The Paper Daughters of Chinatown

Written by Heather B. Moore
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

Based on true events, The Paper Daughters of Chinatown is a fascinating novel, bringing to light the heroic efforts of the real-life savior, Donaldina Cameron, who devoted her life to rescuing young Chinese girls from sex trafficking in the early 1900s.

Donaldina (Dolly) Cameron is in her mid-20s when she accepts a position as a teacher at the Occidental Mission Home for Girls in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The home is a safe haven for Chinese women who had been sold into slavery and prostitution. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibiting additional Chinese immigrants from coming to America, many Chinese girls came here illegally as paper daughters, on the pretense that they already had relatives in America.

Dolly quickly becomes a mother figure to most of the young girls at the home. Soon, she is recruited to go on dangerous rescue missions, raiding dangerous opium dens and tongs (Chinese criminal organization) to bring girls to safety. Eventually, she takes over as director. Dolly constantly has to be on alert, as the safe house is constantly under siege from tongs.

A separate storyline that ultimately unites with Dolly’s story is about Mei Lien, a naïve young woman who was brought to America from China under false pretenses, with the expectation she’d marry. Instead, she is cruelly kidnapped and forced into sex slavery, quickly becoming addicted to opium.

Despite the disturbing subject matter, this meticulously researched book is unputdownable. The book is as much a history lesson about a shameful piece of American history as it is a glimpse into the life of a heroine whose legacy lives on today: the mission home is still in existence, renamed the Donaldina Cameron House. Readers will come to care about all the women featured in the book and will marvel at the extraordinary accomplishments of a determined woman ahead of her time.