UCSC Review Winter 1996
Chinese women in America: The Early Years
The first Chinese to immigrate to America in the mid-1800s were almost exclusively men. So few women came in the early years that in 1900, half a century after the first large wave of immigrants arrived, the ratio of Chinese men to women was 18 to 1.
Initially, women stayed behind because of cultural expectations. In 1882, the U.S. Congress presented an additional obstacle when it passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring the entry of all but a few privileged classes of Chinese.
Previous to the Exclusion Act, the majority of Chinese women arriving in the U.S. were brought here through a highly organized trafficking operation that supplied a burgeoning prostitution trade. These women generally came against their will, having been kidnapped, lured away from home, or purchased from impoverished parents. Once here they were forced to sign (with thumbprints) contracts that they couldn't read.
Although a few early immigrants worked as housewives or earned wages for manual labor, census data from the 1860s indicates that 85 to 97 percent of women in San Francisco's Chinatown lived as prostitutes. Conditions were so wretched for these women that few survived longer than the four- to six-year terms of their contracts before succumbing to venereal disease, beatings from owners and customers, or squalid living conditions.