History: Battling Slavery in California

Julia Flynn Siler on researching trauma for The White Devil’s Daughters.

julia flynn siler
Stephanie Mohan

How does one tell the story of a generation of Asian American women who escaped sex slavery with the help of an early-1900s mission shelter without treading into historical misrepresentation and white saviorism? Julia Flynn Siler’s solution is to write about the Christian abolitionists who ran the Occidental Mission Home for Girls—later renamed Cameron House—but pivot her focus onto the Asian American women who survived their ordeals and became outspoken activists and members of the mission themselves. For help in navigating the emotionally intense and disturbing subject matter, Siler worked with a sexual-trauma therapist. “I knew it would take me years to research and write The White Devil’s Daughters, and I knew I would end up dreaming about it at night,” Siler says. Her therapist suggested keeping a personal diary and reading memoirs written by trafficking survivors as well as fiction and poetry on the topic.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
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Were there more of the characters’ stories you wished you could have included?
I wish I better understood the nature of superintendent Dolly Cameron and Tien Fuh Wu’s relationship with each other. They spent the decades after they retired from the Chinatown safe house living next to each other in Palo Alto. They were buried next to each other in the Cameron family plot. Neither woman married or had children, though they maintained friendships with women who’d passed through the safe house over the years and had married and started families around the world. Were Dolly and Tien lovers? Or were they just close friends? We’ll probably never know.•

Vintage
THE WHITE DEVIL’S DAUGHTERS: THE WOMEN WHO FOUGHT SLAVERY IN SAN FRANCISCO’S CHINATOWN, BY JULIA FLYNN SILER
Vintage Bookshop.org
$15.64

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