20 Mar / The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West by Christopher Corbett [in San Francisco Chronicle]
The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West, by Christopher Corbett, is an oddly disturbing read, not so much for its content but for its publication as a historical text about Asian American pioneer woman Polly Bemis, Corbett’s eponymous “poker bride.”
Problems with historical reliability begin with the cover, which features a young Asian woman with a 1920s “flapper” haircut. Bemis’ American story begins in the 1870s when a teenage Bemis illegally arrived as an intended prostitute, and ends in the 1930s, when she died at 80. Not only are the 1920s not prominent in the book, but Bemis also couldn’t have resembled the cover picture at any point in her life.
Corbett explores the arrival of Chinese in the American West who were eager to find Gold Rush wealth during the latter half of the 19th century. They faced miserable hardships because of inhumane working conditions, and rampant racism. Chinese women arrived in fewer numbers, which, Corbett posits, gave rise to prostitution: “Prostitution flourished because of the enormous imbalance between men, both white and Chinese, and women in early California. … The disproportion was greatest among the immigrant Chinese.”
The Chinese sex slave trade thrived: By 1890, “1,769 Chinese females over the age of fifteen were living in San Francisco – and 1,452 (82%) were prostitutes.”
Corbett claims that Chinese were “sojourners” – travelers passing through hoping quick fortunes would allow them to return home in grandeur. Many Asian American scholars argue that this is an incorrect assumption, citing the significant numbers of “grandfather” communities comprised of single men who eventually died out rather than return “home.” Anti-Asian immigration barriers prevented these men from bringing over their families or finding a Chinese spouse in the United States. They were further barred from creating families because of anti-miscegenation laws that made marrying non-Chinese women impossible.
Corbett’s pages contain little new information, and, in truth, a number of works cited in his bibliography are ultimately better choices, including Sucheng Chan’s Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943 and Judy Yung’s Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco.
Bemis only appears in Corbett’s short preface and a few later chapters. For readers interested in Bemis’ remarkable experiences, more illuminating options include Priscilla Wegars’ biography for children Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer and Ruthanne Lum McCunn‘s historical novel Thousand Pieces of Gold.
Which begs the question, why read a third-hand account about Bemis when more accurate choices exist? For example, McCunn convincingly argues that since Bemis did not marry Charlie Bemis until many years after the alleged gambling victory, she technically was not a poker bride; instead, Charlie married Polly to prevent her from being deported as a result of the 1892 Geary Act, which required legal Chinese residents to carry a certificate of admission, something Polly lacked. Despite Idaho’s anti-miscegenation laws, the Bemises were wed by a white judge who himself was married to an Indian. None of this is in Corbett’s book, although ironically, he cites McCunn’s work.
Poker bride or not, Bemis is a fascinating character who deserves more than Corbett’s latest title. Readers should look elsewhere to resurrect her.