In 2019, I visited the Cameron House in San Francisco for the first time. Founded in 1874, originally established as the Occidental Mission Home for Girls, the Cameron House has a long history of bringing aid and relief to the community of Chinatown, (CameronHouse.org). My purpose in visiting was to learn more about the remarkable women who worked as volunteers in the early years, including former mission home director Donaldina Cameron, in preparation for writing the historical novel, The Paper Daughters of Chinatown (September 2020, Shadow Mountain). But one visit to the Cameron House, and I was deeply touched by the life and service of Tien Fu Wu.
“Auntie Wu” or “Tien” as the residents of the mission home called her, was brought to Chinatown as a paper daughter in the late 1800s. A loophole in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 created a dubious opportunity for slave owners or members of the criminal tong to bring Chinese women into the country under false identities supported by forged paperwork. In this forged paperwork system, the young Chinese woman would memorize her new family’s heritage and claim to be married or otherwise related to a Chinese man already living and working in California, and the paper daughter was allowed into the country. “Upon arrival in San Francisco many such Chinese women, usually between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, were taken to a barracoon, where they were either turned over to their owners or stripped for inspection and sold to the highest bidder” (see Unbound Feet by Judy Young, 27).
Such was Tien’s experience. In the records from the Cameron House, we learn that Tien was called Teen Fook or Tai Choi before her rescue. In an entry dated January 17, 1894, her rescue is detailed: “Tai Choie alias Teen Fook was rescued by Miss Houseworth, Miss Florence Worley and some police officers from her inhuman mistress who lived on Jackson St. near Stockton St. The child had been very cruelly treated—her flesh pinched and twisted till her face was scarred. Another method of torture was to dip lighted candlewicking in oil and burn her arms with it. Teen Fook is a pretty child of about ten years old, rosy cheeked and fair complexion” (see Chinatown’s Angry Angel by Mildred Martin, 46).
Adjustment to new life and expectations in the mission home wasn’t a simple road for any of the girls and young women, especially for Tien. She harbored deep resentments for anyone who was in a position of power over her, but through the months and years of love and consistency, Tien flourished and became an integral part of the mission’s work. She served as a translator for the mission home director, Donaldina Cameron, when they went on rescue work. Tien wanted to continue contributing, to give back, and to serve those in need. She was determined to get a college education so that she could open more doors and serve in greater capacities in the mission home and throughout the community.
The mission home found a sponsor for Tien’s education, and she spent four years in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and two years in Bible Training School in Toronto, Canada (Martin, 153). Before leaving San Francisco, she promised Donaldina Cameron that she would return to the mission home and continue to work for the cause. True to her word, Tien returned to San Francisco and spent the remainder of her career as a champion for the women and girls of the Chinatown community. She truly lived a dedicated life in service, faith, and love as she persevered through extreme challenges, while lifting others with her along the way.