The Divided Consciousness: Chinese Immigrant Women in San Francisco 1860-1920

McKenzie Whalen


During the beginning on the 20th century, the issues surrounding mixing cultures, societal structuring, and racial stereotyping were all clearly seen in the prostitution of Chinese immigrant women in California. There were major differences between the gender structures of the traditional Chinese society and the Victorian society in America. While both patriarchal, women had extremely different roles within the different cultures. Once Chinese women immigrated to America, they were forced into prostitution by the Tongs, a mob-like group of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco's Chinatown, and forced to live out lives of servitude with no real chance of freedom. Because of their strong societal upbringings, they unfortunately accepted their roles and hoped for an eventual escape. With the formation of "rescue" houses along the West coast , single white women who were not a part of the traditional Victorian households, were preaching piety and purity as well as the importance of a good, Christian home. To the immigrant women, this escape was an extremely viable option in order to leave the prostitution rings in Chinatown and start over in America. The "rescue" houses evidently created issues surrounding race and social hierarchy amongst the white and Chinese women. Because the white workers in the rescue houses wanted to promote their ideas of womanhood and help the Chinese women to obtain it, the reform workers looked at the Chinese women as helpless and inferior, without any real way of helping themselves. So while, these "rescue" houses offered aid, domestic training, and some chance at marriage, they also stripped the immigrant women of their cultural beliefs, former identity, religion, and morals and turned them into what the reform workers believed women of time should be. The Victorian women, to them, were the only option of class and successfulness.


Chinese Immigration, San Francisco, Victorian Womanhood

Full Text: PDF


  • There are currently no refbacks.