhumane mistress . . . The child had been very cruelly treated—her flesh pinched and twisted till her face was scarred . . . Another method . . . was to dip lighted candlewicking in oil and burn her arms with it. Tien is a pretty child of about 10 years old, rosy cheeked and fair complexion.1
1. Martin, Mildred Crowl, Chinatown’s Angry Angel (Pacific Books, 1977).
Publication date: November 1, 2013