Ah Toy

Today’s post pays tribute to Ah Toy, the second recorded Chinese woman to have arrived in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush and the first Chinese sex worker (that we know of) in San Francisco. Ah Toy was born in 1828 in Southern China and travelled to the United States with her husband, who passed away en route to California. Born into relative wealth in comparison to many of the Chinese (im)migrants who traveled to the United States during the Gold Rush, Toy quickly became an influential social and economic presence in San Francisco.

Toy was an independent sex worker who established herself before the Tong controlled era of the 1850s took hold of San Francisco and wider Gold Rush California. She gained respect and a substantial amount of control over her livelihood (and wider control in the political scene in San Francisco) due to this. Toy’s life traces the difficulties that Chinese (im)migrants experienced in the United States, and specifically those of Chinese women and Chinese sex workers. The “yellow peril” sentiments amongst the White population forced Chinese women to navigate the stereotypes and violence that resulted from these attempts at securing a White supremacist state amidst the influx of thousands of Chinese workers to California and the broader American West.

Toy was both romanticized by many within the society around her and also stigmatized due to the “yellow peril” sentiments that were taking shape in the 1850s. Toy was able to negotiate the many myths surrounding Chinese sex workers, and Chinese women more broadly, to work in her favour, and was even able to manipulate the court system and vigilante police force, as can be seen by her famed relationship with John A. Clark, a prominent vigilante police officer of the time.

After establishing herself as an important political figure through her sex work, Toy went on to open a series of brothels in San Francisco and became deeply involved in the sex trade, bringing in girls and women from China to work for her. Unfortunately, some of these girls were purported to be as young as eleven years old, demonstrating the intersecting set of power dynamics that Toy and others were complicit in while trying to secure respect and safety for themselves. Toy’s life can therefore serve as a window into a complicated era of settler colonialism, anti-Asian racism, and frontier mythology, wherein the history of Chinese (im)migration to the United States points to the messy and complex negotiations of oppression, survival, and control that were at play during the era in California.

Toy’s place in this history can be looked at from multiple perspectives, but begs us here at Historical Hotties to ask ourselves a difficult and uncomfortable set of questions. How do we complicate narratives surrounding sex work in the historiography of California, the Gold Rush, and Chinese immigration to the United States without resorting to tropes of victimhood or predation? How do we understand someone like Ah Toy, whose lived experiences attest to the power and control she gained from sex work but who at the same time became a part of a tangled system of immigration, sex work, exploitation, and liberation? Where do people like Ah Toy fit in the broader project of settler colonialism in the American West? How has the historiography of Asians in America and Asian Americans served to replicate “yellow peril” myths and stereotypes of submissive East Asian women (for example) that continue to this day? How does a story such Ah Toy’s add to our understandings of racism and patriarchy in the American West, the responses of Chinese women to “yellow peril” racism amongst White settlers, and colonialism as a transnational project involving both people of colour and White people in the United States? Lastly, how can we incorporate and understand histories of sex work/ers as integral to — Capital A, Capital H — American History and treat these histories with just as much nuance as we do the histories of other labourers?

~ M

Bibliography

Gentry, Curt. The Madams of San Francisco: A Highly Irreverent History. New York: Signet, 1964.

Tong, Benson. Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

 

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Ah Toy

La Comandanta Ramona

Comandanta_Ramona_by_bastian

[A photograph of la Comandanta Ramona, taken by Heriberto Rodriguez]

What is the line between the past and present? And what is the difference between history and the past? These are questions that often plague academic historians and broader students of history, especially when prompted by the question “what is history?” Today’s post – the first of 2016 – does not attempt to answer any of these questions, but instead attempts to infuse our understandings of the rebellious, radical, and revolutionary people whom we look up to here at Historical Hotties with them. Often times, these questions are brushed off as purely theoretical, as not worth the time of “real” historians that study a “real past.” This is where La Comandanta Ramona comes in.

La Comandanta Ramona was an essential leader in the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) – often referred to as Zapatistas – until her untimely death in 2006. Born in Chiapas, México in 1959, La Comandanta Ramona was an Indigenous Tzotzil woman who fought with the Zapatistas against capitalism and continuing colonialism in México as perpetrated by the state and corporations. As quoted in La Jornada upon her death in 2006 from cancer, Ramona “era uno de los símbolos más emblemáticos del EZLN,” with her small stature, her traditional clothing, and her covered face becoming one of the images that come to mind in relation to the EZLN. Ramona was highly involved in the social struggle in the 1980s in Chiapas, fighting for the rights of Indigenous women to education and healthcare, and for Indigenous women’s artisanal skills to be respected by broader society. Together with la Mayor Ana María, Ramona helped to draft la Ley Revolucionaria de Mujeres in the early 1990s. Ramona was critical to el Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena, which was what helped the armed insurrection of January 1, 1994 that led to the capture of San Cristóbal. Ramona then participated in the important diálogos de la catedral de San Cristóbal with the emissaries of the Salinas Government.

Ramona – and the EZLN more broadly – elicits us to pick apart the demarcations of past/present. We must contextualize these struggles in a much longer history that begins in 1492, and yet also contextualize them in the present as the effects of centuries old colonialism, genocide, exploitation, racism, and patriarchy all intermingle to create our present realities. The EZLN has made these connections central to their struggles, as illustrated in their comunicados. Furthermore, Indigenous Peoples are often relegated to “the past” in the settler colonial imagination. As historians and students of history, it is our responsibility to fight against this racist and colonial narrative from both within and outside the academy.

Ramona passed away in 2006 – is this the past or present? For those of us that feel as though 2000 was just yesterday, 2006 feels like it is still “the present.” 1994 was within many of our lifetimes – is this the past or present? The EZLN continues to fight, their struggle is not over as their 22nd anniversary comunicado from January 1, 2016 attests. Yet histories are already being written about them. La Comandanta Ramona is someone whose life, struggles, and history is still very, very fresh. Her radical defense of her community, her people, and her own humanity in the face of colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism are worthy of more than just applause. Ramona is demonstrative of how the past is never over, of how it continues to inform our present, and of how we are always engaging in the politics of memory.

~ M

Bibliography

Garrido, Luis Javier. “La comandanta.” La Jornada. January 13, 2006. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2006/01/13/index.php?section=opinion&article=021a1pol

Marcos, Subcomandante Insurgente. Our Word is Our Weapon. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004.

Rodriguez, Heriberto. [Image] Accessed January 7, 2016. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nicalibre/83655677/in/photolist-8oKVg

 

La Comandanta Ramona