The story of young Chinese girls is the saddest of all. Because women were not valued in China, these poor girls were sold into prostitution by their own parents. Chinese girls were bought for pennies in their native country. They were then imported by slave traders to San Francisco where they were sold to the highest bidder to work as prostitutes in brothels or cribs. This practice lasted into the 1920's.
There was good money in the Chinese slave trade. Many of the traders were Orientals themselves. Chinese girls were often sold for several hundred dollars each.
The girls sold at auction to brothels fared much better than the ones sold to work in cribs. The Oriental girls sold to brothels dressed in fine silks and entertained men. Some of them found a wealthy patron to keep them or to marry.
The girls forced to work in cribs had a different lifestyle altogether awaiting them. They were not treated as humans. More often than not they were terribly abused, earned no money of their own, and were forced to work in the most dismal of conditions. Some cribs were little more than a prison cell with narrow doors and small, barred windows. The girls, called "sing song girls" were locked in and spent the day half-dressed trying to attract a customer's attention. They would call out from the doorway, "Two bittee lookee, flo bitteee feelee, six bittee, doee." If the girl did not bring in enough money she was beaten. These girls rarely left their dismal crib. The life span of a crib girl lasted about six years unless they were rescued by concerned social reformers. Because they lived a life with little hope or future, many of the girls ended their lives with narcotics or suicide.
Narcotic addiction and harsh living conditions made Chinese crib girls look
far older than their years. Most did not live to be twenty, and by the time they
were twenty they were washed up. When they became too unattractive to be of use,
they were taken to a small room where they were given the choice of suicide by
narcotic overdose or starvation. If found still alive, they were murdered. Their
deaths, which appeared to be suicide, were not investigated, as they were
considered expendable. One such reformer who did much to help these poor girls
was Donaldina Cameron.
Much mystery surrounds Ah Toy, a lovely Chinese woman who arrived in San Francisco in 1849. Her husband had died aboard ship, and she became the captain's mistress. For a while she supported herself by prostitution, and then she began importing girls from China. This made her the first Oriental madam.
She escaped the life of a crib girl and lived a long life in comfort. It is believed she died a few years before her 100th birthday.
A variation on the story about Ah Toy (sometimes spelled Ah Tay) is that an artist named William Arista spent the night with a beautiful Oriental prostitute who had been sold into slavery by her parents when they came to San Francisco. He painted her portrait and came back years later hoping to find the girl and marry her. But she had disappeared. He kept her portrait until his death in 1926. The story was hand-written and pasted to the back of the picture. For further reading about the Chinese trade:
Soiled Doves Prostitution in the Old West Ann Seagraves, Wesanne Publications, Hayden, Idaho 1994 (Chapter 8-The Chinese Slave Girls-A Life without Hope)
Women of the Western Frontier in Fact, Fiction and Film Ron Lackmann. 1997 McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina
Ah Toy http://www.mkionwritenow.com/page3.html