Donaldina Cameron was born on a sheep ranch in New Zealand in 1869, but she and her family emigrated to California when she was two. Her mother died when she was five. Ranching was hard work, and Donaldina, her older brother, and her four older sisters were not enough to help her father keep the ranch going. It failed, and her father supported the family by working for other ranchers.
At age 19, in 1888, Donaldina was engaged to marry, but for reasons that are not now known, the engagement fell through. In 1895, a friend persuaded her to spend a year as a missionary, working as a sewing teacher at the Presbyterian Mission House in Chinatown. It was there that Ms. Cameron’s life changed forever.
Chinatown at that time was a desperate, crowded, disease-ridden and filthy place. The exclusion act of 1882 made it illegal for Chinese men, who came in to the states to work in the gold rush camps and on the railroads, to bring their wives and families to America. There were very few women in Chinatown, and this led to an enormous demand for prostitutes. Some women came over as indentured servants,thinking they could be house servants or do laundry and hoping to join their husbands after their service was ended, but with 30 year contracts, they were really slaves with no hope of freedom. Other women and female children as young as five were kidnapped, particularly from Canton, and brought to Chinatown. The young children were sold as household slaves called Mui Tsai’s. They were worked hard and often brutally mistreated. When they were old enough, they were often sold into prostitution. The women and teens were immediately forced into prostitution. Their lives were usually short, violent, and miserable. Most lived for around five years from the time they were enslaved.
The main goal of the Presbyterian Mission House was to rescue these girls.
When Donaldina arrived at the Mission House, she was innocent and totally unprepared, but she quickly became involved in the clandestine rescue of children and prostitutes. Late at night, she went out with axe-wielding police officers to cribs and brothels, freeing the women and finding children and prostitutes who had been hidden behind trap doors and in coal tunnels. She learned to hide them and find ways to protect them when their “owners” came with writs of habeas corpus, legal documents which would let them reclaim their “property.” Many of these slave owners were members of the Tong, powerful Chinese gangsters who constantly threatened the Mission and its workers, legally and physically.
Donaldina decided to stay at the Mission House after her year was through, assisting the crusader, Margaret Culbertson, who was the superintendant of the house. In 1897, Culbertson died, and in 1900, Donaldina became the superintendent of the house. Over the next few years, she helped rescue many children and women, earning two nicknames she kept for the rest of her life: the girls called her “Lo Ma,” or Little Mother, and the Tongs and other slave owner called her “Fahn Quai,” or White Devil.
In 1906, during the great San Francisco Earthquake, the Mission House was destroyed by fire. Donaldina braved the flames to rescue the records that gave her guardianship of her girls. In 1908, the house was rebuilt and it still stands today, now known as Cameron House.
In addition, Donaldina helped establish the Chung Mei Home for Chinese boys and the Ming Quong Home for Chinese girls.
Donaldina continued to rescue Chinese girls and women and to fight in the courts and as a public speaker for their freedom until 1934, when she retired. She died in 1968, at age 98. She is credited as being the major force in ending the Chinese slave trade. In all, she rescued and educated over 3,000 girls.
Never underestimate what a determined woman can do.