861: Ah Toy

The First Chinese Prostitute in San Francisco

Born: c.1828 or 1829, Guangzhou, China

Died: Possibly 1928, San Jose, California

Ah Toy was also a Madam and arguably the most famous Chinese Woman in the Old West. Some sources state her feet were bound in the traditional lotus foot fashion, indicating she was from the upper class; however, other descriptions seem to indicate otherwise, meaning she was actual a hakka, or from an ethnic group that did not practice foot binding. Whatever the case of her feet, she was described as very beautiful and alluring by numerous sources, but unfortunately no verified photographs of Ah Toy have ever been found.

Becoming a widow on the passage over from China allowed Ah Toy to take up as the captain’s mistress, which also allowed her to land with a small personal fortune. She was the second Chinese woman to land in California, the first being a servant who arrived a few months earlier.

She was the first Asian woman to petition for her rights before the American Court system. The second time Ah Toy appeared in court she was suing for wages—some miners tried to pay for her services in brass fillings when she charged gold ounces (the case was thrown out despite her being right). She would appear in court around ten times we know from surviving documentation.

In 1854, Ah Toy was arrested several times for “Keeping a disorderly house” (Despite white madams not being charged) so she gave up and left the area after the law also changed barring Chinese people from speaking in court. Another source states that same year, Ah Toy attempted to take a man to court on charges of domestic abuse, and this is when she found out that law had changed so that she would no longer be able to testify.

That’s right, California law was changed so that Chinese people no longer had the right to speak in court. Because you know, that’s totally cool. They also passed taxes that literally only applied to the Chinese community, barred the Chinese from intermarrying with other races, and stopped them from being able to own land. In case you weren’t already aware, California and the United States federal government at large were horrible, and I mean horrible, to Chinese people over the years. Why isn’t that in our history books, huh? To learn more about that, click here.

After leaving San Francisco, Ah Toy went back to China for a time before returning and was arrested again in 1859. She moved to San Jose in 1868 and married in 1871, at least according to some sources. Literally after she left San Francisco in 1854, things have only been pieced together and nothing is known for certain.

The end to Ah Toy’s story is a bit of a mystery. A death notice appeared in a newspaper in 1928 claiming an Ah Toy died, but there’s no way of knowing if it was the same lady or not. If it was, that means she lived to be either ninety-nine or a hundred, which is really impressive considering her time period.

Ah Toy’s story was included in the Cinemax television show “Warrior.”

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The White Devil's Daughters: The Fight Against Slavery in San Francisco's Chinatown by Julia Flynn Siler