California’s first Chinese settlers, two men and one woman, reached San Francisco
in February 1848, aboard the brig Eagle. Sometime later that year, or early in
1849, a second Chinese woman arrived – Ah Toy, a twenty-year old prostitute. Ah
Toy’s first crib was a small shanty in an ally off Clay Street just above Kearny in the
heart of what is now San Francisco’s Chinatown. The line of men waiting outside
her shack was often a block long, and some early writers say that whenever a boat
from Sacramento docked, the miners would race each other to Ah Toy’s house.
Five additional Chinese women arrived in 1850, with two going to work for Ah Toy.
Now a madam, she moved to a larger house located off Clay in an alley known as
Pike Street. (For the next seventy years, the alley was the location of some of the
city’s most luxurious brothels, some of its lowest cribs, and some of Chinatown’s
bloodiest Tong wars.) When, in 1852, several hundred Chinese prostitutes arrived,
Ah Toy graduated to an even more elevated position-agent for other Chinese
bordellos. She would attend each new showing of special merchandise at the
market, and select the comeliest females for her clients.
A painting of 1852 shows a group of Oriental slave girls newly debarked from a
China clipper. They are crowded together in a horse cart on the wharf, overseen by
the Portuguese duenna who was hired to keep them under guard during the
voyage. Around the cart is a crowd of excited Chinese men, two policemen who are
beating back those attempting to handle the merchandise, and the Yankee ship
captain standing smugly a short distance away. The destination of carts such as
the one depicted in this painting was the basement under a joss house in St. Louis
Alley. Here the girls were stripped naked and examined by the prospective buyers
either brothel owners or agents for the wealthy Chinese who sought mistresses. In
China, the girls were sold for $30-90, while in California they brought anywhere
from $300-3,000, depending upon their air and beauty.
In 1854, Ah Toy was arrested, convicted, and fined for keeping a disorderly house.
Over the next few years, the law and Ah Toy continued to have their
disagreements, until in 1857 she finally had had her fill of harassment. She sold
her house, packed her possessions, including her considerable fortune, and sailed
for China, announcing to reporters that she had no intention of returning to
California. But in March of 1859, she changed her mind. Only weeks after her
return, she was again arrested for keeping a disorderly house. In July she was
arrested and fined for beating one of her girls, and again in September for running
a brothel-three arrests in six months. Now Ah Toy disappeared completely from
the scene; some said had returned to China, and eventually this was accepted as
the gospel, but no one knew for sure.
California men remembered “the pioneer of all our fair but frail ones of the soiled
doves from Asia,” as one Argonaut wrote in 1877. In 1881, Charles P. Duane
fondly recalled that Ah Toy “was a tall, went-built woman. In fact, she was the
finest-looking woman I have ever seen.”