A Little China Leader, a Brothel Owner, and Their Clashing American Dreams in Gold Rush San Francisco.

Author:Cilker, Noel C.
Position:Norman Ah-Sing of Luminous Unity Public Office; Ah Toy - Report


Despite homogeneous portrayals of the Chinese experience in the United States, pursuing and achieving the American Dream is a unique experience for each individual. What happens, then, when the dream of one Chinese immigrant clashes with the standards of another? This paper studies two rival immigrants in gold rush San Francisco: Norman Ah-Sing, an association leader, and Ah Toy, a brothel madam, and their battle with each other to achieve their versions of the American Dream. Using historical newspaper accounts and secondary sources, this paper demonstrates that, although the dream is as unique as the person who pursues it, these two immigrants committed a critical mistake: by forcing each other into a pigeonholed American experience, they contributed to the other's downfall and deprived their community of unity at a time when it most required a strong foundation of leadership.

[phrase omitted] "HARMONY BRINGS WEALTH." --Chinese proverb

The morning of September 23, 1854, would have dawned cloudy in San Francisco, but wouldn't have stayed so for long. The ubiquitous fog that usually crashed over the hills and poured through the Golden Gate during the summer mornings and evenings would begin to hibernate and give way to the sun, which, like any other normal city's springtime, thawed the city in preparation for the warmer months. But then, as today, San Francisco wasn't a normal city. Its real summer started in October. (1)

On the west side of Portsmouth Square, just off the corner of Clay Street and Brenham Place (now Walter U. Lum Place), in the alcalde's office doubling as a courtroom, a young Chinese woman, about twenty-four years old, prepared to be questioned. This wasn't her first time to court. Most of her summonses to the Recorder's Court were for charges of public nuisance: specifically, throwing offal into the street or, more frequently, keeping a disorderly house. (2) When the proceedings began, she would have known what to do.

First, adhering to the Chinese practice born recently in the courts of British Hong Kong and brought to California, she would have written her name, Ah Toy, on a yellow strip of paper, followed by her promise to tell the truth. Someone would then have produced a match and lit the paper, reducing it to ashes and sealing her oath. (3) If it was anything like Ah Toy's first lime in court five years before, men would have overcrowded the room and likely felt a twinge of anxiety as the smoke wisped up to the ceiling. San Francisco had suffered six major fires and countless minor ones in its early years, and the wooden office had yet to be upgraded to brick or stone. (4)

Next, she would have been asked if she needed a translator, but she likely would have declined. She had picked up more than her fair share of English over her last five years in the city. (5)

Sitting at the defendant's table was a wrinkled, oddly dressed old man, wearing what must have been a defeated expression. (6) Ah Toy knew this man; she knew him so well, in fact, that it's easy to imagine that revulsion simmered in her gut.

It was Norman Ah-Sing.

It was remarkable that these two rivals of Little China (as San Franciscans called the Chinese district until the 1860s), Ah Toy and Norman Ah-Sing, were in court to face each other at all. (7) This was, after all, an official American court--a White court--to which most Chinese gave a wide berth. They handled disputes in their community on their own, with no outside interference from city authorities. (8)

But here they were. Five years after the start of the gold rush, they stared each other down in a San Francisco courtroom. (9) Twenty-eight years before the Chinese Exclusion Act, this courtroom scene signposted a breach in the Chinese community at a time of increasing vulnerability. It began as the pursuit of the American Dreams of a Little China leader and a brothel madam.

The defendant, Norman Ah-Sing, was a singular character in gold rush San Francisco, though he would have stood out in any time period or place. His appearance, above all else, caught people's attention in a town where the extraordinary was the norm. (10) Mexicans, Peruvians, French, Germans, British, Australians, and Hawai'ians all mixed into the salad bowl of San Francisco, but it was Norman who caught the curiosity of journalist James O'Meara, who called him "a sallow, dried, cadaverous, but active and keen old fellow." His dress was "a singular mixture of the Chinese and American, as he maintained his queue, and at the same time literally 'capped the climax' with a stove-pipe hat!" (11)

That hat came by way of New York City, to where Norman had sailed around 1820 from his home in Macau. He was about twenty years old then, his mind lit with possibilities after seeing his older brother depart and return home with grand stories of America. But it was the hat on top of his brother's head that stirred Norman's imagination, and so, before tending to any other business upon arriving in New York City's harbor, he set forth to buy his own. (12)

For the next twenty years or so, after traveling to Europe, Norman established himself in New York City and later Charleston, where he claimed to have become an American citizen (it was against the law, as stated by the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795, but at least one researcher claims it was possible). (13) But what he really desired was to become rich. (14) So when he heard in 1848 that gold had been found in California, he put the East Coast behind him and was off to the West. (15) His American Dream for riches could now truly begin.

On the other side of the Pacific, Ah Toy, no older than twenty, was also preparing to journey to Gold Mountain. (16) Her husband, if he had seen the advertisements in the windows and heard the stories, would undoubtedly have been captivated by the news of gold. The war-, natural disaster-, and famine-stricken south couldn't hold the couple any longer, so the pair packed up what they could, likely paid off all the right officials (leaving the country was legally forbidden), made their way to Hong Kong, boarded the ship, and sailed away from the harbor. (17)

One of them wouldn't survive.

Partway through the roughly sixty-day voyage, Ah Toy's husband fell ill. (18) We don't know which illness he contracted, but it could well have been erysipelas, a bacterial infection that attacks the upper layers of the skin and was common on passenger ships. (19) Baptist minister Russell Conwell, traveling in China on missionary work, described a Chinese passenger who contracted the disease:

The sick man was afflicted with the colic in connection with an attack of the erysipelas, and was on his side lying doubled up, with his knees under his chin, and the side of his swollen face upon the cold, damp deck.... The sufferer, between his groans, expressed a desire that his countrymen would drive away the bad spirits that were afflicting him. (20) What we do know about Ah Toy's husband is that he perished, his feet never to touch the soil of Gold Mountain. (21)

Ah Toy was suddenly a widow. Stuck on a ship with no husband, she may have wondered if she could survive on her own. The capiain of the ship, perhaps taking pity or perhaps taking advantage, took her into his service. He lavished gifts on her, and she returned the favors in kind. (22)

But that arrangement ended when they landed in San Francisco. Ah Toy was left alone on the dock with difficult options in front of her: return to China and live the rest of her life as an undesirable widow, or stay in San Francisco and start over fresh, but at what cost? (23) Her American Dream at this point was mere survival. Thriving could come later if at all.

When Norman Ah-Sing arrived in San Francisco in 1849, he found a melting pot with ethnicities spanning the globe arriving by the day, with one exception. There were very few Chinese. (24) The few he did glimpse often landed in the town one day and were off to the gold country the next. (25) But soon the trickle of Chinese immigrants became a stream. (26) Fortune-seekers from across the Pacific arrived in the American territory...

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