Sunday, May 24, 2009
Ah Toy (c.1828 - 1928) was a Cantonese prostitute and madam in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush, and purportedly the first Chinese prostitute in San Francisco. Arriving from Hong Kong in 1849, she quickly became the most well-known Asian woman in the Old West. She reportedly was a tall, attractive woman with bound feet.
When Ah Toy left China for the United States, she originally traveled with her husband, who died during the voyage. Toy became the mistress of the ship's captain, who showered gold upon her, so much so that by the time she arrived in San Francisco, Toy had a fair bit of money. Noticing the looks she drew from the men in her new town, she figured they would pay for a closer look. Her peep shows became quite successful, and she eventually became a high-priced prostitute. Toy then opened a chain of brothels, importing girls from China as young as eleven years old to work in them.
According to one article on her life:
Ah Toy became familiar with early California's judicial system. Her first court appearance went mostly unnoticed. Her second left more of an impression. It has been recorded that she entered the court dressed in an "apricot satin jacket and willow-green pantaloons." On her small tightly bound feet was a colorful pair of tabis. Her raven hair was arranged in a chignon, while her eyebrows were black and pencil thin. The whole colorful picture contrasted with her white cheeks that had been rice-powdered.
She was in court this day because some miners had paid her with brass filings instead of gold. Before Ah Toy could explain the nature of her complaint the judge asked why arriving miners ran to Ah Toy's residence? Unfortunately, her reply has been lost but a newspaper reporter paraphrased a more exact solution. "They came to gaze upon the countenance of the charming Ah Toy," he wrote. Some miners came to do more than look.
You see, Ah Toy was a prostitute. For the miners who only wanted to look the price was one ounce of gold which was about $16.00. This form of entertainment was called a "lookee." Often this gazing option was advertised as a "two bittee lookee," which differed from a "flo bittee feelee," or a "six bittee doee."
Towards the end of her life she supposedly returned to China a wealthy woman to live the rest of her days in comfort, but returned to California not long afterward. From 1868 until her death in 1928, she lived a quiet life in Santa Clara County, returning to public attention only upon dying three months short of her hundredth birthday in San Jose