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Cameron, Donaldina (Mackenzie)

Missionary, Social Worker, and Youth Advocate

Entry Author: Vicki Thomas

Donaldina 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 old mother.

In 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. [1]

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 Books, 1977)

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)

[1] Photo courtesy of Cameron House


Born: July 26, 1869 in Clydevale on the Molyneux, New Zealand
In 1896, Donaldina decided to stay at the Mission Home
Died: January 4, 1968 in Palo Alto, California




+ Cameron House
+ A story by Donaldina Cameron


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