March 26, 2010 11:05:00 AM
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 transformed America. Some of the transformations, like the impetus to populate the empty western lands and the increase in individual fortunes, were good, at least for some. The ecological effects were often disastrous.
The social effects, besides the population shift, were most significant for the interaction of Chinese immigrants with American citizens, and these were often disastrous as well. In "The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the West" (Atlantic Monthly Press), Christopher Corbett has told the story, as much as it can be known, of one Chinese girl who came to California and was indeed won in a poker game. There is not much that can be said about Polly Bemis for certain, but Corbett''s book (similar to his previous book "Orphans Preferred," about the Pony Express) is not only about the specific case but also about the larger picture and the folklore and traditions that were made around it.
Polly''s story is relatively happy-ever-after; for most of her fellow Chinese, however, the land of the "Golden Mountain" proved to be one of violence and exploitation.
Few Chinese came to America before the gold rush. Americans would have known only two of them, Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins displayed as a sensation by P.T. Barnum. The news about the gold rush came to Hong Kong before it reached Boston and Washington. The result was that tens of thousands of Chinese came to seek their fortunes in the gold fields, and old, battered ships that were good for nothing else were pressed into transporting them.
The poor Chinese in steerage were kept in cramped, dark, badly ventilated quarters, and were given rotten meat for rations. Not all of the vessels were like slave ships, and some captains got the thanks of their Chinese passengers, but other ships suffered mutinies from the passengers who had endured starvation and scurvy. The Chinese came for the express purpose of making money; the most menial tasks in California would bring perhaps ten times as much income as a peasant could expect staying in China.
This is not a story of melting-pot assimilation; expecting to return with a relative fortune, the Chinese simply worked hard and kept to themselves without an attempt to learn the culture of the new land.
The Chinese were separate, too, because they took jobs that that others would not do in the mines, or as laundrymen, cigar rollers, and so on. They never were a large portion of the national population, but there was a concern that they were taking jobs away from white citizens, and the phrase "cheap Chinese labor" was raised as an alarm.
The Chinese, unassimilated and sequestered in the Chinatown that every city had, were easy targets for fear. They had little legal standing, and their goods and land claims could be taken easily. By 1880, labor agitators held "Chinese Must Go" rallies, and a Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, barring further intrusions. Two literary figures play a role in this story. Mark Twain wrote, in "Roughing It," about his admiration for the Chinese ("They are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness, and they are as industrious as the day is long.") and about his disdain for the way they were treated by white men.
The more important figure is that of Bret Harte, who in 1870 published the poem "The Heathen Chinee," which became a sensation. Harte was dismayed; he came to loathe the poem, which he said was not only the worst poem he ever wrote but the worst anyone had ever written. Although it was a satire that mocked two dishonest white miners who attempted to cheat a Chinese man in a card game only to be cheated by him instead, it was cited by bigots, white supremacists, and Congressmen as evidence of the yellow threat.
If a Chinese man had been married in his homeland, his wife did not accompany him, but awaited his return. Women and girls did come independently, but were often forced into the trip, having been kidnapped or having been sold by their desperately poor families. Female children were not valued, and were often left to starve, but a family might make money sending a daughter to California; 14 years old was considered the best age for prostitution, and such a girl could cost $1,200.
Prostitution was the general lot of Chinese women, smuggled into the country or secretly allowed to enter by officials who knew what the women were going to be doing. There may have been Chinese courtesans, but most of the women were confined to the lowest lot, in brothels called "cribs" or "hog farms." Venereal disease was almost inevitable. A reporter at the time wrote of the pitch of a Chinese girl in a crib: "Two bittee lookee, flo bittee feelee, six bittee doee."
It''s a grim story, made a little lighter by the specific tale of the main character in Corbett''s work. Polly Bemis didn''t leave many traces; one of the lessons in this book is that the history of these Chinese in America was always written by others, since the Chinese themselves were almost universally illiterate. Probably (and according to what she supposedly said of her own background) she was one of the girls who was a financial resource to her family when they sold her into concubinage. She arrived by boat in San Francisco and then by horseback up to the mining camp of Warrens, Idaho, in 1872. It was not the cribs for her; she was to be the concubine of a wealthy Chinese master, although she may have traded hands before coming to him. She was indeed won in a poker game, or so the story goes.
Her master, an enthusiastic gambler, lost one round of gold dust stakes after another, and finally had only one possession to put up, his 18-year-old Chinese slave girl. The winner was Charlie Bemis, a Connecticut Yankee who was there for the remnants of the gold rush, keeping a saloon and gambling house. He wasn''t cut out for the hard work of mining, and was by most accounts an idler, but he could keep a good saloon. One account by a man who knew him said, "He was absolutely square and entirely fearless. While there is no record of his having shot a man, his fearless personality, coupled with his skill at shooting, enabled him to maintain order without getting into trouble."
It might not have been remarkable that Polly was won at a gambling table; far more remarkable is that she and Bemis settled into a long-term relationship and that the American married the Chinese. He may have done so to give her legal backing to avoid deportation back to China, but it seems to have been a supportive relationship. Polly was a good cook, gardener, and catcher of fish. When Charlie was shot in the face by a brawler, he was not expected to live, but she nursed him back to some degree of health. They lived together for 50 years.
Only after his death did Polly make some visits outside their remote camp on the Salmon River, and she was feted as a Rip Van Winkle figure who was astonished by the metropolis of her county seat, Grangeville, and by automobiles and a picture show.
It''s a happy story, one that only serves as a contrast to all the rest of the book. Polly was lucky; she started out as a concubine, and she did not have to descend to the more usual depths or to die of venereal disease and malnutrition.
Her story can easily be seen in a romantic light (although it may be that those who wrote about her initially tended to stress the happiness of her particular case). As Corbett tells it, it is still a fine story, but he hasn''t let readers forget that as far as the Chinese experience of the time went, Polly Bemis''s happy fate was sadly an anomaly.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.