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This Day in Labor History: March 21, 1866

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On March 21, 1866, California passed An Act for the Suppression of Chinese Houses of Ill Fame, an anti-prostitution measure that stood in for a larger anti-Chinese sentiment in that state that would lead to the Chinese Exclusion Act sixteen years later and was part and parcel with a larger project that lasted over a century to create California as a white man’s state.

When the California Gold Rush started in 1848, people from around the world flocked to California. But nearly all of them were men. Outside of the Native people in California and to a lesser extent the Spanish-Mexican Californios, each of these groups saw a massive gender disparity. This led to all sorts of responses. One was to use Native women as sex slaves and Native slavery was a huge problem in California for years after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. Another was for men to pair off in homosexual relationships, which the historian Susan Johnson has detailed in her great book, Roaring Camp. A third was to import prostitutes. This was hardly confined to the Chinese. Many white prostitutes also came to California. But whites’ attention were soon fixated on these Chinese sex workers.

White Americans who arrived in California in 1849 and 1850 were deeply chagrined to find the rest of the world there too. They responded with violence—against Native people, kicking the Mexicans and Chileans and Chinese out of the diggings, lynching anyone who got in their way. Soon, the Chinese were replacing the women’s work in white men’s lives, establishing Chinese restaurants and laundries, while also doing the hardest labor that whites did not want to do. But none of this reduced the animosity whites felt toward the Chinese, with violence frequently resulting.

With men, regardless of nationality, demanding women for sex, prostitutes arrived. In 1850, San Francisco had 4,018 Chinese men and 7 Chinese women. Five years later, women’s percentage of the population had risen to 2 percent. Even if men did have wives at home, they didn’t want to send for them because of the violence and hostility they faced in California. By 1870, there were 3,536 Chinese women in California, but an amazing 61 percent of them were listed as prostitutes in the Census.

Now, there’s no question that Chinese prostitution was pretty brutal for the women involved. The entire Chinese migration to the U.S. after the discovery of gold was driven by the deep, awful poverty of southeastern China in these years. Men and women were both expendable. Many of these women were sex slaves, often kidnapped or sold into the life. The women kept little if any of the money. Their lives meant little and nearly every cent went to the men trafficking them. Death rates were high, as were rates of drug use. For those of you who have watched Deadwood, the treatment of Chinese prostitutes in that show pretty accurately reflects the reality.

But that’s only part of what attracted so much white attention to the Chinese prostitutes. Accurate reporting on the brutality mixed with salacious thoughts of interracial sex and racial fears of the Chinese breeding and thus remaining in the United States, threatening the white man’s republic. There was far less attention to the nearly as common white prostitutes working in San Francisco and throughout California. This combination of factors is what led to the Act for the Suppression of Chinese Houses of Ill Fame, passed on this day in 1866, which sought to crack down on the proliferation of Chinese prostitution. San Francisco had passed municipal regulations around suppressing both Chinese and Mexican brothels as early as 1854. Initially, the law was going to target men who used the brothels, but then decided to focus on the brothels themselves, seeking to close them and target the sex workers themselves. The men who purchased their services would face no legal repercussions and landlords only had to forfeit the rents they had collected. Living in a suspected brothel could mean fines and imprisonment. The onus was on women to prove they weren’t living in a brothel inside a legal system that equated Chinese women and prostitution. The maximum penalty was a $500 fine and six months in prison. It seems that a lot of prosecutions ended up in deals to regulate prostitution rather than close it down entirely, at least at first.

The law did elicit some opposition. Radical Republicans in California, a definite minority, saw it as a racially charged law and opposed it on those grounds. They pointed out that this was not a law against prostitution. It was a law against the Chinese. But anti-Chinese sentiment won out. Portraying the Chinese as particularly awful and destructive of society, the law passed despite its openly discriminatory nature.

In the aftermath, white missionaries stepped in to provide an escape outlet for the prostitutes, who saw the Chinese as barbarians anyway, in part because sex work was so common. About 1,000 or more women did seek refuge as Protestant missionary homes between 1870 and 1900 to escape sex work. The overall numbers of sex workers among the Chinese population declined pretty rapidly. By 1880, 24 percent of the 3,171 Chinese women listed in the 1880 Census worked in the sex industry. Moreover, there is some evidence that the women themselves saw the law as something to help them out of a terrible situation. At least some white reporters claimed that some Chinese women sought arrest to escape their servitude. Many sought counsel with a leading Republican lawyer in the state named Frank Pixley, who at least assured that all of these women received a jury trial, even though he later supported the Chinese Exclusion Act.

But a lot of the prostitutes just fled to Oregon or small mining towns where they would receive less attention. Basically, the police simply harassed these women out of San Francisco and to some extent out of California. But it was San Francisco where the enforcement was strongest because the law came out of that city’s politicians. While other forms of prostitution continued unabated, in 1867, 14 brothel owners in San Francisco were arrested, all Chinese. In 1869, 29 people in California were arrested for importing women for prostitution. Again, all were Chinese in an era when lots of people were doing this with women from the United States and other nations.

In 1868, the law was declared unconstitutional by the state courts for violating the Civil Rights of Act of 1866 because it targeted one race. But that would hardly stop Californians from using the state to evict the Chinese they hated. In 1870, the state passed An Act to Prevent the Kidnapping and Importation of Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese Females for Criminal or Demoralizing Purposes, creating an immigration law that no Asian could enter California on a boat without evidence she was not a sex worker. But, in 1875, a U.S. District Court again ruled this unconstitutional because it targeted particular people and because immigration was a federal, not a state issue. All of this laid the groundwork for the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Broader attacks on prostitution in America would not come to fruition until the 1910s.

There is a sizable literature that explores these issues. I borrowed a bit from Stacey Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, which is an excellent book that adds to our knowledge of how the Civil War and Reconstruction transformed the West as much as it did the South. I also borrowed from Eithne Luibhéid, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border, which is not a book I have read in its entirety. Another book I recommend on the broader issue of Chinese women in California is Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco.

This is the 304th post in this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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