The story was so astonishing that I skeptically questioned the three screenwriters before even agreeing to read their script. But after looking at all of the background material and researching the period, I reluctantly agreed that it was probably true. Unbelievable, but true.
One of my long-time screenplay writers, Robert Shill, first brought me a script called CHINAWARE-FRAGILE, and told me that he had written it in collaboration with two women, Christine DeSmet and Peggy Williams. The three of them are past winners of the Slamdance Film Festival script-writing competition (in Park City with Sundance) and are graduates of the Warner Bros. Sitcom Writing Workshop. Christine teaches writing for the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Continuing Studies and is a published novelist. Peggy, also a teacher, has seen over 300 of her corporate, industrial and educational video scripts go into production; she is also a novelist. Both women are are active members of the Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum.
Bob Shill is a talented Spokane-based writer whom I have worked with for several years. He found this amazing story and wrote a draft before bringing in the women to add authenticity to the leading woman and girls which populate the story. Bob said that when he first heard the basics of this story, he called several museums and historical libraries in San Francisco and collected every piece of information they had on the real woman, Donaldina "Dolly" Cameron, mostly collections of old newspaper articles. Then he collaborated with the women on their script until it shined. All of the action in their script is based upon real incidents which occurrd to Dolly in the course of her life. My having produced a raft of award-winning films ("Lady Sings the Blues," with Diana Ross, "Heartbreak Ridge," with Eastwood, Billy Wilder's last film, "Buddy, Buddy," with Matthau and Lemmon, the life of W.C. Fields, with Rod Steiger, etc.) made me the chosen recipient for the story. The three writers, knowing of my passion for "Downton Abbey," told me that the period of this film/miniseries is the same as Downton, the early years of the 20th century, the era when cars were new, and telephones were rare....their true story about Dolly and Captain Jack Manion is Downton meets House of Cards beginning in 1905 San Francisco, just before the earthquake.
We learn that Dolly Cameron, a Scottish immigrant, came to San Francisco's Mission House at 920 Sacramento Street as a rather young innocent missionary from the countryside where she grew up. The mission is a refuge for young Chinese girls who were brought to San Francisco by the thousands for nefarious reasons, sold by their starving parents for a few coins in the Canton region of China. They are then put on underground auction blocks in the city. My research showed that the corruption lasted through the 1930s by laws which allowed it...and that Dolly rescued from 3,000 to 5,000 girls through the '30s. She died in 1968, and today Cameron House is still used for youth activities and schooling. Astonishingly, there are unsettingly signs that it may continue to some extent even today! Girls from 9 to 11 are now the prime targets of the horror. Yes, it is a timely story which has never been told. Angelina Jolie, where are you?
The startling story begins the day in 1905 when Dolly arrives at the Chinatown orphanage and finds the shocking truth....that these girls, ages 8 to 16, are high-priced prostitutes who have been rescued. On one side she looks up at Nob Hill, where the rich people with their new horseless carriages live, while in the other direction is the back alleys where the girls are sold at auction like cattle, with bills of sale supported by the U.S. government at the time. She meets a real-life character, the enigmatic Jack Manion, captain of the Chinatown Police Squad, whose disgust with the machinations of the Tongs (Chinese gangs), is exceeded only by his appreciation for the common folk of Chinatown. But his idea of working through the system to help these victims doesn't jive with the young woman, Dolly, who is not afraid to knock down doors, dreses like men in disguise, and once leaps through a skylight to confront the Tong itself. We meet another real-life character, her nemesis, the fearsome Wong She Duc, who commands the most powerful Tong in the city. It amasses wealth by kidnapping or buying girls from China and shipping them in crates marked as Chinatown-Fragile. The girls are then auctioned into 'cribs,' where most die by the time they reach 17-19, from the abuse.
The story tells how Dolly rescues two young sisters, Ming and Kim-Li, from Wong She Duc. But her innocence is no match for Duc and his right hand man, Ah Sin, who tricks her into giving up Kim-Li. To Dolly's surprise, the legal establishment of San Francisco won't help her. Following the true happenings, the desperate Dolly strides into Duc's lair to confront the kingpin himself but she is thrown into one of the 'hospitals' - the filthy hovels where cast-off girls are left to die. Feigning death, she escapes on a wagonload of bodies hauled off the next morning. As the publicity mounts about Dolly's daring-do which interrupts the underground business, the mayor leans on Jack to control the unlady-like Dolly. Wong She Duc taunts her with photos of Kim-Li, now in training to be the princess of his brothels. All of this is so incredible that it can't be fiction.
Other roadblocks to Dolly's quest include a real-life rising political star, Abe Ruef, who first mentors and then betrays Dolly. We also meet a good guy, attorney Henry Monroe, who is well-bent but has a difficult time making the law work. The screenplay depicts how she and police captain Jack Manson fight a ruthless matrix of San Francisco gangs and business people in order to stop the underground slave trade of Chinese girls. We watch as Dolly risks her life and reputation as she fights courts and irate 'husbands' who hold contracts on the girls. She defies medical quarantines, goes on daring raids, and face down the great 1906 earthquake and fire, which only serves to make the Tongs more desperate to keep their empires intact. We see the worst blow, when she uncovers the extent of the corruption which keeps Duc in power. But Dolly discovers the crack in his armor - his twisted love for Kim-Li. That young girl, in turn, is smitten with Dolly's young grocer friend, Gunsoo, and they hatch a plan to to steal Kim-Li again out from under Duc's nose. Enraged at his loss, Duc order that Gunsoo's father be killed. This bloodshed, caused by Dolly's action, sparks the climax of our story.
I was fascinated by the information which emerges about Dolly's mentor, Abe Reul, and other officials in the scandal of graft and corruption. We see how Dolly encourages Gunsoo to face Wong She Duc in court, charging him with extortion. But Dolly loses the court case against Duc; he gains the upper hand by having Kim-Li thrown into jail until her 'ownership' is settled. In a desperate attempt to win, Dolly puts herself in contempt of court and is thrown into jail with Kim-Li. The story ends with a midnight raid by Duc's henchmen to kidnap Kim-Li. Dolly, Gunsoo and Jack mount a chase and, in the final confrontation, she has the bittersweet satisfaction of watching the once-powerful underground kingpin sink beneath the waves of San Francisco Bay. With his death, a new age of hope can begin. She even witnesses changes in federal laws. Dolly watches Kim-Li and Gunsoo wed, reaffirms her life-long friendship with Captain Jack, and the story ends on a promise of change and hope.
And it's all true! So help me.
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues) email him at email@example.com.