The Poker Bride: The First Chi­nese in the West,

by Christo­pher Cor­bett, At­lantic Monthly Press, 218 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

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

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