Mission, San Francisco

Copyright  Alice Starmore

The dragon rippled and shimmied from side to side in ferocious fashion – the perfect precursor to being stopped in my tracks on Sacramento Street by a Presbyterian Mission called Donaldina Cameron House. The name was so typically Highland Scots that I just had to go in to enquire. I learned that the mission was named in honour of a woman who took on the Chinese Tongs and crime lords so bravely and so ferociously that they called her the White Devil. The Chinese girls she rescued from a brutal life of slavery and enforced prostitution used a different soubriquet; they called her Lo Mo , or Old Mother. Her Scottish ancestry sings out of her name, but Donaldina Cameron was actually born in New Zealand in 1869 and came to California as a young child. She started her work for the Presbyterian Mission aged 26 and became adept at rescuing girls during raids on Chinese brothels. The Tongs fought back with both physical assaults and legal attempts to claim guardianship of the rescued girls, but neither stratagem prevented Ms Cameron and her colleagues from fighting the slave trade tooth and nail. At the time of the great earthquake and fire of 1906 she was Superintendent of the Mission and saved its records before the building was destroyed. It was quickly rebuilt and the work continued. After a lifetime of tireless campaigning Donaldina Cameron retired to Palo Alto in 1934. Her retirement was long for she lived until 1969. I would dearly like to know what, at the age of 100 years, she had thought of her adopted city’s role in Flower Power and the Summer of Love.

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