In 1850, only 7 Chinese women were in San Francisco compared to the 4,018 Chinese men. These lows numbers could’ve been because Chinese men were afraid to bring their wives and raise families in a place full of racial violence. The growing anti-Chinese sentiment and few labor opportunities reduced the chances for entry of Chinese women. The few women in San Francisco’s Chinatown basically turned Chinatown into a bachelor’s society. Many men went to brothel houses to release their sexual tensions, thus increasing the demands and values of prostitution.
Prostitution in Chinatown increased, and in 1870, 61 percent of the 3536 Chinese women in California as prostitutes (Takaki, 1998). By 1879, seventy-one percent of Chinese women in San Francisco were prostitutes. However, the increased amount of Chinese women becoming a prostitute was not by choice. Immigrant women who became prostitutes, such as Wong Ah So, came to America on promises of marriage made by men only to be forced or tricked into prostitution.
Chan’s book, "Asian Americas: An Interpretive History", was able to shed some light as to why so few Chinese women were able to enter the U.S.
From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, Chinese women were only allowed to enter the U.S. as the wives and daughters of merchants or U.S. citizens. Several acts, such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Page Law, were passed in an attempt to stop the immigration of Chinese because many anti-Chinese individuals assumed that all Chinese women were prostitutes.
As Chan states in her book, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act suspended the entry of Chinese laborers for ten years but exempted merchants, students and teachers, diplomats, and travelers from its provisions (Chan, 54). Under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, only women who were native-born, married or born overseas to merchants in the U.S. could immigrate, thus resulting in an average of 108 Chinese immigrant women in 1882. The Page Law of 1875, which "forbid the entry of Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian contract laborers, women for the purpose of prostitution, and felons" was so strictly enforced that legitimate wives had trouble entering America (Chan, 54). Yung argues that in order for Chinese women to enter the country, they had to prove that they were "moral" women.
"Bound feet became a moral standard for Chinese women at the checkpoint" (Yung, Judith). This standard, however, didn’t apply to all women. Many ;moral; women came from areas that didn’t practice foot-binding, whereas many prostitutes bound their feet to increase their sexual appeal. To pass immigration restrictions, women had to lie to officials and enter the U.S. as citizens or as wives of U.
S. citizens using red certificates that were issued to American-born Chinese females who left for China before 1882.
As Judith Yung’s research shows, most Chinese women who immigrated to San Francisco in the mid-19th century were prostitutes, mui tsai (servants) ranging from ages sixteen to twenty-five, or merchants’ wives or daughters. Some immigrants were sold by their families for money, were promised marriage, or kidnapped and sold. These immigrants were often sold to Chinese merchants as concubines, and were treated well if they pleased their owners. Others were auctioned off to parlor houses or ended up in cribs.
Parlor houses were luxurious rooms furnished extravagantly on the upper floors of Chinatown. These women were dressed in beautiful silk clothing, and were displayed and made available to certain clients. Cribs, on the other hand, were twelve by fourteen feet shacks usually facing a dimly lit alley. Prostitutes living in cribs would draw their customers through barred windows, selling themselves for as little as twenty-five cents. Consequently, women in cribs were exposed to harsh treatment and were ultimate infected with a sexual disease. Once diseased, these women were of no use and were thrown out on the streets or locked up in a room anyone until they died (Yung, Judith).
The prostitution trade was considered easy money, thus it was a big trade. Trafficking prostitution was too profitable to be stopped by laws alone. Brothel owners alone were able to make an annual profit of $2,500 on each prostitute. The Hip Yee Tong, for example, imported 6,000 women and made a profit of $200,000 .