Donaldina Cameron

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A portrait of Donaldina Cameron as a young woman.

Donaldina Cameron (July 26, 1869 – January 4, 1968) was a pioneer in the fight against slavery as a Presbyterian missionary in San Francisco's Chinatown, who helped more than 2,000 Chinese immigrant girls and women escape from forced prostitution or indentured servitude.[1] She was known as "Fahn Quai," or the “White Devil” of Chinatown, as well as the "Angry Angel of Chinatown" and "Lo Mo."[2]

Early life (1869–1900)[edit]

The youngest of seven children, Donaldina was born into a Scottish family that lived on a sheep farm in New Zealand and moved with her family to California when she was three and a half. During her childhood, Donaldina had very little contact and experience with immigrant populations while living on a large sheep ranch in the San Gabriel Valley.[3] Family friend Evelyn Browne—the former president of the Occidental Board of Foreign Missions—took Donaldina to the Presbyterian Home in an effort to expose Donaldina to the world around her. At the home, Donaldina met Margaret Culbertson and, in 1895, became a sewing teacher there. Culbertson and the Presbyterian Home acted as a place of refuge for women forced into sex slavery and freed indentured female Chinese servants, where they could be safe from the outside world and get an education. Together, Culbertson and Cameron worked to rescue Chinese immigrants until Culbertson's death in 1897.[4]


The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first piece of federal immigrant legislation in the United States. It prohibited immigrants from any area considered “undesirable”, which included most of Asia. It also barred Chinese women from entering the United States, unless they were already married to men in the United States. Originally passed to prohibit the sex trafficking of Asian women and an influx of Asian male laborers, it instead created a dangerous and illegal system where young women would present forged papers that said they were already members of Chinese families in the United States. This phenomenon was dubbed the "paper daughters." The women, often referred to as Mui Tsais, were sold as domestic servants or forced prostitutes by the Tongs (criminal societies). These women lived brutal lives, usually dying within five years. During this time San Francisco City Hall, run by Abe Ruef and Eugene Schmitz, took kickbacks from Tong groups, resulting in very little government action against this problem. The Chinese Six Companies was a Chinese organization that attempted to stop the Tongs, but eventually collapsed when Tongs infiltrated the organization.

Mission life (1900–1934)[edit]

Occidental Board Presbyterian Mission House, renamed the Donaldina Cameron House in 1942, at 920 Sacramento (2018)

Two years after Culbertson's death in 1897, Donaldina Cameron became superintendent of the Presbyterian Home at the young age of 27. She continued the mission of the Home, saving young Chinese immigrant women from sex slavery and indentured service. Contemporary sources referred to this work as "the only foreign mission enterprise ever carried on in the United States".[5]

Many friends and relatives of these girls would leave secret messages for Donaldina at the Presbyterian Home indicating the house where a girl was held captive. Often, criminal tong members, who nicknamed her “Jesus Woman” and the "White Devil," would threaten Cameron and the home. She once even spent a night in a San Jose jail while seeking the release of a Chinese woman. However, Cameron continued her mission. She was sometimes called "Fahn Quai," translated variously as “White Spirit,” “White Witch,” or “White Devil”—a sensational racial epithet that newspaper and magazine reporters helped spread. She was also dubbed the “Angry Angel of Chinatown”, which would later become the title for a biography.

Once freed, Chinese women were forced to reside at the Presbyterian Home (where they were not allowed outside without an escort) and to convert to Christianity.[5] While some Chinese immigrant women[who?] welcomed conversion and saw Donaldina as a savior, nicknaming her “Lo Mo” (which she translated as "mother"), others[who?] had mixed feelings about this forced conversion.

In April 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake and fire forced the evacuation of the Presbyterian Home. Donaldina returned the night of the earthquake through the blazing city to retrieve a logbook that detailed her guardianship over the girls at the home, thus ensuring their safety from being forced back into servitude or prostitution.[6] The home itself was destroyed in the earthquake. It was rebuilt in 1907 at 920 Sacramento Street, where it still stands today.

Cameron also wrote extensively, seeking to gain financial support for her mission, in publications like Women and Missions and a pamphlet titled "The Yellow Slave Traffic". This writing often furthered orientalist depictions of Chinese women, but also challenged popular preconceptions that such women were incapable of integrating into American society.[5]

Donaldina also founded two homes for Chinese children. Many of these children were orphans or the children of the rescued women. The Chung Mei Home served young boys, while the Ming Quong Home was for girls. The former Chung Mei house is today part of the Windrush School in El Cerrito, California, and the Ming Quong Home is now a part of Mills College in Oakland, California. In 1935 a third Ming Quong home—the "baby house"—was founded in Los Gatos, California. Younger Chinese American girls were taken care of here until they were old enough (age 13) to move to Oakland.[7] That home today is part of nonprofit EMQ FamiliesFirst.

Later life and legacy (1934–1968)[edit]

Donaldina retired from her missionary work and the Presbyterian Home in 1934. She is credited with saving and educating over 2,000 Chinese immigrant women and girls. Before her death, she was considered something of a "national icon", and her life story was told in three biographies, some with fictional elements.[5]

In 1942, the Presbyterian Home was renamed the Donaldina Cameron House. Cameron House still stands today in San Francisco. It serves as a multi-service agency serving Asian communities by promoting healthy Christian communities through programs like youth sports, tutoring, and counseling. After retirement, Donaldina moved to the Palo Alto area. She died on January 4, 1968, at the age of 98.

In popular culture[edit]

Miranda Raison portrays Donaldina Cameron in Warrior (TV series) as Nellie Davenport.[8]

See also[edit]

  • Tye Leung Schulze: Cameron mentored Schulze, who would assist Cameron in saving enslaved Chinese in San Francisco.


  1. ^ The White Devil's Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco's Chinatown, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.
  2. ^ Harris, Gloria G.; Hannah S. Cohen (2012). "Chapter 4. Reformers and Activists – Donaldina Cameron: Angry Angel of Chinatown". Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present. Charleston, SC: The History Press. pp. 60–74 [61–64]. ISBN 978-1609496753.
  3. ^ Siler, Julia Flynn (August 4, 2019). "Asian women fought the West's slave trade. And then they were written out of history". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
  4. ^ McClain, Laurene Wu (1983). "Donaldina Cameron: A Reappraisal". Pacific Historian. 27: 24–35.
  5. ^ a b c d Twelbeck, Kirsten (2012). "The Donaldina Cameron Myth and the Rescue of America, 1910–2012". Chinatowns in a Transnational World: Myths and Realities of an Urban Phenomenon. Routledge. pp. 135–163. ISBN 978-1136709258.
  6. ^ The White Devil's Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco's Chinatown, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.
  7. ^ "Ming Quong: a History of Rescuing Chinese American Girls". EMQ FamiliesFirst. Archived from the original on 17 April 2016. Retrieved 22 April 2016.
  8. ^ "Warrior: The Historical Inspiration for Nellie Davenport". Den of Geek. 2020-10-10. Retrieved 2021-04-22.

Further reading[edit]

  • Hasley, Karen J.: "Gold Mountain" (Denver, CO: Outskirts Press, 2012) character in work of fiction[ISBN missing]
  • Martin, Mildred Crowl: Chinatown's Angry Angel, The Story of Donaldina Cameron, (Palo Alto, California: Pacific Books, 1977)[ISBN missing]
  • Pascoe, Peggy. (1990). Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874–1939. New York: Oxford University Press.[ISBN missing]
  • Wilson, Carol Green: Chinatown Quest, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1931 and 1950)[ISBN missing]
  • Wong, Kristin and Kathryn: "Fierce Compassion, The Life of Abolitionist Donaldina Cameron" (Saline, Michigan: New Earth Enterprises, 2012)[ISBN missing]

External links[edit]