Presbyterians and Prostitutes

When Chinese men from Canton arrived during the gold rush as contract laborers, they never intended to stay here.  If a man could manage to save $100, he could return to his village and live out the rest of his days, never having to work again.  But very few accomplished this goal, as gambling and opium took their toll.  In order to enter Chinese heaven their bones had to be buried in China, and shipping the remains of men whom died in California back to their home became big business. 

As the men never intended to stay in California, almost no women came as legitimate wives.  Because of this and because of the very lowly status of women in China, many young women were sold into slavery as prostitutes by their families, or kidnapped by highbinders and shipped to the U.S.A.  Upon arrival in San Francisco, their life was terrible, for they were indeed slaves, never permitted to be out of sight of their masters, and usually dying in a few years from syphilis or gonorrhea.

This situation had terrible consequences both for the women and for the children that were born in this circumstance.  Female babies were abandoned or sometimes kept to become full prostitutes.

In 1895, a strong, young woman, Donaldina Cameron, a Presbyterian missionary, arrived in San Francisco to assist an elderly woman, Miss Culbertson, in rescuing some of these women and attending to the abandoned babies that were left on the door stoop of 920 Sacramento St., where they created a home for them.  The work that Cameron did was both dangerous and heroic.  Together with a tough San Francisco police inspector Jack Manion, they rescued nearly 1000 women, sometimes risking their lives as they worked down narrow twisting dark alleyways, searching the secret passages and behind the barred doors where the women were hidden.  Manion headed the Chinatown Squad of white police and was one tough cop, but equaled in his bravery by Cameron. 

The need was so great that another home was built in Marin County.  Later in Oakland the first Ming Quong home was built adjacent to the Mills College Campus. During the First World War, the farms in Santa Clara valley desperately needed help to cut the apricots and to pick the prunes.  The only farm that was willing to hire the Chinese girls from the Ming Quong home was owned by the prominent Cilker family.

In 1935, the Ming Quong home was moved from Oakland to Los Gatos, and all of the girls that stayed at that home had either been given up for adoption or had been abandoned babies.  As they lived directly across the street from where I grew up on Loma Alta Ave., I knew of them and attended school with them.  My father was a deacon in the Presbyterian Church that contributed to the support of Ming Quong.  The girls kept very much to themselves with many household chores to do, but were quite friendly neighbors.  As Ming Quong (or “Radiant Light”) outgrew the first cottage, they purchased the adjacent house and then later moved to the old Spreckles estate further up Loma Alta Ave.

Eventually, as the problem of prostitution in San Francisco Chinatown was solved, the purpose of Ming Quong changed and now it is a home for disturbed children with a location in Campbell.

Anyone interested in further information about Ming Quong should read “Chinatown Quest” by Carol Wilson or “Chinese Argonauts” edited by Gloria Hom.


  1. Leonard your post is so timely. Our Path Finders Club at the San Jose Athletic Club is holding our last hike of the year, On the Barbary Coast Trail, in San Francisco, on Dec 3rd. We will meet at the Train Station across the street from the HP Pavilion at 8:30 am. Gadrielle Wilder Our Hiking Leader and I will be the docents.
      You’d be happy to note that the trail plaques were cast in San Jose. All 150 of them. They sold for $1846.00 each, the year San Francisco was founded,and the same year Weed & Kingwell Foundry was established. I purchased this foundry and have been operating it continuosly since as South Bay Bronze here in San Jose. Closing on a Friday and pouring our first plaque on the following Monday. We can say with pride, Since 1846!
      San Francisco is so rich in character and history. After 23 years, my heart is still there.
      I hope you can join us for a tour thru San Francisco’s glorious past. We will assemble at the Mint on 5th and Mission upon arriving by train. Weather permitting this will be the most interesting hike of our annual series. Visit the Financial District & many Resturants on our way to Washington Square. Touring China Town, visit a Fortune Cookie Bakery. Walk thru the past at Waverly Alley, a Tong Strong Hold in it’s day, China Town is a vibrant place at this time of day. With Crab Season just beginning, Perhaps a fresh cracked crab and a good bottle of vino and some famous San Francisco Sour Dough Bread at Fisherman’s Wharf for an afternoon delight before ending the hike at Crissy Fields. Returning via Cable Car to Powell St for the return trip HOME.
    Please visit the website for maps and information on this not to be missed hike. This invitation is open to all who are interested in the “History Of Our Past.”
                      The Village Black Smith

  2. Mr San Jose’s latest wonderful post reminds me of the similar work that was done here in San Jose in the years spanning 1978-1982, roughly the transition of the Hayes and the McEnery administrations when the previously and garishly prostitute-lit streets of downtown were turned dark – after 1982 one could find a milkman downtown about as easily as one could find a prostitute (I know because I was looking, merely out of sociological curiosity of course). 

    I understand that the full credit for this work is generally accorded to the Madame Mayor but I suspect both deserve acknowledgement which is why I cited the two of them together.

  3. Leonard/ Gil
      Nice post, Leonard !  You are doing so much in keeping our history alive. And Gil, you need to keep posting your informative looks at who we are and the recent history of San Jose and our area.  I hope that San Jose will soon have a tour as fascinating as your link – as both of you know – we have the characters right here in San Jose, past and present. Leonard McKay would be an extraordinary guide. TMcE

  4. What Donaldina Cameron started in the 1890s by creating the Ming Quong house in San Francisco (eventually renamed Cameron House) continues to help those in need. The Los Gatos location is still in existence today as EMQ Children & Family Services, helping children and families who have mental and behavioral problems.
    Today, the Cameron House and EMQ Children & Family Services have become non-profit organizations with the mission of helping children and families.
    1). Cameron House: a faith-based community organization serving the changing needs of Chinatown and the Asian community of the San Francisco Bay Area.
    2). EMQ Children & Family Services (formed by the merging of the Ming Quong house in Los Gatos and Santa Clara County Eastfield orphanage): a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to transforming the lives of children who have been or are at risk of being removed from their family because of serious behavioral challenges. EMQ, a private nonprofit, serves more than 5,600 children and family members annually, and has been nationally recognized for its innovation in family-centered, community-based programs like Wraparound, support and educational services. For more information about EMQ go to, or the Cameron House

  5. Mr. Hickey – credit for chasing out the prostitutes and drug dealers in the Downtown in ‘79, ‘80, ‘81 go to the people living there, some small business owners, & the nuns at Notre Dame High – all outraged that hundreds of cars full of “Johns” were making their lives miserable. The ACLU criticized these people who nightly & courageously walked with the police on what the media labeled as the “hooker patrol.” It was very frightening.  This was to assure all that this would not be tolerated in “their” neighborhood. It was an “I’m disgusted as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” statement.  Janet Grey Hayes, Chief Joe McNamara & I provided the support. Parallels do indeed exist in the nightclub induced violence in our city today. Let’s see if we’ve learned anything.  TMcE

  6. Tom,

    What is the violence you see.  Only a few isolated incidents have taken place.  Its sad you have so little trust in the businesses and the police of dowtown. 

    Bad policies regarding the cruisers and underage gang members are the real issue downtown; not the entertainment industry.  Besides, most of these places came down here because of the Arena.  Maybe we should hang the person who brought the arena here.  Oh wait that’s you!

    But overall, I find it really insulting that you group all the restaurants, bars and nightclubs into the present day example of the prostitution problem of the past.

    You need to come down from you high horse.  And by the way, your not wearing a robe!

  7. Mr. Walker – I am on no horse: I walk, frequently Downtown.  I know the Downtown and the many good people who work and live there. Don’t begin to lecture someone who has seen the crime firsthand and the many lives destroyed.  It is bad and it is color blind.  What you so foolishly call the “entertainment” industry resulted in 3 shootings and more than one death in the recent past. No neighborhood in San Jose needs to tolerate that situation. Get out of the ivory blog, uh tower.  So many people now want to lecture from the calm of their quiet neighborhood or office.  And as far as the Arena bringing the groups that fired 50 shots in view of the police & other nightclub problems – it might be bringing bird flu too – wake up!  TMcE

  8. Leonard, besides the classic Chinatown Quest on Donaldina Cameron,another was published in 1977, Chinatown’s Angry Angel by Mildred Crowl Martin , Pacific Books Pub, Palo Alto

  9. Interesting tie-in to the Home of Benevolence where I spent three years of my childhood.  I have wondered through the years whatever became of “The Home” and am glad to see it is not forgotten.  Please keep in mind while you all debate the prostitution issues as they relate to Chinatown that there is a rich history of small children abandoned by their parents – and who are not necessarily Chinese.  This institution graduated many who led very successful lives.  I thank you and all those who contributed for remembering us.

  10. My husband, his sister, and his brother were placed in Home of Benevolence after the deaths of both of their parents and their guardian grandmother in 1942.  Are there records available to be viewed? This part of my husband’s history is very important to him.  He was not quite age six years when he first came to live in the orphanage.  Does anyone have any information that they’re willing to share?
    Carrie E. Gray-Hall

    • I find these articles interesting because my sister and I spent about 3 years at the Home about 1943-1946. I was about 9 years old.  It was not really an orphanage but a place for the county to place children when taken from their parents for different reasons.  I would be interested to know what happened to the indiduals that I knew at that time.  I really don’t have fond memorys of the Home due to it’s supervisor at that time, a Mrs. French who was way to strict and downright mean to be supervising children……….

      • My two brothers, Joe and Harold Anderson and I went to live at “the Home” on November 1, 1941. Later our younger brother Wayne joined us. At the time I was 8, Joe was 10 and Harold was 5. How well we remember Mrs. French. She was a real meany. We all left the home in Sept of 1944 to live out in the country with Charles and Berdina Prior, foster parents. I would love to hear more from you.

    • I was 3 in 1943 . I remember castor oil and a wedge of lemon in the home. Palm trees out front of the home. the place we ate, lowell school, a little grocery store next door where we bought kool aid and the store owners daughter sarah, mrs french at the home , a friend who was lop sided they called her. a friend janie who was locked in a closet for some reason. another store on the way to lowell. grocery i believe. mean teachers at lowell who hit you with rulers in the back. my brother Bobby ran away several times to my uncle ray rileys out of sunny vale. I wish I had access to records and even pictures any type.  your friend Barbara shrum klepper

  11. It was nice of your to answer my comments.  It is possible that we were both at the home at the same time.  As well as I can remember I think I was 9 years old and entered the Home in 1943 and left in 1945 or 1946.  I remember attending Lowell Grammer school and entered in the 4th grade and was there for the 5th and 6th grades.  We left to live with my father.  A few things I do rememher was living on the Senior Boy’s side and pulling kitchen duty with a mean cook.  She terrified everyone.  My older sister Marie was on the Senior girl’s side. I also remember that the lady that was in second command was nice and much different from Mrs. French.  I think the Senior Boy’s Counselor was Mrs. King.  We had a couple of them.  Please feel free to add to my comments and maybe that will stimulate my poor memory.  Thank you again for your reply..

    • William, I attempted to answer this post soon after it was written, but was unable to log on. So now it is April 2013. I hope you will check and know that I have posted. Now I don’t remember what I have written in the past, but as a refresher, 3 of my 4 brothers and myself, entered the Home in Nov of 1941 and left there in Sept. of 1944. Seems like I was also in the 4th grade in 1943 @ Lowell. Yes, I know the cooks you are talking about. Their names were Rhinehart and Lowery. Yes, Mrs. French was very mean, but a Mrs Hylman was very sweet. She was second in command. I sure do remember the skits the senior boys put on in the dining room. Especially about the car with the flat tires. I have told it to my children, grandchildren and now my great grandchildren! Also there was one about the editor of the newspaper wanting “Hot News”. Do you remember it? Do you remember Clifford and Glen who were twins? Walter Clark who was nicknamed Pee Wee? My oldest brother was in the senior boys department and he says he remembers you. His name is Joe Anderson. Well so much for this time. I hope you haven’t given up getting a reply. Hope to hear from you again.
      Jacqueline Anderson Harris

  12. I first heard of EMQ when a foster child we were taking care of was seeing a counselor there.  That was about 8 years ago.  I wondered who Ming Quong was but didn’t look into it.  Recently I came upon an opportunity to read a book written by Nona Mock Wyman titled Chopstick Childhood.  This morning I sat and read 100 pages.  I couldn’t put it down.  I decided to search the www to see what would come up and found this site.  Such interesting history!

  13. This is in reply to William Day’s comment on Dec. 25, 2009.
    Yes, I think we probably were at the home part of the same time. Joe, Harold and I went to the home on Nov. 1, 1941 when I was 8 and left in Sept.1944.
    How well I remember those cooks. One was Ms Lowery and the other was Ms Rhinhart. Joe says that he does remember you. He was in the big boys department along with you. Remember there was 2 boys departments. Do you remember putting on skits in the dining room after supper sometimes? Do you remember eating unripened fruit and having to take a dose of epsom salts? Do you remember that the boys had to walk a different route to school than the girls? Do you remember a girl getting hit in the face with a baseball bat at Lowell school? That was me! I was in the 4th grade. I’ll try to think of other names and incidences and get back with you. So sorry to be so long in answering. I lost the link tothis page.

  14. Jacqueline and Barbara, I appreciate your responses and yes I remember those things you mentioned.  I’ts funny how I remember thngs that happened years ago and can’t remember what happened yesterday.  The skits performed in the dinner hall really rang a bell.  I remember performing the car with the flat tires.  We senior boys must have done it once a month. A few names I remember,  Andy Quail, Ernest ?, Jerry Brown.  Some guy that kept butterflies in his locker.  Scrubbing the hardwood floors in the Senior Room.  Sliding under the beds at night on the hardwood floors.  Walking to Lowell without the girs.  YMCA on Saturdays. Y camp somewhere around San Jose.  I’ll never forget Liver at dinner, it almost made me sick and Mrs French made me eat two helpings.  My turn cleaning the dining halls and fearing the cooks.  The boys that ran away ever so often. Riding our bicycles to the hobo camp and going down the big hill.  I could go on but I will just wait for your rememberances…..Bill

    • My grandmother was in the Home of Benevolence in 1910 and mentioned a Mrs. French in a letter she wrote in 1972. Could this POSSIBLY be the same Mrs. French?

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