The Poker Bride by Christopher Corbett
America is a land of immigrants. I was always pretty aware of this basic fact as a kid, because I knew exactly where I came from. My paternal grandfather had a thing for genealogy, and, well, the rest of my grandparents were French. While I definitely absorbed the stereotype of an American being white, blonde, and blue-eyed, it puzzled me to some degree, because just looking at the world around me said different. As an adult, I know why: the 2010 census predicts that, by 2043, America will be composed of minorities as a majority. This pictorial featuring mixed race people in National Geographic offers a view of what the average American really looks like. This may seem like a new development to some, but that’s only because the American history taught in American schools is a little pale.
Forefronting the narratives that are footnotes in the “official” story is important work, which is where The Poker Bride comes in. The history of the first Chinese immigrants to the American West is something I didn’t know that much about, despite having spent the early years of my childhood a stone’s throw away from San Francisco. While it’s been on my reading list for some time, it seems fitting that I picked it up when I moved to Denver, where this history is more tangible.
I realize I’m talking more about my personal experience with this specific reading than the book itself and that’s because… well, The Poker Bride is a little thin and undercooked. Well, it’s more like an undersized portion of al dente pasta, really. There’s plenty of fascinating history here, but it feels scant, even as an introductory text. By focusing on the story of Polly Bemis, a Chinese woman sold as a prostitute on the frontier who eventually married the white man who won her in a poker game, Christopher Corbett gives himself a solid anchor to hang an overview of that period of Chinese immigration to the United States on. But, while there is more documentation about Bemis’s life, due to her peculiar celebrity as a nostalgic throwback to the Wild West in the early 1900s, there still isn’t all that much. Thus, Corbett’s narrative wanders away from Bemis for long (well, for a book under two hundred pages) stretches. It makes for a quick but mildly disposable read.
But! I did learn a lot. Rumors of the Gold Rush hit China around or even a little before it hit the East Coast, and many a young man decided to make his fortune on Golden Mountain (as California was called) before returning home. When the Chinese were assumed to be only visiting, they were welcomed, even as the working class grumbled that they were stealing their jobs by working for lower wages. Because many immigrants weren’t planning on staying, there was no incentive to assimilate, thus the rise of Chinatowns. The influx of Chinese prostitutes immigrated—or smuggled, after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888—contributed to that, providing an alternative to getting involved with American women. Even death didn’t keep them in America; local Chinese groups would round up Chinese remains to send back home.
This was all hunky dory when they were assume to be temporary visitors. But after the Civil War, when the economy was tanking, the Chinese proved a handy scapegoat, thus the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888. Corbett spends about a third of the text in cities; while, of course, important, he’s much more interested in the Chinese immigrants at the front lines of the frontier. When he does talk about Bemis, he’s clearly taken by her. The Bemis of The Poker Bride is not the sanitized, angelically beautiful young woman whose story was passed around the West as a romantic story of the past. (The Poker Bride briefly touches on the nostalgia of the 1930s for the 1860s, which fascinates me, given my own theory about nostalgic cycles.) She’s a hearty, good-hearted elderly woman who has survived being sold into servitude, prostitution, and the conditions of the harsh frontier. But catching a glimpse of her in this overview can be hard.
Often, when I read something like this, I lament that there isn’t a biopic, but, in this case, there is! Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s Thousand Pieces of Gold, a 1982 novel about Bemis’s life, was adapted into a film in 1991. Unfortunately, it never made the jump to DVD, so it’s only available on VHS, but, oddly enough, it is available on iTunes. You can watch the trailer for the home video release here. It is very early nineties, however, I must warn you.
Bottom line: The life of Polly Bemis, a Chinese woman living on the American frontier, is fascinating, but there’s simply not enough documentation for Corbett to completely hang his introductory text about the first Chinese immigrants in the United States on. A bit thin, but still, very educational.
I rented this book from the public library.