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SFCentric History: Marie Seise, the First Chinese Woman in San Francisco

San Francisco is an old, iron safe filled with gold, glory, disaster, and secrets. SFCentric History is a new column, by SF writer V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi, that digs in the vaults of local history and shares the sensational people, places, and things that rocked San Francisco.

Chinatown, San Francisco late 1800’s.  Title: ‘The Street of Gamblers’ (Ross Alley) Photo: Arnold Genthe.  Source: Wikimedia.org

Chinese culture is an integral part of San Francisco. As of 2015, those from China make up 21.4% of the city’s population, its single largest ethnic minority group. But like every other group, the Chinese once found themselves new immigrants to SF. It wasn’t until February of 1848, right before the Gold Rush frenzy and mass immigration to California, that the first Chinese immigrated to San Francisco (although ship cooks and traders had visited the harbor in years before). This included a woman, whose name was Marie (sometimes referred to as Maria) Seise.  

Marie Seise traveled from Hong Kong to San Francisco on the brig Eagle. She was originally from Guangzhou (Canton), having ran away to Macao (also known as Macau) to avoid being sold into slavery by her parents, something that was common with poor families at the time. Also a norm at that time was the belief that decent” Chinese women didn’t travel; however, Marie went forth with her plans. It was in Macao that she met her Portuguese sailor husband (who had the last name Seise; Marie’s Chinese name is unknown). There they married, and she converted to the Catholic faith. One day, her husband left on a voyage, never to return again.

After her husband was lost at sea, Marie worked for a family as a domestic worker (although another account said it was before the marriage). She traveled with them to Hawaii (then the Sandwich Islands), arriving in 1837, and living there for six years, before returning to China. She is believed to be not only the first Chinese woman in San Francisco, and California, but also the first Chinese woman in Hawaii, and perhaps the United States.

Photo: Dupont Street, 1850, Museum of the City

In Hong Kong, Seise was hired by Sarah Bentner Gillespie, wife of New York City trader Charles V. Gillespie, as a personal maid. She traveled with two other Chinese men who worked for Gillespie in Hong Kong, but soon became close to Sarah. In fact, according to the book Rooted in Barbarous Soil: People, Culture, and Community in Gold Rush California, Marie became not “a servant, but above a servant–rather as a companion–enjoying her [Sarah’s] fullest confidence.” Marie learned English fluently, and the two were even confirmed together by Bishop Inghram at the first confirmation ceremony at San Francisco’s Trinity Episcopal Church, in 1854. In the city, the Gillespies lived at Dupont and Clay Street.

Photo: Dupont Street, 1870s, SFPL

By working for the Gillespies, Marie Seise avoided the unfortunate fate of other Chinese women of the time. She didn’t have to work as a prostitute, an abused servant, or be in servitude of a Chinese husband, his family, or her father back home. She was self-sufficient, and took her opportunities even further by advising Charles Gillespie on what food supplies and goods he should import to the city. Marie Seise worked for the Gillespie family for 30 years. Not much is known about her life after that.

Between 1848 and 1854, only 16 Chinese women immigrated to San Francisco (compared to 45,000 men in the same period). Perhaps they wouldn’t have made the trek if it weren’t for the bravery and independent spirit of the woman who did it first, Mrs. Marie Seise.

‘Chinese Woman’ San Francisco Late 1800’s. This photograph is not Marie Seise (no such photograph exists) but it is one of the oldest photographic examples of a Chinese woman living in San Francisco. 

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V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi is one of those rare born-and-raised San Franciscans (unicorn status). She is the Style & Culture, SF Editor for Hip Latina, and writer for several publications on fashion, art, culture and all things San Francisco. Alex aims to educate everyone (including natives) on anything you could possibly want to learn about the best city in the world. Follow her at @SFCentric and @TheItFactorBrand.