The history of California is often told in the stories of young single men, especially when it comes to the earliest Chinese immigrants. While their numbers were smaller, women also arrived from China, although their reasons for crossing the Pacific were often less romantic than seeking fortune in the Gold Mountain. Beginning in the 1870s, the building now known as Cameron House—a Presbyterian Church ministry in San Francisco’s Chinatown—was a place of refuge for Chinese women escaping lives of slavery, often in the form of forced prostitution.
Author Julia Flynn Siler first visited Cameron House in 2013, beginning years of research that led to the publication of The White Devil’s Daughters. The book tells the story of the white Christian women who were the earliest allies of Chinese women and girls escaping slavery.
But in the course of her interviews, she also learned about more-recent and disturbing events that took place at Cameron House, which in the 20th century became a beloved youth center for Chinatown kids. These stories laid the groundwork for Siler’s most recent piece for Alta, “The Safe Place That Became Unsafe.”
Join Julia Flynn Siler joined Alta Asks Live in conversation with journalist Grace Hwang Lynch.
Alta Journal caught up with Siler via email to discuss how her reporting for The White Devil’s Daughters led to her investigation of sexual abuse involving pastor Dick Wichman.
Tell us a little about how you first became interested in the history of Cameron House?
I grew up in Northern California and have long loved San Francisco. I initially thought I’d write a history of the city, inspired by Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography. In my readings, I came across a first-person account written by a woman named Donaldina “Dolly” Cameron who ran a rescue home on the outskirts of Chinatown. She described her experience of leading a group of around 60 girls and young women across the burning city in the hours and day after the 1906 earthquake and fires.
Dolly’s account was utterly harrowing. I could smell the smoke in the air from her descriptions and taste the fear and chaos of the city. That’s something I’m always searching for as a historian—strong, distinct voices and primary materials.
After reading her account of living through that disaster, I wanted to find out more about Dolly and Cameron House. I started digging around and soon realized there was a wealth of primary material from the home and the Presbyterian Church, as well as from immigration files at the National Archives. Just as important, I began tracking down the stories of the Chinese aides who made her work possible and the accounts of girls and women who passed through the home on their way to freedom. It occurred to me that I could tell much of the history of the city through one place—920 Sacramento Street, which is where Cameron House is still located today.
When writing about the intersection of several delicate subjects—sexual abuse, race, and religion—how did you gain the trust of the survivors who spoke to you and the people who are close to the story?
My years of research for the book laid the groundwork of trust for the Alta article.
The initial challenge I’d faced was convincing Cameron House to open its private records to me. For more than a century, it had been protecting the confidentiality of the women and girls who took refuge there. But over time, staffers and former staffers of the home came to believe that I would tell these stories with respect and care. Eventually, they allowed me to review many key case files, including the infamous “Broken Blossoms” case in the 1930s, which centered around two residents of the home who courageously testified against a powerful trafficking ring.
These files, some of which contained documents dating back to the rescue home’s founding in 1874, offered me an invaluable glimpse into the lives of the thousands of people who passed through its doors, as well as into the wider history of the city and the state. It was the home’s former executive director Doreen Der-McLeod who tipped me off to a horrific aftermath to the period covered by my book. After sifting through case files with Der-McLeod, she suddenly turned to me and asked, “Do you know about Dick Wichman?”
I didn’t. So, in a somber tone, she told me the chilling story of a sexual predator who, for decades later in the 20th century, abused boys in the very same place where my story was set—the safe house my characters had established in the 1870s to protect girls and women. Because Wichman’s four decades of abuse were so shocking, I decided to end my book with Dolly Cameron’s retirement in the 1930s and only mention Wichman in passing at the end. My concern was that the story of decades of clergy sexual abuse by Wichman would overshadow the women whose lives and work I was writing about. And I wasn’t sure that abuse survivors—many of whom are still alive—would be willing to open up to me, as an outsider to Chinatown.
Are there more stories to be told surrounding this particular chapter in San Francisco’s past?
Yes, I think so. I’d like to see more stories written or told by “Cameron House kids”—the people who grew up spending Friday nights at the youth gatherings at Cameron House, particularly during the late 1960s and 1970s, which were such an important time for Asian American activism.
Your earlier books have dealt with the detailed histories of Hawaii’s sugar plantations and California’s wine. What is it that draws you to the West?
It’s my home. I’m deeply rooted in the West and have been studying its history since I was a high school student, reading Carey McWilliams, Maya Angelou, John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and other California greats. I left California as an 18-year-old to go to college on the East Coast and lived in Chicago, Prague, and London for more than two decades before finally returning to the Bay Area to raise our two sons in 2000. I wrote all three of my books while living here. They are all examinations of the history behind places that I’d visited many times before.
What are you currently reading or looking forward to reading in 2021?
I can’t wait to dive into Obi Kaufmann’s The California Field Atlas, which our younger son gave us as a gift this year. With the pandemic, we’ve been doing a lot of hiking, and I’m especially looking forward to reading his chapter on Mount Tamalpais. I’m about halfway through Sonia Purnell’s brilliant biography Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, as a follow-up to her most recent book, A Woman of No Importance, which I read this fall. I’m also reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste and listening to the audiobook of Anna Weiner’s Uncanny Valley.