Chinese society features a lot of phenomenal women, from badass Princesses to female astronomers and political leaders. This week, to reintroduce the “Badass Ladies” series, we’re focusing on Ah Toy, America’s first Chinese Madame in the wild, wild West.
In the 1840’s many Chinese were making the trip to the United States, chasing fortunes during the California Gold Rush. Ah Toy, like many Chinese during the time, made her way over to the United States on a steam ship from Hong Kong. Though accompanied by her husband, Ah Toy was widowed on the trip. Demonstrating the quick thinking and self-preservation skills that would propel her into infamy, Ah Toy quickly became the mistress of the ship’s captain, who showered her with gifts and gold that allowed her to land in America with her own personal fortune.
Once she landed in San Francisco, Ah Toy quickly made a name for herself as the first Chinese prostitute in the area. She recognized and capitalized on the fact that she was one of the few Asian women in the area, reportedly charging men an ounce of gold, or 18 USD (over 560 USD today) for just a look at her.
Thanks to a unique combination of business smarts and pure tenacity, Ah Toy flourished in the San Francisco sex industry, remaining independent of outside influences, such as the Chinese Tongs or gangs. As she built her fortune, Ah Toy also began building a mini empire. Within two years of arriving in San Francisco, Ah Toy went from being a solo operator to owning two “boardinghouses”—a common euphemism for brothels. While expanding her brothel empire, Ah Toy also helped other Chinese brothels expand. Ah Toy quickly became a well-known figure in San Francisco at the time, commonly described as “strangely alluring” by various newspapers.
While successful in creating a name for herself- first as a prostitute and then as the Madame of a string of parlors—Ah Toy was often the victim of anti-Chinese laws and prejudice common at the time. While not the only Madame in the area, Ah Toy and her Chinese employees were often punished for running brothels. They were frequently brought into court and charged with running “houses of disrepute”, even though their Caucasian counterparts were allowed to operate unobstructed.
Despite the roadblocks and setbacks, Ah Toy didn’t give up. After all, she didn’t get to where she was by standing down. Although known as a Madame in San Francisco, Ah Toy is remembered for understanding and taking full advantage of the protections of the American judicial system. Ah Toy never hesitated to take legal action when she felt wronged. She once accused several clients of paying for her services by using brass coins rather than gold dust. In another court case, Ah Toy confronted a Chinese gang leader who tried to extort her.
Eventually, the combination of new competition, anti-Chinese sentiment and new legislation led to the downfall of Ah Toy’s budding empire. In 1854, new laws were passed that outlawed prostitution and prevented Chinese people from testifying in court. These laws prevented Ah Toy from protecting her interests as Chinese gangs began to dabble in prostitution rings. Ah Toy finally retired from the scene, living a quiet but comfortable life that lasted until 1928.
Since her death, Ah Toy continues to command intrigue and gain attention. Daughter of Joy by JoAnn Levy, explores the life Ah Toy made for herself in San Francisco. While perhaps not the ideal career in the 21st century, you can’t help but admire the fierce resolve that Ah Toy had to be independent and self-sufficient woman in a foreign, male-dominated society.
For more awesome Chinese badasses, check out China’s only empress and this fierce pirate.
Cover Image is screenshot of TV series Warrior Season 1