Wednesday, May 19, 2021

"The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the West" by Christopher Corbett

I didn't realize when I got this that it was going to be straight-up nonfiction.  I thought it was going to be one of those books that tells a true story like a novel, what I call "biographical novels."  But it's not.  Instead of telling only the story of one Chinese woman who came to America, it uses her story as a focal point around which to tell the larger story of all Chinese immigration to the Old West.  Which I completely dug, once I understood the book's goal.

Corbett focuses on the life of Polly Bemis, who was reportedly sold by her destitute peasant family in China when she was a young teen, sold to a procurer who brought her across the ocean.  Once here, Polly was sold to a wealthy store owner who lived in a remote Idaho mining community to be his concubine.  A few years later, the store owner lost Polly in a poker game to a gambler named Charlie Bemis, who married her a few years later.  Her story was romanticized decades later by Idaho historians, who dubbed her "the poker bride" because she did eventually marry the man who won her in a poker game.

Along with telling this one individual's story, Corbett shows how similar her experience was to many Chinese women who were trafficked to America, and how much more fortunate she was than the vast majority of such women.  He discussed why they were brought here, how they were treated, and why they would even submit to such treatment.

Initially, young Chinese men came to California to work in the gold fields.  They were either unmarried, or left their wives and families at home.  They not only mined for gold, but over the next few decades, they helped build the Transcontinental Railroad and settle large parts of the West.  However, they generally did not intend to stay here.  They meant to find or earn money and then go home, so the vast majority never married here or brought over their wives from back in China.

Well, because this created a large population of single or far-from-their-wives men, it also created a market for "comfort women."  And so, people here would work with people in China to buy or entice young women to fill this market.  In China at that time, women were not even generally considered fully human.  They had basically no rights at all.  A family could sell their daughter any time they wanted, and this was a pretty common occurrence in particularly poor provinces along the Pacific coast.

The lives of most of those girls who were brought here from China were filled with the kind of stomach-turning misery that is the lot of so many human trafficking victims even today.  There is no kind of truly new vileness under the sun.  But Polly Bemis was an exception.  She appears to have been bought by one man for his own private use, not to sell her to others.  And when he lost her in that poker game, it appears that she did not then enter into any other kind of slavery, but was instead able to work at more dignified jobs.  And, eventually, Charlie Bemis did marry her, probably out of gratitude when she nursed him back to health after someone shot him in the face.

Charlie and Polly Bemis eventually moved to a remote homestead, where they lived out the rest of their lives in quiet.  It is possible that Charlie married her to save her from being deported to China after the Chinese Exclusion Acts were passed in the late 1800s, or it could simply have been to provide companionship to both of them, or there may have been affection between them -- records don't tell us, only that they did remain together until Charlie's death decades later.

I got this book because I'm including some Chinese-immigrant characters in the Beauty and the Beast retelling I'm currently writing.  They're minor characters, but I want to be sure I'm accurately reflecting life for Chinese immigrants in the 1870s.  And I've learned a LOT from this book, so that's pretty great!  But I did skim a chunk of the middle where it went into more detail about the lives and treatments of trafficked women.  It wasn't luridly graphic, but my imagination fills in gaps all too easily, so I did skim that.  My book isn't going to have anything about trafficking in it, so it wasn't really relevant to my research either.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-16 for non-lurid discussions of sex slavery and an incident where a man is shot in the face with non-gory descriptions of his wounds.

This has been my 24th book read off my TBR shelves for #TheUnreadShelfProject2021.


  1. Oh, this sounds like such a unique book! I like how you said you dug it once your understood its goal. That is a mark of a mature reader imo. Often I see people dump books if they don't quite fit their initial idea.

    1. Keturah, it was definitely a fascinating read about a not-terribly-common subject. The description I'd read of it made it sound more like it was written like a novel, but since I was reading it for research, I wasn't disappointed it wasn't.

      My rule for DNFing a book is to give it either 50 pages or 5 chapters, whichever takes longer. If it hasn't grabbed me by then, and I'm not reading it to learn from it (like a classic or non-fiction), then I will consider setting it aside, figuring I've given it a fair chance. (Unless it has subject matter I am uncomfortable with, which does happen occasionally, even though I'm pretty good at avoiding books I'll find distasteful.)


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