A Little China Leader, a Brothel Owner, and Their Clashing American Dreams in Gold Rush San Francisco

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Author: Noel C. Cilker
Date: Annual 2018
From: Chinese America: History and Perspectives
Publisher: Chinese Historical Society
Document Type: Report
Length: 5,879 words

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Despite homogeneous portrayals of the Chinese experience in the United States, pursuing and achieving the American Dream is a unique experience for each individual. What happens, then, when the dream of one Chinese immigrant clashes with the standards of another? This paper studies two rival immigrants in gold rush San Francisco: Norman Ah-Sing, an association leader, and Ah Toy, a brothel madam, and their battle with each other to achieve their versions of the American Dream. Using historical newspaper accounts and secondary sources, this paper demonstrates that, although the dream is as unique as the person who pursues it, these two immigrants committed a critical mistake: by forcing each other into a pigeonholed American experience, they contributed to the other's downfall and deprived their community of unity at a time when it most required a strong foundation of leadership.

[phrase omitted] "HARMONY BRINGS WEALTH." --Chinese proverb

The morning of September 23, 1854, would have dawned cloudy in San Francisco, but wouldn't have stayed so for long. The ubiquitous fog that usually crashed over the hills and poured through the Golden Gate during the summer mornings and evenings would begin to hibernate and give way to the sun, which, like any other normal city's springtime, thawed the city in preparation for the warmer months. But then, as today, San Francisco wasn't a normal city. Its real summer started in October. (1)

On the west side of Portsmouth Square, just off the corner of Clay Street and Brenham Place (now Walter U. Lum Place), in the alcalde's office doubling as a courtroom, a young Chinese woman, about twenty-four years old, prepared to be questioned. This wasn't her first time to court. Most of her summonses to the Recorder's Court were for charges of public nuisance: specifically, throwing offal into the street or, more frequently, keeping a disorderly house. (2) When the proceedings began, she would have known what to do.

First, adhering to the Chinese practice born recently in the courts of British Hong Kong and brought to California, she would have written her name, Ah Toy, on a yellow strip of paper, followed by her promise to tell the truth. Someone would then have produced a match and lit the paper, reducing it to ashes and sealing her oath. (3) If it was anything like Ah Toy's first lime in court five years before, men would have overcrowded the room and likely felt a twinge of anxiety as the smoke wisped up to the ceiling. San Francisco had suffered six major fires and countless minor ones in its early years, and the wooden office had yet to be upgraded to brick or stone. (4)

Next, she would have been asked if she needed a translator, but she likely would have declined. She had picked up more than her fair share of English over her last five years in the city. (5)

Sitting at the defendant's table was a wrinkled, oddly dressed old man, wearing what must have been a defeated...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Cilker, Noel C. "A Little China Leader, a Brothel Owner, and Their Clashing American Dreams in Gold Rush San Francisco." Chinese America: History and Perspectives, 2018, p. 57+. Accessed 20 June 2021.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A581024575