Experiencing a new wave of interest thanks to the HBO series Warrior, Ah Toy is a fascinating woman from history. She immigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area during the California Gold Rush and quickly made a name for herself as a courtesan and, eventually, madam.
Who was Ah Toy? How did she become so successful? And what does her experience tell us about women in California during this time period? Tune in to find out.
“Chinese Immigrants and the Gold Rush.” American Experience. PBS. (LINK)
“Eureka: Women of the California Gold Rush” Online Exhibit. Women’s Museum of California. (LINK)
Jeong, May. “Ah Toy, Pioneering Prostitute of Gold Rush California.” The New York Review. June 19, 2020. (LINK)
“Organization of the Vigilance Committee.” Daily Alta California. June 13, 1851. (LINK)
Rutter, Michael. Upstairs Girls: Prostitution in the American West. United States: Farcountry Press, 2005.
Williams, Mary Floyd. History of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851: A Study of Social Control on the California Frontier in the Days of the Gold Rush. United States: University of California Press, 1921.
Yung, Judy. Unbound feet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
A note to all my listeners before we begin. This episode covers more mature content. I know I have some younger fans. Therefore I wanted to make sure I placed a bit of a warning ahead of diving into the episode. This episode deals with the criminal underworld of San Francisco during the mid nineteenth century, specifically prostitution. Additionally, this episode will tackle topics like human trafficking and may be triggering for some of you out there. If these are difficult topics for you, please skip this episode and I’ll see you next week. Okay, now on to the episode.
A few weeks ago, I covered the California Gold Rush. During that episode, I mentioned how several women found new economic opportunities for themselves doing things that were considered standard female duties like cooking and cleaning. I also mentioned one other avenue of making money - providing companionship and engaging in sex work.
One woman emerged as the first and most well known madams of the time - chinese immigrant Ah Toy. Popularized in the HBO series Warrior, Ah Toy’s life is shrouded in a lot of mystery and intrigue, but historians agree on a few things: she immigrated from China during the early years of the Gold Rush, was seen as striking and alluring, and ran a major prostitution ring.
So this week, I am diving into the story of Ah Toy. Who was she? What made her so successful? And what caused her to walk away from her business?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Before we dive too deeply, I should mention there are a lot of contradictions out there about Ah Toy and who she was. Even some of the most basic points of her life are muddled, with different sources providing varying answers. Whenever possible, I tried to cross reference as much as I could, but without robust access to archive material, I fear that I may not have uncovered everything. Despite this challenge, her story, and that of the women in San Francisco during this period in history, provides a fascinating look into the experiences of women and the lengths some would go in order to secure some semblance of autonomy in a world that consistently denied them choices.
The Gold Rush helped turn San Francisco into the urban metropolis we know today. The town - quickly expanding due to the continuous influx of people looking to make their fortune - was a female desert. Traveling to the California territory was arduous, dangerous, and expensive. As such, most men chose to emigrate to Northern California by themselves, leaving their wives, daughters, and sisters behind. As a result, there were few women available to become wives and mothers which required men to take on the domestic tasks normally assigned to the females of the household. For the few women who found themselves in San Francisco - whether by choice or through force - there were economic opportunities not available in other parts of the country. While several women contracted out their domestic labor for wages, others sought a living in the sex trade. Making more money than they could ever imagine, young miners found themselves in a growing town void of many restraints found elsewhere in the country, which further enabled the popularity of sex work.
In an era of seemingly overwhelming wealth, women were able to charge an ounce of gold, or roughly $16 dollars, just to sit next to men while they played cards. This fee increased to 15-20 ounces of gold - or roughly $240-320 dollars if the suitor wanted more. Compare this potential nightly income to the $50-75 a month women could earn serving as a domestic and it is no wonder why some choose this line of work.
Chinese immigration, like many others, consisted of both push and pull factors. Obviously, news of gold sitting in the waterways of a foreign land was a significant pull for migrants. But there were also push factors, including the losses during the opium wars and the resulting push by European nations to open China’s borders for trade. The combination of these events prompted many young Chinese men to head towards what they called Gold Mountain and secure money for themselves and their families.
As mentioned, women, including Chinese women, were not included in the first waves of immigration to the California coast. This was due both to the costs associated with securing oceanic passage and the intensely private nature expected of Chinese women. China, a heavily patriarchal country, confined women to separate spheres, keeping them outside of the public eye. Chinese custom dictated they were subservient to the men in their lives - first their fathers and then the men they married. They were expected to stay hidden behind closed doors, with affluent Chinese women going through the procedure of foot binding, which greatly limited their ability to move freely.
Also a factor in the decision to remain behind was the ever present anti-immigration sentiment found within California. As historian Judy Yung asserts quote: “Anti-Chinese prejudice, discriminatory laws, and outright violence ensured that the Chinese remained subordinate to the white society and that they did not bring their women and families to settle in America,” end quote. The pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment meant that any Chinese women looking to enter the country often faced mistreatment and ridicule from immigrant officials who assumed their attempts to enter the country were done under false pretenses. Even before the establishment of a robust sex work industry in San Francisco, Chinese immigrant women were interrogated thoroughly and frequently treated as if they were a potential prostitute until they proved otherwise.
Given the number of restrictions of Chinese immigration specifically, women never made up an overwhelming percentage of immigrants into the California territory. Early estimates place only 5,000 Chinese women in California - which equated to just 7% of the total Chinese population. Of those who immigrated, a majority settled in San Francisco, which made the rapidly evolving town a hotbed for sex ring operations. Chinese women weren’t the only ones engaging in sex work. Several other women who came from all over the world made their living as independent courtesans. However, Chinese women were overwhelmingly imported to serve out indentured contracts they were unable to read or as enslaved women meant for the brothels and opium dens throughout Chinatown.
All of this helped make prostitution a major industry in 19th century San Francisco - a business which remained pervasive from the gold rush era through the 1880s. Many women either emigrated to serve in such a capacity or were trafficked into the country under false promises of matching them with a husband. Chinese women were purchased from their family with the promise that upon their landing in the United States, their daughter would be matched with a fine young suitor. Once the family agreed, the young woman was placed on a ship set towards the United States, only to find herself sold into human trafficking upon her arrival.
And this is the world Ah Toy arrived in when her ship reached the San Francisco shores in either 1848 or 1849. Toy is touted as the second woman to have immigrated to San Francisco - a claim I was unable to verify. Estimates place her to be about 20 years old upon her arrival in the bay area, with some sources claiming she was widowed during the journey from China. In a terrible position, Toy supposedly charmed the captain of the ship, unhappy as she was with her accommodations. Regardless of her origin stories, one thing is for certain - Ah Toy became know as quote “one of the most successful, and ruthless madams in American history,” end quote.
Toy’s beauty was something of a legend. Apparently she could command a whopping $16- the same amount men paid to have a woman on their arm while they played cards - just for the privilege of looking at her. This beauty quickly made her the most popular courtesan in San Francisco. Shortly after her arrival, Toy managed to rise through the ranks and became a madam and an owner of several Chinese prostitutes who settled along Pike Street, now known as Walter U Lum Place in the heart of Chinatown. During Toy’s period of dominance, it is estimated that between 85 to 97% of Chinese women worked as prostitutes. And I am using the word work very loosely here considering the other issues I’ve already covered.
Toy’s business apparently was conducted primarily in Parlor Houses. These were upscale brothels - typically located on the upper floors of Chinese businesses. Within two years, Toy owned two brothels and was known to traffic Chinese women into the city to serve as sex workers. Despite her success, Toy still had to combat the ongoing and pervasive Anti-Chinese laws and prejudice found throughout San Francisco. She frequently found herself in front of a magistrate, charged with running quote “houses of disrepute” end quote. This, despite the fact that a number of white owned and operated brothels remained open and impervious to supposed crackdowns.
Ever the astute business woman, Toy had no problem with suing her customers who failed to meet their obligation and pay for services rendered. And when the city decided to dispatch a vigilance committee - dedicated to cleaning up San Francisco streets - in 1851, Toy used her charms again. This time her target was vigilance committee brothel inspector John A Clarke.
The vigilance committee was established, in part, to respond to the crime created as a result of the explosion in population. These residents deputized themselves to preserve the quote “lives and property of the citizens of San Francisco,” end quote. At its peak, the committee was 700 strong. Despite their best efforts, however, Toy managed to outsmart them and seduce the man in charge of investigating Chinese prostitution. Her efforts apparently helped her avoid additional time in court and allowed her business to continue relatively unscarred.
Toy’s command of her girls during this period challenged gender norms - especially Chinese norms which relegated women to a private sector and completely outside of the public sphere. As a result, Toy often faced harassment by other members of the criminal underworld including Yuen Sheng also known as Normal As-Sing. Toy would frequently use the court to her advantage to protect herself and her brothel. However, in 1854 a court case would significantly limit Toy’s ability to fight against these elements seeking to undermine her authority.
In the case People v. Hall, the California Supreme Court ruled that only white people could testify in court, stripping Toy of her ability to proactively protect herself and her way of business. Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Toy decided to close up shop in 1857. Having established a cordial relationship with the press, Toy announced she was moving back to China.
Her movements post this announcement are under some debate. Some believe she never went back to China, while others believe she traveled to China and then came back to California. Either way, in her later years, Toy was living in Santa Clara County - first with a husband who died in 1909 and then with a brother in law where she sold clams to visitors in Alviso. Upon the announcement of her death in 1928, the woman who was Ah Toy remained elusive and shrouded in mystery.
While Ah Toy was certainly not the only one working as a madam, her story sheds light on the struggle faced by women - especially immigrant women - in the mid nineteenth century. A woman without means or recourse, Toy nevertheless forced a pathway for herself by challenging gender norms and using the legal system to her advantage. She was ruthless - importing her own bevy of women to serve in forced sex work. But she was also independent, refusing to accept the prescribed roles assigned to women during this time period.
Like so many people from history, Ah Toy’s legacy is one mixed with nuance. She was capable, smart, and unafraid - forcing a way for herself in a society that favored the work and opinions of men. But, she was also cunning, ruthless, and a perpetrator of human trafficking. Ah Toy perhaps demonstrates best that women could be just as relentless and dangerous as men.
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Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.
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