920 Sacramento St, San Francisco, CA 94108
Donaldina Cameron (July 26, 1869 – January 4, 1968) was a Presbyterian missionary in San Francisco's Chinatown, who rescued more than 3,000 Chinese immigrant girls and women from indentured servitude. She was known as the "Angry Angel of Chinatown."
The youngest of seven children, Donaldina was born in New Zealand and moved with her family to California when she was two. During her childhood, Donaldina had very little contact and experience with immigrant populations. Family friend Mary P.D. Browne - the former president of the Women’s Occidental Board of Foreign Missionaries - took Donaldina to the Presbyterian Home in an effort to expose Donaldina to the world around her. At the home, Donaldina met Margaret Culbertson and became a sewing teacher. Culbertson and the Presbyterian Home acted as a place of refuge for freed indentured female Chinese servants, where they could be safe from the outside world and get an education. Together, Culbertson and Cameron worked to rescue Chinese immigrants until Culbertson’s death in 1897.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first piece of federal immigrant legislation in the United States. It prohibited immigrants from any area considered “undesirable”, which included most of Asia. It also barred Chinese women from entering the United States, unless they were already married to men in the United States. Originally passed to prohibit the sex trafficking of Asian women and an influx of Asian male laborers, it instead created a dangerous and illegal system where young women would present forged marriage papers that said they were already married to Chinese men in the United States. This phenomenon was dubbed the "Yellow Slave Trade". The women, often referred to as Mui Tsais, were sold as domestic servants or prostitutes by the Tongs (criminal societies). These women lived brutal lives, usually dying within five years. During this time San Francisco City Hall, run by Abe Ruef and Eugene Schmitz, took kickbacks from Tong groups, resulting in very little government action against this problem. The Chinese Six Companies was a Chinese organization that attempted to stop the Tongs, but eventually collapsed when Tongs infiltrated the organization.
Two years after Culbertson’s death in 1897, Donaldina Cameron became superintendent of the Presbyterian Home at the young age of 25. She continued the mission of the Home, saving young Chinese immigrant women from indentured service. Contemporary sources referred to this work as "the only foreign mission enterprise ever carried on in the United States".
Many friends and relatives of these girls would leave secret messages for Donaldina at the Presbyterian Home indicating the house where a girl was held captive. Often, the Tongs, who nicknamed her “Jesus Woman”, would threaten Cameron and the home. She once even spent a night in a San Jose jail while seeking the release of a Chinese woman. However, Cameron continued her mission. She was often dubbed the “Angry Angel of Chinatown”, which would later become the title for a biography.
Once freed, Chinese women were forced to reside at the Presbyterian Home (where they were not allowed outside without an escort) and to convert to Christianity. While some Chinese immigrant women welcomed conversion and saw Donaldina as a savior, nicknaming her “Lo Mo” (which she translated as "foster mother"), others had mixed feelings about this forced conversion. Often, Donaldina could be very patronizing towards these women, using terms like “waif” and “children” to describe the residents of the home. Very rarely was Chinese culture integrated into the education of the girls in the home. Instead, there was a strict curriculum of English, Christianity and western housekeeping skills. Finally, the women of the home were only allowed to leave the home if they married a Christian man approved of by Cameron.
In April 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake and fire forced the evacuation of the Presbyterian Home. Donaldina was able to save records that gave her guardianship over the girls at the home, thus ensuring their safety from being forced back into servitude or prostitution. The Home itself was destroyed in the earthquake. It was rebuilt in 1907 at 920 Sacramento Street, designed by Eleanor Raymond, where it still stands today.
Cameron also wrote extensively, seeking to gain financial support for her mission, in publications like Women and Missions and a pamphlet titled "The Yellow Slave Traffic". This writing often furthered orientalist depictions of Chinese women, but also challenged popular preconceptions that such women were incapable of integrating into American society.
Donaldina also founded two homes for Chinese children. Many of these children were orphans or the children of the rescued women. The Chung Mei Home served young boys, while the Ming Quong Home was for girls. The former Chung Mei house is today part of the Windrush School in El Cerrito, California, and the Ming Quong Home is now a part of Mills College in Oakland, California. In 1935 a third Ming Quong home—the "baby house"—was founded in Los Gatos, California. Younger Chinese American girls were taken care of here until they were old enough (age 13) to move to Oakland. That home today is part of nonprofit EMQ FamiliesFirst.
Donaldina retired from her missionary work and the Presbyterian Home in 1934. She is credited with saving and educating over 3,000 Chinese immigrant women and girls. Before her death, she was considered something of a "national icon", and her life story was covered in three biographies, some with fictional elements.
In 1942, the Presbyterian Home was renamed the Donaldina Cameron House. Cameron House still stands today in San Francisco. It serves as a multi-service agency serving Asian communities by promoting healthy Christian communities through programs like youth sports, tutoring, and counseling. After retirement, Donaldina moved to the Palo Alto area. She died on January 4, 1968, at the age of 98.