One chilling effect of research into the more-or-less near past is a reminder that the Bad Old Days aren’t far behind us. We like to think of our society as progressive (well, I do anyway) and, while not perfect, well removed from the vagaries of yesteryear.
Then you read stuff like this.
Little more than a hundred years ago, SF’s Chinatown harbored thousands of Chinese prostitutes, imported from the East on large ships and solid into sexual servitude. Fourteen was considered the optimal age for a prostitute, but they ranged from eight to seventeen. And they were considered nothing more than merchandise at the local market. Here’s a typical bill of sale received by the Salvation Army in 1898, as recounted in Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld (1933):
BILL OF SALE
Loo Wong to Loo Chee
April 16 - Rice, six mats, at $2 ........ $12
April 18 - Shrimps, 50 lbs.,at 10c ...... $5
April 20 - Girl ......................... $250
April 21 - Salt fish, 60 lbs.,10 10c .....$6
Due to the high volume of sexual partners, all of the women were diseased by their twenties. When they became too wretched to charge for services, they were shipped off to a “hospital” — essentially left in a dark room until they died. Here’s an account of a visit to one such “hospital” from the San Francisco Chronicle on December 5, 1869:
“The place is loathsome in the extreme… There is not the first suggestion of furniture in the room, no table, no chairs or stools, nor any window…. When any of the unfortunate harlots is no longer useful and a Chinese physician passes his opinion that her disease is incurable, she is notified that she must die…. Led by night to this hole of a ‘hospital,’ she is forced within the door and made to lie down upon the shelf…. When the limit is reached they return to the hospital, unbar the door and enter…. Generally the woman is dead, either by starvation or her own hand; but sometimes life is not extinct… yet this makes little difference to [the ‘doctors’]. They come for a corpse, and they never go away without it.”
Grim stuff. And not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, in the heart of one of America’s greatest cities. Sometimes we need a reminder that nothing in fiction is as horrifying as reality.