Ah Toy (Cantonese: 阿台 Aa2 Toi4; c. 1828–1928) was a Cantonese-born American prostitute and madam in San Francisco, California during the California Gold Rush, and purportedly the first Chinese prostitute in San Francisco. Arriving from Hong Kong in 1849, she quickly became the most well-known Asian woman in the Old West. She reportedly was a tall, attractive woman with bound feet.
When Ah Toy left China for the United States, she originally traveled with her husband, who died during the voyage. Toy became the mistress of the ship's captain, who showered gold upon her, so much so that by the time she arrived in San Francisco, Toy had a fair bit of money. Before 1851 there were only seven Chinese women known to be in the city, and noticing the looks she drew from the men in her new town, she figured they would pay for a closer look. Her peep shows became quite successful, and she was known to charge an ounce of gold (sixteen dollars) for a "lookee". She quickly became the most famous Chinese prostitute, and one of the highest paid and most famous in San Francisco.
Ah Toy was a determined and intelligent woman and frequently used the San Francisco Court systems to protect herself and her business from exploitation. Toy proceeded to open a chain of brothels, importing girls from China as young as eleven years old to work in them. By 1854 however, Ah Toy was no longer able to take her grievances to court. In the case People v. Hall, the California Supreme court reversed the conviction of George Hall, who had murdered a Chinese man, extending a California law that African Americans and Native Americans could not testify in court to include the Chinese. While this law was not directed at prostitutes, it severely handicapped Ah Toy’s ability to protect herself from the domineering Chinese Tongs that had for so long sought to control her and her business. Coupled with the anti-prostitution law of 1854, which was carried out mainly against the Chinese, the pressure to stay successfully in business became too great, and Ah Toy withdrew from San Francisco’s prostitution business.
Towards the end of her life she supposedly returned to China a wealthy woman to live the rest of her days in comfort, but returned to California not long afterward. From 1868 until her death in 1928, she lived a quiet life in Santa Clara County, returning to public attention only upon dying three months short of her hundredth birthday in San Jose.
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