The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the West,
by Christopher Corbett, Atlantic Monthly Press, 218 pages
Based on the title of the book and its book cover, I expected a story about Polly Bemis, “Idaho’s most romantic character.” While Bemis plays a role in Christopher Corbett’s book, it is primarily a story about the Chinese experience in the American West during the 19th and early 20th centuries. More than halfway into the book, it becomes clear that Corbett’s title and subtitle should be read separately: The Poker Bride [Bemis] and The First
Chinese [people] in the West. With that in mind, it is a mostly entertaining read about Western history, Idaho mining history, and the Chinese experience in California and Idaho, in which Bemis is loosely strung along.
Corbett’s story begins in 19th-century San Francisco. He describes the experiences of Chinese immigrants in their new environment and the adjustments they had to make to their foreign surroundings. The author talks about the treatment of the Chinese, the derivation of derogatory naming conventions, their economic fortunes and misfortunes, and many more aspects of their immigrant lives.
Chinese men likely came voluntarily; Chinese women more often than not were forced to come to this country. Tracing Chinese women’s and men’s roles in the economic and social landscapes of the West, Corbett discusses the sex trade, mining industry, railroad development, and laundry and boardinghouse businesses. Their lives in these trades were not fortunate: they faced misery, violence, disease, and racism, among other challenges. Equally common experiences were isolation from Americans and other immigrant groups and the desire to return to China as soon as they had accumulated some wealth.
The two big industries that Corbett discusses along the Chinese journey from San Francisco to Warren, Idaho, are the sex and slave trade and the mining industry, along with their respective — often violent — outgrowths. Corbett delves deeply into these industries and at times gets carried away, forgetting that the Chinese in the West are purportedly his story line. Instead, readers learn about general 19th-century prostitution, bordellos, and mining techniques. While occasional mention is made of Bemis, more often than not, the reader is presented with generic statements about Chinese concubines.
Just when the reader is about to give up on learning more about Bemis, the author begins to tell her story. And a fascinating story it is. Sold as a slave to a Chinese merchant in the United States, Lalu Nathoy (aka Polly Bemis) arrived in San Francisco from China in the early 1870s to work in the sex trade, Corbett writes. Shortly after, she ended up in Warren, a rough mining town in Idaho, where she was won in a poker game by Charles Bemis (or so the majority of semireliable early20th-century sources claim). Married in the 1880s, Charles and Polly Bemis eventually homesteaded in a remote area of the Salmon River in the Idaho Territory. Less than a handful of times did Polly, who was by then advanced in years, leave her homestead to visit Boise, the nearest town. She died in 1932, at the approximate age of 80.
Corbett’s book is well written but does not tell anything new. What he calls the “incalculable” role of the Chinese in the development of the West has not been overlooked. Instead, the author reiterates previous historians’ findings, integrates interesting sound bites from Bret Harte and Mark Twain, quotes extensively from contemporary newspapers and other sources, and provides in many ways an uncritical view of 19th-century Chinese life in the West. At times, Corbett gets lost in the sex trade and the mining industry, forgetting the distinctly Chinese aspects of the immigrant culture.
With no new sources, Corbett spins a story about Bemis that is similar to those already told by 20th-century historians and Idaho old-timers. And it is a fact that “virtually every traveler who went down the ‘River of No Return’ [the Salmon River] and left any account of the trip felt compelled to add something to the mystery and romance of Charlie and Polly Bemis.” Pointing out notable discrepancies in the various stories and the old-timers’ trend of sanitizing Bemis’ image as a prostitute, Corbett keeps his story along the lines of Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s fictionalized biography of Bemis — which was turned into the 1991 movie by the same name. Still, the Chinese experience in the West is important, and once Corbett takes up Bemis’ story — far into his book — he spins an interesting yarn for those who have not heard the story.
— Tomas Jaehn