Cameron, Donaldina (Mackenzie)
Missionary, Social Worker, and Youth Advocate
Cameron was born on a sheep ranch in New Zealand. At the age
of two she emigrated to California with her parents, older
brother, and four older sisters. In 1874, when Donaldina was
five, her mother died, worn out from the hardships of ranching
life. The family's ranch eventually failed and Donaldina's
father supported his family by working for other ranchers.
At nineteen, Donaldina was engaged, but for reasons unknown,
did not marry. In 1895, Donaldina was persuaded by an old
family friend to spend a year helping out at the Presbyterian
Mission House in San Francisco's Chinatown. The acceptance
of this offer was the turning point in Donaldina's life.
Donaldina Cameron circa 1930
Photo courtesy of Cameron House
The Presbyterian Mission House at 920 Sacramento Street was
chartered with rescuing Chinese girls and women from abusive
circumstances. In 1882, Congress passed the first of three
Chinese exclusion acts. These acts prevented all but a few
privileged classes of Chinese men from sending for their families
in China. Single men could not send for Chinese wives, nor
did the law permit them to marry non-Chinese wives. The small
ratio of Chinese women to men bred a rampant prostitution
market. To feed this market, Chinese girls and young women,
mostly from Canton, were bought, kidnapped, or coerced into
coming to the U.S. Most of them arrived at Angel Island in
the San Francisco Bay. To gain entry, they presented false
papers showing them to be the wives or daughters of the few
privileged classes who were allowed to send for family. Once
in the country, these girls were sold for one of two purposes.
Girls in their teens were pressed into prostitution. The life
of the average Chinese prostitute was brutal and short. Most
died of the harsh treatment within five years. The little
girls were sold for household servants called Mui Tsai's.
Mui Tsai's were often burdened with heavy labor and endured
severe physical punishments. As they got older, they were
frequently sold into prostitution as well. The Mui Tsai's
and prostitutes were the main target of the Presbyterian Mission
Home's efforts, though girls of good family were also sent
to the Home to receive an education.
Once at the home, an untrained and naive Donaldina learned
the art of rescuing girls. Rescues were often secret nighttime
raids conducted with axe and sledgehammer wielding policemen.
Donaldina quickly became a master at finding girls that had
been hidden under trap doors and behind false walls. She also
became adept at protecting already rescued girls from writs
of habeas corpus, a legally sanctioned ploy wherein slave
owners would accuse a girl of a crime and have her removed
from the Mission Home. Once a girl was so removed, she was
rarely heard from again. Members of the fighting Tongs, many
of whom were slave owners, did not take the loss of their
property lightly. Slaves were valuable property, many fetching
prices in the thousands of dollars. The Mission Home and its
inhabitants were under constant legal and physical assault
from the slave owners.
In 1896, Donaldina decided to stay on at the Mission Home
to help the crusading superintendent, Margaret Culbertson,
whose health was failing. By 1897, Margaret Culbertson had
died, reputedly from the toll the job had taken on her. In
response to her loss and increased responsibilities, Donaldina
suffered a breakdown, but refused to stop her work at the
Home. In 1900, Donaldina became superintendent of the Home.
In those early years, she also acquired two other titles,
which were to stick with her for her lifetime. The angry Tongs
called her Fahn Quai, which means foreign devil or white devil.
The girls she rescued called her affectionately, Lo Mo, or
April 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake and fire forced
Donaldina and her girls out of the Mission Home. Realizing
that her girl's records had been left behind, Donaldina braved
the oncoming fire and military police to retrieve the records
that gave her guardianship rights. While the records were
saved the Mission Home itself was destroyed, one of many buildings
dynamited to try to stop the spreading fire. In 1908, the
Home was rebuilt and still stands today. 
In addition to her work at the Mission Home, Donaldina was
instrumental in establishing the Ming Quong Home for Chinese
girls and the Chung Mei Home for Chinese boys.
Donaldina continued to fight for the freedom of Chinese girls
and women in the courts, at the podium, and to perform rescues
in towns across the country until her retirement in 1934.
While she was by no means a lone force, Donaldina Cameron
is credited with breaking the back of the Chinese slave trade
in the U.S., and the rescue and education of nearly 3,000
girls. In 1942, the old Mission Home at 920 Sacramento Street
was renamed "Donaldina Cameron House", in her honor.
Mildred Crowl Martin: Chinatown's Angry Angel, The
Story of Donaldina Cameron, (Palo Alto, California, Pacific
Carol Green Wilson: Chinatown Quest, (Stanford, California,
Stanford University Press, 1931 and 1950)
Judy Yung: Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women
in San Francisco, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California,
University of California Press, 1995)
 Photo courtesy of Cameron House