• Justine McLellan

Ah Toy, the Gold Rush Legend

Updated: Feb 26, 2019

In 1849, the twenty-year-old Ah Toy left her native Hong Kong with her husband aboard a ship in hopes of immigrating to the United States. A few weeks into the voyage, her spouse died. In the brief and presumably grief-stricken period between mourning her husband’s death and arriving in California, the resourceful young widow successfully seduced the ship’s captain. The man showered his mistress with so many gifts and gold that once they reached the United States, Toy had accumulated enough funds to begin her new life independently. 

Her arrival in San Francisco in 1849 coincided with a huge population growth—the gold rush was drawing large numbers of male laborers. Ah Toy was one of two Chinese women in a city that was populated by a ratio of 70 men to each woman. 

Unsurprisingly, Ah Toy drew a lot of attention from the local white laborers, who fetishized her. In the 1830’s penny press pamphlets spread lurid accounts of what they called “strange Chinese sexual practices,” igniting the American imagination and creating a demand for the supposedly peculiar sexual attention of Asian women. Pretty, charismatic, and with traditionally bound feet, Ah Toy used this fascination to her advantage: she became one of the most popular and highest paid prostitutes in the city. Newspaper reports describe lines that wrapped around her block, full of men eager to, as one reporter phrased it “gaze upon the countenance of the charming Ah Toy.” She charged an extraordinary one ounce of gold ($16 at the time, or $500 today) for the privilege of looking at her body.

The press coverage led to news of her success making it back to China. Within a year of her arrival, Ah Toy had to defend herself against an opportunistic man in Hong Kong who claimed to be her husband. He had written to the leaders of the Chinese community in San Francisco, asking them to send her back to him against her will. She petitioned the American court to intervene and, representing herself, she won her case. 

Later she filed criminal charges against several of her customers for defrauding her by paying with brass instead of gold. Boldly stating her profession in court, she had no shame about expecting to be remunerated for the sexual services she offered. Although the Judge denied her complaint, after her appearance, Ah Toy became a celebrity of Gold Rush San Francisco. When asked to denounce the customers who had defrauded her, Ah Toy not only gave their names but boldly pointed fingers at several men in the courtroom. Newspaper coverage of this event reflected a relatively positive attitude and respect for sex workers at the time: the reporters shamed her stingy clients, not the defrauded prostitute. Journalists loved her theatricality, exotic attire, and magnetic personality. 

She went to court a third to face charges of being a nuisance to her neighbors, who complained that the noisy crowds drawn by her popularity as a prostitute disrupted the neighborhood. However, since prostitution was not yet a crime, the Judge dismissed the complaints. That same year, five more Chinese women arrived in San Francisco; two of them began working for Ah Toy. She bought a larger house on Pike Street, which temporarily appeased the neighbors. 

As the city grew and developed, San Francisco was becoming a tinder trap of anti Chinese sentiment. In June of 1851, a group of 700 Protestant men created the San Francisco Vigilance Committee. Not unlike the KKK chapters in the American South during the Jim Crow era, the majority of members were police officers and politicians,. Originally targeting “violent immigrants” from Australia, they eventually targeted Chinese-Americans and prostitutes. There were four lynchings in the first few months of the militia’s existence, sending a chill through marginal communities throughout the city. These men were motivated to violently establish power over immigrants, sex workers and independent women. Ah Toy was all three. 

Ostensibly anti-vice and aiming to uphold traditional Protestant values in San Francisco, The Committee employed a special patrol, headed by John A. Clark, to investigate the city’s prostitution and brothels. Ah Toy was supposed to be singled out for abuse by the group and subsequently deported because of her success and high profile. However, when John Clark met her in person, he was beguiled by the enterprising Ah Toy. They became lovers and, as a result, he provided her with a temporary shield from the escalating malevolence towards immigrants and sex workers.

Ah Toy continued to successfully advocate for herself and her business in U.S. courts, despite the growing ambient bigotry. She filed charges against Norman Assing, a Chinatown leader and mob boss, for illegally attempting to tax her and her employees. She served as her own counsel, and won her case. In December of 1851, Toy appeared in court to testify against a customer who had stolen a diamond pin from her brothel. When the suspect ran away, Ah Toy pursued him herself. A local newspaper reported that: “Ah Toy was too swift for him, seized him by the collar very much in the style of a police officer, and demanded [the] diamond pin.” Bystanders, after witnessing the incident, marched the suspect off to the police station. 

Civil war and famine in China led to a new wave of immigrants, many of them prostitutes, to San Francisco. As she was known to recruit recent immigrants from Hong Kong to work for her in the numerous brothels that she ran, Toy was partially blamed for the surge. Anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence increased, as did the power of the Vigilance Committee. 

In 1852, Toy received a vicious beating at the hands of her lover, John Clark. She still had faith in the U.S. judicial system, so she took him to court. Visibly battered and bruised, Toy did not seek financial compensation, her only request was that the court order John Clark to apologize to her. This request was denied. Their relationship appears to have ended then, as did her protection from the Vigilance Committee.

By 1854, Toy was no longer able to use the legal system to defend herself or her employees from abuse. In the case People v. Hall, the California Supreme Court added Chinese people to their list of racial minorities who could not testify in court. That same year, San Francisco passed Ordinance 546 “To Suppress Houses of Ill Fame Within City Limits” which criminalized prostitution in the city of San Francisco for the first time. The law “was enforced almost exclusively against the Mexican, Chileans, and Chinese.” Ah Toy was then immediately arrested, convicted and fined $20 for keeping a “disorderly house.”  Over the next three years, as she continued to grow her business as a madam, she would be arrested several more times. 

In 1857, Ah Toy told reporters that she was leaving San Francisco with no intention of ever returning. However, less than two years after her initial departure from the city, she would be arrested three times in San Francisco: once for “disorderly house keeping”, another for beating one of her employees, and another for brothel keeping. Finally, under a tremendous amount of stress, struggling to defend her business against increasingly violent hostility towards Chinese immigrants and prostitutes, Ah Toy left sex work behind and quietly moved to San Jose. While little is known about her life there, she purportedly married a wealthy Chinese-American man and spent her days as a socialite until his death. As an older widow she sold clams (literal clams) until her death February 1, 1928, just three months short of her hundredth birthday.

The issues and prejudices that Ah Toy faced over a century ago as an immigrant, female business owner, and sex worker have not been resolved. Sex workers are still banned from immigrating to the United States. “Known prostitutes” are routinely barred from attending conferences, even if sex work is legal in their country and they have no criminal convictions. 


“The Best Bad Things : An Analytical History of the Madams of Gold Rush San Francisco” Sophie Breider

“The Truth about US Sex Trafficking” Elisabeth Nolan Brown

“Polygamy, Prostitution, and the Federalization of Immigration Law” Maggie McNeil

“The Bawdy House Girls: A Look at the Brothels of the Old West” Alton Pryor

A Call to Change U.S. Policy on Sex Work and HIV” Urban Justice Center

©2019 by Kaytlin Bailey and Justine McLellan.