This is an excerpt from The Bohemians of Telegraph Hill, a novel based on the life of the photographer Dorothea Lange and her Chinese assistant, Caroline Lee.
Until she was five years old, she had neither a mother nor a name.
It was 1906. Early spring, chilly and damp. All year the Chinatown papers had been printing stories about the chaos and calamity to come. It was be a time of wild reversals, the likes of which descended on the world only every sixty years, and the residents of Tangrenbru, San Francisco’s Chinese ghetto, doubted neither the dire predictions, nor the futility of preparing for what was to come.
One night in the first week of April, Donaldina Cameron—or Old Ma, as she was known to the girls of 920 Sacramento Street, and “The White Devil” by certain of her Chinatown neighbors—rescued five girls from a brothel on Waverly Place. In her six years as head of the Mission House she’d already rescued hundreds of babies, girls, and young women. Anything, she’d learned, could happen to girls in this city. They were bought with ease and sold with impunity. In narrow alleyways, behind barred windows, girls as young as nine were drugged, dolled up, made up, and then chained to beds.
When they fell sick from syphilis or diphtheria or flu, they were locked into rooms where they either starved to death or died by their own hands—cut their throats with kitchen knives, slit their wrists with rusted nails, swallowed opium or coal or poison—only to disappear without a trace.
Just past midnight Donaldina Cameron, flanked by two police officers and fortified by a nip of brandy, charged through the brothel and filed coolly past the myriad and familiar horrors. She had made the journey a thousand times. The devil was here, in the dark, fetid catacombs below Chinatown, but she didn’t fear it. This was her work and she did it well. But all at once she stumbled on a loose floorboard and that’s when it happened. When she found the girls penned under the floor.
Prizing back the linoleum that April night to reveal a trapdoor, Old Ma found four little girls clinging to one another in a suspended box under the floor. They were there, huddled together, four pale faces turned up toward her, their bodies naked except for the rags between their legs. One of them was gripping a broom in her small hand and had what looked like a month-old baby strapped to her back.
For a moment Donaldina halted. She felt deadly sick. And furious. “Bring them up!” she ordered the policemen. They did. Catching hold of each child’s hand as they came up one by one, she felt the strongest desire to hold them, to still their shaking bodies. What she did was spirit them away as fast as she could to the Mission House on Sacramento Street where they were bathed and fed and put to bed.
The next morning, Donaldina inspected them at length. She hadn’t noticed it before, but one of them, she now saw, had bottle-green eyes and light brown hair. She seemed to be about five years old. A servant had dressed her in a white, lace-trimmed frock and taken a brush to her long, tangled hair. She now had the same long braids as all the others, but somehow this only served to augment her difference.
Donaldina bent down and took a longer look at the child. She was pale, thin, and sickly, with bruises, cuts, and lesions all over her body. Such things could be cured easily enough. What worried her was the girl’s silence. At first Donaldina thought she might be deaf or perhaps slow, because when she asked the girl’s name, the child only hung her head. Then she understood: she had no name. Either terror had scrubbed her mind clear of it, or she’d never had one at all.
There was a moment in the history of every tortured child when its mind parts with its body—pushes off like a boat without oars from the shore, and gives itself up to the stream. It had happened to this child, that was clear. But could it be undone?
“We’ll call you Caroline,” Donaldina said brightly. She herself had been born in Scotland—still carried its accent—and Caroline was the name of her younger sister, a woman now, but a girl the last time Donaldina had seen her some twenty years ago. She spoke to the child in English first, and then, because the girls of 920 were not the only ones to receive daily Chinese lessons, she repeated the sentence in Mandarin and, for good measure, Cantonese.
Donaldina crouched down and leveled her eyes to the child’s. She said the name again, more slowly. “Care-oh-line. It’s a very pretty name, isn’t it?”
It was no use. The girl said nothing. She did not make even one sound. The other girls at the Mission House, meanwhile, took no time naming her.
Actually, they had many names for her. “Fish Eyes,” they called her on account of her green eyes, and “Dirty Face” on account of the smattering of freckles on her nose. When Donaldina wasn’t looking, they cornered her in the basement. Two of them held her down, pinning her against a wall, as a third girl pressed a hand against her face as if to wipe away her freckles. The girl pressed harder and harder as the others laughed and pointed their fingers. This went on for a long while and it was only Donaldina’s voice calling them that made them stop that time.
It started out as a lovely evening, the most perfect yet of the year. Tuesday, April 17 was warm and very still—not a breath of wind anywhere in the city. A week had passed since Donaldina Cameron’s raid on Waverly Place, and the green-eyed girl was still gripping a broom and refusing to speak.
The rains had been unusually strong that spring. The streets and alleys in Chinatown kept flooding, and for weeks people walked ankle-deep in squelching mud. The mud followed them from the streets and alleyways and into their clapboard shanties and one-room tenement apartments. But then, in April, right after Easter, the weather suddenly turned warm and pleasant. Through the morning and into the afternoon of April 17 fog misted through the streets of San Francisco and clouds hung over the hills, but later in the day a strong wind cleared the skies, turning it a perfect eggshell blue.
That night everyone spilled out in the streets. There was talk and laughter from the North Beach coffee shops and theaters, to the Palace Hotel ballrooms and the opera house. Everywhere in San Francisco there was talk that summer had come early that year.
Near dawn the city began rocking like a boat on a ruthless sea.
At the first tremors, Donaldina Cameron shot out of bed and into the hallway.
The ground tumbled and bucked and twisted. The roof of 920 heaved, the house swayed and groaned beneath the joists. She wove through the rubble, gripping the walls to steady herself, glass breaking under her feet, and she had not made it very far when a beam fell and knocked her backward. Her eyes closed, then opened again. Above, where the ceiling should be, there was a jagged slice of sky. She lay with her legs pinned under bricks, and that was the last thing she knew for a while.
For the first several minutes after the earth stopped shaking, the girls of 920 Sacramento gathered under the great oak table in the dining room. “Where is Old Ma?” one of them said. There was a frantic search. Eventually they found her trapped under a beam. Again and again they called her name, but she didn’t move. Her breathing was slow and heavy, and she might have drifted into unconsciousness and stayed there if the girls hadn’t they managed to pull her from the bricks and shouted and prodded her until she came to.
Donaldina willed herself to stand. She massed the girls around her and led them outside to see what could be seen. What could be seen was the end of days. Up and down the streets, people were straggling out of buildings. People came out of their houses, women with hands to their faces, and men in their long johns, shouting and calling, their faces covered in ash and dirt and wild with fear or disbelief or some mixture of the two.
920 was still standing somehow, but the chimney had fallen into a heap of rubble. The building stood at the furthermost border of Chinatown, just across from North Beach, the Italian section of San Francisco. The rest of Chinatown had fared far worse. Flimsy clapboard row houses were now slumped into the streets and crammed against each other. The earthquake had felled all the electricity poles, and electric cables were hissing and snaking against the ground. Up the street the façade had been ripped clear off a three-story building, and you could see straight through to the ruin inside, the toppled furniture, shattered lamps, and cracked beams.
For a few moments there was silence and stillness, but then there came an awful sound: cries and whimpers from within the collapsed buildings. Donaldina stood stock-still. She was wearing a housecoat and her hair, which was dark brown with a stripe of white at the crown, flowed down her back in a tangle because she had no pins to put it up. She looked hard at her girls, counting them once and then a second time. Thirty-two. They were all there, but without their immigration papers they were as good as disappeared. Or dead.
“Don’t move,” she told them, and then she walked back into the house.
Later it would seem to the girls she’d been gone an hour, and it was only her warning to stay put that kept them pinned in place. When, finally, she appeared again, her face was pitch black, she was coughing hard, and she held a small iron safe clutched to her side.
“Come here,” she told one of the younger ones. When the girl stepped forward, she loosened the sash around the child’s waist. She did the same with a second girl, and then she bound the two girls together, wrist to wrist. When she’d repeated this thirty-two times, she stopped and considered what to do next.
Holding hands, bound together by their sashes, they joined the crowds surging through the streets, moving up Broadway. The teenagers carried the babies, the young girls led the toddlers. As they walked Donaldina saw bodies slumped in the debris, and quickened her step so that the girls wouldn’t see. At the top of Nob Hill, she told them to rest as she surveyed the scene. Disaster, ruin, calamity. In the distance, columns of smoke. Somewhere in the Tenderloin, a fire had sparked, then flared.
Cresting the next hill, her eyes latched onto the bay, following the water to where it met the mountains of Marin County. Tomorrow they would walk west, she decided.
Out toward Golden Gate Park, or as far as they could get in that direction.
That night thirty-two Chinese girls slept, head to foot, on the pews of a shuttered church on Van Ness Street. By now the earth had stopped trembling, but a wall of flames a mile and a half long was advancing across the city. The girls slept with their shoes on their feet because the earth had not stopped rocking and who knew what could come next? By then their faces and white pinafores had long-since turned black from the soot. All night Old Ma kept watch over them. Her lustrous black hair was matted with the dust of her vanquished city and her housecoat stiff with its ruin. Outside, in the night, San Francisco was burning and burning.
In the morning they joined the thousands of people streaming out to the Western-most part of the city, to the gentle slopes and open spaces of Golden Gate Park. By then the entire city, the trees, the birds, the parks, the buildings, had disappeared; there was nothing but a sky shrouded in black smoke. A deep and peculiar silence had descended on San Francisco. No one screamed, no one wept. They merely beat a slow and wordless retreat out of the city. Donaldina and the girls passed a man pushing a piano up the hill. He was wearing suspenders but no shirt. They passed an elderly woman dressed in a dressing gown and cradling a broken elbow. Where buildings once stood, there were now only piles of wood and brick. Smoke rose from the debris, and it was so thick that it curtained the sky. There was no sun. Hotels, libraries, houses, stores, brothels, theaters, mansions—all had fallen in heaps of broken brick and shattered glass.
They’d just reached Lombard Street when a policeman stopped them. He was young, rail thin with a pimply face and a peaked hat and blue brass-buttoned uniform at least two sizes too big.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” he said, raising his hand to halt them. “They’re setting up a separate camp for the Orientals.” He pointed in the direction of Fort Mason.
They stood there for a moment, Donaldina and the policeman, staring at each other as an understanding flashed between them. The world had all but ended, but all the rules of the city had survived. Perhaps the chaos had rendered them even more inflexible.
Donaldina straightened her spine. “These girls are my daughters,” she told him. “I insist they accompany me to the Presidio.”
“Your d-d-daughters?” the officer stammered.
She lifted her chin. “Yes.”
“All of them?”
“All of them.”
The policeman stared at girls for a few moments, then cleared his throat. “You’re free to go to the Presidio, ma’am, but you’ll have to take your. . .”
“Yes. . .Your, ah. . .daughters. You’ll have to take them down there.”
Donaldina readied herself for a fight, but then something stopped her. Her gaze swept over her girls. They hadn’t eaten for two days. They were weak and tired; several of them were also badly injured. It would take them hours to reach the Presidio, if they managed to reach it at all today.
That was it. Without a further word, she led the group down Franklin Street, down toward the water.
All along the way trunks and baskets lay abandoned on the rubble. Silver trinkets, crystal vases, Persian rugs—it was all worthless now. Then, halfway down the hill, they passed a large wrought-iron birdcage, and here Donaldina felt a hard tug on her sleeve.
It was the green-eyed girl. For the last two days she had stood by Donaldina’s side, a small, silent shadow. “Caroline!” she said now, dragging Donaldina toward the cage with a power that belied her skinny arms. Her voice was high, but surprisingly loud. Donaldina bent down more closely. Inside the birdcage, faint beneath a coat of dust, was a small green canary.
She tried to pull the child away, but her tiny body was suddenly so heavy and rigid that she couldn’t move the girl even an inch.
When Donaldina Cameron at last trudged toward the bay, down to the foot of Franklin Street, she did so with her thirty-two daughters walking ahead of her, an iron safe tucked under the crook of one arm and a birdcage swinging under the other one.
At the makeshift camp for Orientals at Fort Mason there were no tents or blankets, and little to drink or eat. When the ferries finally started running again, Donaldina would take her girls across the bay to Marin County, to a theological seminary there, but for now what mattered, the only thing that mattered, was that her daughters were safe.
That night, for the first time in three days, Donaldina closed her eyes and let sleep enfold her. All that night and the next one, the canary sang its wild, plaintive song. On Sunday, the weather shrugged off its disguise of early spring and shrouded itself again in the cold and the damp. It began, suddenly and gently, to rain. The fires had reduced San Francisco to ash; the rain now turned it to sludge. Still, there were blessings; there was grace. Summer, that year, had not come early after all, but the nameless girl with the broom and a baby on her back was Caroline now. She had a name, a pet bird, and a mother, the first and only one she’d ever know.