April 18, 1906
San Francisco, California
A deep rumble shook the building to its core, waking the girls from a previously peaceful slumber and sending them scurrying in terror to huddle with each other on the dank basement floor. The shaking intensified, and the walls and ceiling began to crack. Bricks crumbled down the walls and debris rained from above, but the children had nowhere to hide. Instead, they huddled closer together, crying and hugging each other for dear life. One of the girls, no more than sixteen years old, bolted for the locked door, but before she got there, a large chunk of brick struck her head. She crumpled to the floor with blood streaming from the gash. The other girls screamed louder and cowered deeper, struggling to cover themselves with their arms or diving beneath the flimsy mattresses of their cots. Still, the bits of brick and mortar pummeled them. Just as the girls became convinced the world must surely be ending, the shaking stopped.
Trapped in a basement built of brick, the young girls miraculously survived the power that was the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Aside from a few concussions, gashes, and nasty bruises, the girls were still intact and alive. But though the shaking ceased, their suffering did not.
Many of the young girls were teenagers, but a couple were not even ten. The oldest of the group was twenty, but she wreaked of disease and was too close to death to provide comfort to the little ones who shivered in fear on the floor. They were all Chinese, and none of them was there willingly.
They were the Sing-Song Slave girls: little girls who had been bought or kidnapped in China, dragged halfway around the world, and forced into slavery and prostitution for the gold miners of San Francisco. They were nameless girls. They’d been given Chinese names at birth, but those got changed in America, and most of the miners were too interested in their bodies to care about their names. So the girls sat, locked in the dark, musty basement, hoping that people who didn’t care about them as anything more than a meager source of profit might rescue them anyway.
Some of the girls tried to revive the teenager who’d been knocked unconscious, while another of the older girls tried to open the locked door. No matter how hard she twisted and pulled the knob, the door wouldn’t budge. She pounded on the door, crying for help, but no one came. When a major aftershock ripped through the building, she ran back to the mass of terrified girls in the middle of the room for protection. As the shaking again subsided, a thin, shoddy wall that separated the main room from a small private room in the far corner crumbled to the ground, and the girls found themselves face-to-face with the shackled girl.
For the older girls at least, some of their fear transformed into anger and rage. It was her fault they couldn’t escape! She was the one who’d misbehaved. She was the reason they were locked so tightly in the room. When they all behaved well, they at least had minimal freedom to wander around the building. They weren’t usually locked this tightly in the basement. But she’d attacked a customer, and now they were all being punished. No one knew just what had happened because the owner had immediately shackled her in the solitary room, and none of the girls had been able to talk to her. But now, they didn’t care. It had been weeks since the event, and their owner was hell-bent on making sure no one stepped out of line again. Thanks to her, they’d been cooped up in the basement for weeks, and now they might die here.
The girls spewed vile epithets at the shackled girl, but she remained impassive, staring past them into nothing. Only the sick older girl spoke up on her behalf. The older one knew too much of the horrors of life as a Sing-Song Slave girl. She was familiar with the rage that built up after years of abuse, and she no longer feared her early and imminent death. She spoke softly to the anger before her, reminding the girls that their true enemies were not locked in this room, but moved freely above ground. The girls calmed down but glared once more at the shackled girl before turning their attention back toward escape.
The girls pulled one of the cots apart and tried to use the pieces to break through the door, but to no avail. After a while, the older teens sat with the littlest girls in their laps and told each other stories to try to hide their fear, their growing hunger, and their anger. Aftershocks continued to rumble through, but they were mercifully less severe than the earlier seismic shocks. The sickly twenty-year-old struggled to her feet and, leaning heavily against the wall, worked her way over to the shackled girl. If they were all going to die, the shackled girl at least deserved a chance to tell her side of the story.
It was simple. The man had promised to buy her freedom. In exchange, he got to do whatever he wanted with her first. She was ashamed of what she did with him, and when he told her that he would not buy her freedom because his wife, whom he hadn’t previously mentioned, wouldn’t approve, she lost control. And she didn’t regret a thing. At least not about the beating she gave him. In fact, if she saw him again, she’d probably try to kill him again. The older girl smiled in sympathy, knowing that she’d very recently felt the same way about the men who’d ravaged her body with disease.
And so the girls sat for an unknown number of hours, uncomfortable and in fear. Then, one of the girls noticed that something seemed wrong. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something was not right. One by one, the other girls felt it, too. It was a sickening scent. It was as if the air around them got heavier and harder to breath. It was death.
The girls may have survived the 1906 earthquake, but they were all about to succumb to the firestorms that ravaged the city as a result of that infamous tremblor. As the wooden shanties of Chinatown burned above, fear overwhelmed them again, and the girls became even more frantic, trying to claw their way out of the basement. They tore their nails and skin, scratching at the heavy door. The ripped their palms and smashed their wrists, pounding on the walls for help. Their blood, sweat and tears poured over the wood and brick as they tried to escape. For a moment, the shackled girl struggled against her chains, but she gave up as the futility of her situation sank in. Instead, she sat still, ever impassive and watched as the smoke filled the room, and the flames began to lick at the doorframe. From her position, trapped on the ground and at the far end of the room, she was the last to die. She watched as the girls collapsed of smoke inhalation, she saw some of the girls catch fire before the smoke had fully rendered them unconscious, she heard their frantic screams as they made one last desperate effort to survive. She watched them without flinching. She was dying too, but she knew she would be here for a very, very long time.
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