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Wild Women of the West: Ah-Toy

The second female Chinese settler to arrive in California, Ah-Toy was a twenty-year old prostitute

April 09, 2019

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.”

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