Contested childhoods: the Pacific Society for the Suppression of Vice vs. the WHMS Methodist Oriental Home, 1900-1903.

Author:Staley, Jeffrey L.
Position:8H Paper


Historical investigations of Protestant child rescuers in San Francisco Chinatown are not new, but surprisingly there are no studies of the Methodist women's work in the Chinese quarter, even though it actually predates by four years the well known Presbyterian Occidental Mission. (1) The purpose of this essay is therefore to investigate Methodist women's rescue work in Chinatown, specifically looking at two rescues undertaken by Deaconess Margarita Lake of the Methodist Episcopal Church's Oriental Home, showing how the politics of child rescue in early twentieth-century Chinatown were often complex--more complex than has generally been acknowledged by other analyses that have focused only upon the rescues of her contemporary, Donaldina Cameron of the Presbyterian Chinese Mission Home. (2)

The two cases discussed below are particularly interesting and unusual because two Caucasian child-rescuing groups are pitted against each other The Pacific Society for the Suppression of Vice/Pacific Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Animals, and the Methodist Oriental Bureau, which ran the Oriental Home. Both groups were involved in a two-year struggle for the guardianship of two Chinese girls, "Sau Chun" and "Ah Ying," and in the process of court battles, their differing views of child-rearing become evident. The Pacific Society for the Suppression of Vice was Roman Catholic in origin, and men filled all its leadership roles. William P. Sullivan, San Francisco Chief of Police who died in November 1901, was a former director of the Society The Oriental Bureau, on the other hand, was a Protestant organization run entirely by women. The Pacific Society preferred "placing out" as a solution to raising neglected, delinquent, or orphaned children; the Oriental Bureau preferred the more controlled environment of an asylum for its rescued children.

The two cases discussed below are made all the richer by the variety of sources open to critical analysis: newspaper articles, annual reports of the two child-saving societies, Methodist women's magazines, and unpublished documents preserved by descendants of Margarita Lake. (3)


The Methodist Episcopal Church's Oriental Home in San Francisco Chinatown had its origins in 1868, when the Reverend Otis Gibson, with his wife Eliza Chamberlain, was asked to establish a Chinese Domestic Mission in California. The Gibsons had been missionaries in Foochow, China, for ten years prior to moving to California and had been forced to return to the United States because of Eliza's poor health. A few months before the December 25, 1870 opening of their new Chinese Mission building at 916 Washington Street, the Gibsons and a small group of Methodist women met and formed the Woman's Missionary Society of the Pacific Coast to evangelize the Chinese women in Chinatown. Its central purpose was "to elevate and save heathen women, especially on these shores, and to raise funds for this work." (4) As a result of that meeting a rescue asylum was set aside on the top floor of the new Methodist Mission house, and within a year the Methodist women had their first "inmate."

The WMSPC functioned under the auspices of the MEC General Missionary Society for many years, sheltering trafficked Asian (Chinese and occasionally Japanese) women and girls, teaching them English and other cultural survival skills, and marrying them off to responsible Asian men. But in 1893, the WMSPC joined the ten-year-old MEC Woman's Home Missionary Society as its new "Oriental Bureau," and eight years later the Oriental Bureau built its own "Oriental Home for Chinese Women and Girls" at 912 Washington Street, just across Trenton Street from the original mission house. Both buildings were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, and the women and children of the Oriental Home were forced to take up temporary residence in Berkeley and Oakland until a new building opened in 1912 in San Francisco, at 940 Washington Street, on the site of Reverend Gibson's original Chinese Domestic Mission.


In 1896, the WHMS Oriental Bureau hired twenty-three-year-old Margarita J. Lake as missionary, and her widowed mother, Kate Burton Lake, as matron of their Rescue Asylum. Margarita was a recent graduate of the two-year Methodist Deaconess Training School in Chicago, and her mother had taught in public and private schools for nearly twenty years. Margarita took the position with the Oriental Bureau thinking that it would be good training for her intended goal--which was to go to China as a missionary. However, neither she nor her mother would ever get that far. Instead, they would work for seven years in Chinatown, becoming outspoken crusaders for immigrant Chinese women's and children's rights, and indefatigable rescuers of trafficked persons.


Prior to 1889, the legal age of (sexual) consent in the state of California was ten years old. (5) And although atypical, common-law marriages were recognized for children as young as seven years of age. (6) In 1889, the age of consent was raised to fourteen, and eight years later, in 1897, it was raised to sixteen. Finally, in 1913, the age of consent was raised to eighteen, and prostitution itself was curbed significantly with the "Red Light Abatement Act." (7)

In traditional Chinese culture, children were considered to be a year old at birth and they turned a year older during the Chinese New Year festival, which falls between January and February. So it was entirely possible for Chinatown brothel keepers trying to comply with California law to honestly consider their girls legally "of age," when by Western reckoning they were nearly two years under the age of consent (that is, girls barely twelve by Western reckoning could be "fourteen" by Chinese accounts, and girls fourteen could be "sixteen" by Chinese accounts). Thus, it is not surprising to find that in 1897, when the age of consent in California was raised to sixteen, San Francisco newspapers ran numerous articles about Protestant missionaries rescuing twelve- to fourteen-yea>old girls from Chinatown brothels. Yet, the women of the Methodist Rescue Asylum did not rescue sex workers in brothels without having some evidence that girls were clearly underage or wished to escape "the life," as they euphemistically called prostitution. Girls in brothels would often pass written messages (in English or Chinese) to the Protestant women doing "home visitation," or to members of the Chinese Society of English Education. Often a Chinese man who wished to marry a girl from a brothel would take a plea for rescue to one of the missions, and that would set the rescuers to work.

Children below the age of consent could legally be in brothels, saloons, or dance halls if accompanied by a parent or guardian. However,

any child apparently under the age of sixteen ... found wandering, and not having any settled place or abode, or proper guardianship, or visible means of subsistence ... [who] frequent[ed] the company of reputed thieves or prostitutes or houses of prostitution or dance houses, concert saloons, ... without parent or guardian [could] be arrested and brought before a court or magistrate. (8) Thus, under these legal provisions, Methodist women and other religious and reform-minded organizations felt a moral responsibility to rescue Chinese children "found wandering" or "frequenting" immoral places--without seeking the consent of the parties involved.


In December 1900, Deaconess Margarita J. Lake asked the Pacific Society for the Suppression of Vice to assist her in the rescue of a five-yea>old Chinese girl called "Ah Chun" whom Margarita apparently had seen in the brothels of Spofford Alley and who had been befriended by the Salvation Army. Francis J. Kane, the Secretary of the Pacific Society for the Suppression of Vice, had been deputized as a "Special" by the San Francisco police department (9) and on a number of earlier occasions he had helped rescue girls for Donaldina Cameron of the Presbyterian Chinese Mission Home. (10) But this would be his first rescue attempt for the Methodist women.

Margarita had tried to secure the aid of the Eureka Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Ah Chun's rescue a year and a half earlier, and although the Society had promised to help on that occasion, for some reason it had not. (11) But Margarita persisted, and over the next few months she continued to watch little Ah Chun. Finally, on October 30, 1899, she was able to enlist the help of "officer McMurray" from the Children's Protective Society for a rescue attempt. (12) Together with a doctor, they took the sick child from her supposed mother, Kim Yook, a brothel keeper at 11 Spofford Alley. (13) Ah Chun was then placed under the temporary care of "Mary," a Chinese "Salvation Army lassie," who lived across the alley from the brothel, and there she stayed for a number of months until the brothel keeper reclaimed her. (14) A little over a year later, in the late morning of December 11, 1900, Frank Vane took Ah Chun from Kim Yook again--this time bringing her back to Margarita Lake at the Oriental Home.

A week and a half after Ah Chun's successful rescue, Vane found himself again helping Margarita Lake. Three days before Christmas seven-year-old Ah Ying was taken from a brothel at 829 Washington Street, where the mother was working. Although no one at the Methodist Oriental Home had contacted Vane about participating in the rescue, apparently he happened to be at the Mission house as the team was about to depart. Margarita Lake would later claim that Vane had never investigated Ah Ying's home or surroundings before they left to attempt the rescue. (15) But Vane could have argued that he knew the building well, having made a number of raids on a Japanese brothel...

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