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


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.


Ah Toy

Sessue Hayakawa

A photograph of Sessue Hayakawa [Advertisement, Moving Picture World, July 1918]
A photograph of Sessue Hayakawa [Advertisement, Moving Picture World, July 1918. Accessed September 25, 2015 on Wikipedia]

Born Kintaro Hayakawa in Chiba, Japan on June 10, 1889, Sessue Hayakawa was an Issei* actor famous in both Hollywood and non-American films. Hayakawa appeared in well over 80 films, and following his film acting career, went on to become a theatre actor, producer, and director. In 1957, Hayakawa received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai, however his prolific career began decades before he was recognized for this role.

Although in the twenty-first century East Asian men are often represented in American popular culture as effeminate, and therefore – according to Western heterosexual patriarchal standards – not sexually attractive, Hayakawa was well-known during the early twentieth century as the first male Hollywood sex symbol. Yet being venerated as a sex symbol was not without its discriminatory elements, as this was often done by typecasting Hayakawa as a villainous and sexually domineering “exotic” man. Throughout his film career, Hayakawa was cast as a man of various ethnic backgrounds, all of which were always presented to Anglo audiences as a “foreigner” who therefore commanded a taboo eroticism. Examples of his constant casting as a non-descript “foreigner” include roles such as an Arab donkey tender, an Indigenous man, a Chinese Tong warrior, and a Burmese ivory trader.

By casting Hayawaka as a sex symbol only so long as he adhered to villainous and sexually domineering roles that rarely ended with a successful interracial relationship, Hollywood continued to emphasize the white supremacist ideals that upheld anti-miscegenation statutes in the United States. Due to the continual typecasting of Hayakawa in roles that depended upon yellow peril and other racist stereotypes, he eventually created his own production company in 1918. By doing so, Hayakawa openly showed his disagreement with the racism that Hollywood production companies upheld during this era of American film.

Hayakawa’s battle to be positively represented in film – even stating that his one ambition was to be cast as a hero and not a villain – forced him to pave a path for himself in Hollywood. Despite receiving negative attention for his so-called extravagant lifestyle, Hayawaka refused to compromise how he chose to live his life in order to make Anglo-Americans comfortable in their stereotypes of East Asian men. Hayawaka is a man who deserves much praise for both his artistic and activist achievements. For this, we here at Historical Hotties tip our proverbial hats to him and other people of colour who have paved the way for future generations.

~ Monique

* Issei, literally translating as first generation in Japanese, refers to the first generation of immigrants in a Nikkei (Japanese diaspora) community. Issei were born in Japan, and then immigrated to various countries such as the United States, Canada, and Brazil.


Andre Soares. Alt Film Guide. “Sessue Hayakawa: Pioneering East Asian Hollywood Star.” http://www.altfg.com/film/sessue-hayakawa-portrayal-asians-hollywood/.

Laberge, Yves. “Review: Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom by Daisuke Miyao.” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 25 (February 2011). http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue25/laberge_review.htm.

Saltz, Rachel. “Sessue Hayakawa: East and West, When the Twain Met.” The New York Times. September 7, 2007. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9907E3DC143BF934A3575AC0A9619C8B63.

Sessue Hayakawa