Behind the Scenes in Chinatown

Andi’s, Jenny’s, and Lin Mei’s adventures in Chinatown, San Francisco, in 1881 match some of the true history behind the “smugglers” and slave traders in the book San Francisco Smugglers. I did a ton of research to get everything right about that. While an author uses about 10% of their research in the actual novel, I could recycle it as an article for a “Heroes of the Faith” series in the Old Schoolhouse Magazine back in 2012. I just found it again and thought you might like to hear the true story about Donaldina Cameron, the missionary who (just like Andi) lived in the San Joaquin Valley and would rather climb a windmill and ride her horse than do ladylike things. She was just about Andi’s age too, and the youngest of seven children. Since it’s hard to read the fine print in the article, I have copied it below. Enjoy!

Chinatown’s Avenging Angel

By Susan K. Marlow, November 2012, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine

Up a steep, narrow staircase, through a skylight, and across the flat rooftops of San Francisco’s Chinatown Donaldina Cameron scurried. “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 window pane 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. But “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! Rooftop rescues later in life would hold no fears for such a brave heart.

Donaldina felt no “call” to missions, but in 1895 she answered the request of 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 me.” (Phil. 4:13) She would need that strength, for twenty-six-year-old Donaldina had no idea what she was in for.

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: “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. “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?”

Assisting in a rescue.

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 traffickers during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Chinese were no longer allowed to immigrate to the United States, leaving the men already here without female companionship. 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.

One evening early on, Miss Culbertson said, “I need your help tonight.” Donaldina was ready 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 was 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 trapdoors, loose floor boards, and hidden panels—where the abused girls were hidden away during raids.

The slave masters tried to poison the minds of their slaves with lies. They told 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 Lo Mo (“Old Mother”) was the most tender of mothers.

Oftentimes, the slave masters presented false court papers to prove 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: “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 her 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 over 3,000 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.

The original Presbyterian Home for girls on Sacramento Street.
The later Home. You can read the sign above the door is you look closely.

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

Actual Journal Entries of Rescued Girls:1

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 inhuman 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. 

Susan K. Marlow has a BA 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 historical adventure series, and a new series, Goldtown Adventures. Susan and her husband, Roger, are retired and live on a 14-acre homestead in Washington state. Learn more at 


1.  Martin, Mildred Crowl, Chinatown’s Angry Angel (Pacific Books, 1977).

Published by Andi Carter

I'm the main character in the Circle C Adventures series. I live on a huge cattle ranch in 1880s California. These are my adventures.

11 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes in Chinatown

  1. I never knew all that. I love any story about missionaries! Thank God he sent Donaldina Cameron to Chinatown!!! Thanks Mrs. M for sharing!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Wow! That is so crazy what the Chinese would do to the little girls! It’s so cool what Donaldina did for them! Is the mission still at work or was the slave trade abolished? (I’m guessing it was abolished but I just wanted to make sure lol)

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Really amazing story. (as I said before) I love missionaries. And one of my dreams is to one day become a missionary. But then again each one us can be a missionary, no matter our age and even if we don’t leave our country :)❤️

    Liked by 3 people

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