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Sex Slaves Sold as Law Created Illegal Immigrants: Lewis Lapham

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Lewis Lapham
Lewis Lapham of Lapham's Quarterly in New York. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Oct. 23 (Bloomberg) -- The first major restriction of immigration to the U.S. was directed at the Chinese, who came to build railroads and dig gold. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 created a brand new phenomenon -- the illegal immigrant.

Undocumented and beyond the reach of the legal system, workers could be endlessly exploited, especially in the sex trade. In China, Chun Ho was sold by her mother to a procuress for 200 Mexican dollars. When she arrived in the U.S. in the 1880s, a criminal gang, or tong, bought her for $1,950 gold.

Prostitutes were nominally “contract workers,” who exchanged a term of service for passage to the U.S., but in reality they were sex slaves. Chun Ho made $300 a month for the tong, but she was docked for food, lodging, sickness and much else. After two years, her masters told her she was further in debt than when she started.

Many of the prostitutes were savagely beaten with wooden clubs, and Chun Ho said she knew four who were murdered. She eventually escaped, though no one was brought to justice for these crimes. “No one would dare testify,” she said.

I spoke with H.W. Brands, author of “American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865-1900,” on the following topics:

1. Capitalism vs. Democracy

2. Capitalism Depends on Inequity

3. National Agenda Set by Business

4. Senate: “The Millionaire’s Club”

5. Democratic Promise Betrayed

To listen to the podcast, click here. To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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