The story of Polly Bemis—the subject of Christopher Corbett’s The Poker Bride—has been told before. A biographical novel, Thousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, was made into a film in 1991, and she has appeared in juvenile biographies and history books. Factor in the many other journalistic accounts since her death in 1933, and Bemis emerges as an outright legend.
Sold into indentured servitude in China by her parents and brought to San Francisco by her Chinese owner, she later made her way into the post-Gold Rush mining areas of 1870s Idaho, where—like most other immigrant Chinese women of that era—she presumably was a concubine or a prostitute. What still remains somewhat unclear is how Polly ended up as the the long-lived wife of Charlie Bemis, a gambler and saloon owner. The more romanticized version avoids the possibility that Charlie actually won her in a game of poker. Corbett seems comfortable enough with that scenario, however, and it’s in line with the broader history he gives us of the harsh realities of Chinese immigration in the late-19th-century American West.
In fact, the main strength of Corbett’s book is his detailed description of life in wide-open California and the Pacific Northwest, places where gold fever induced thousands of Chinese men to enter the country in search of new opportunities and financial fortune. The darkest side of things happened in San Francisco, where imported Chinese women and girls stocked a burgeoning skin trade that helped define Chinatown’s more lurid character.
Fortunately for Polly Bemis, her story was totally atypical. She somehow managed to avoid the worst fate of a young Chinese woman—abuse, disease, early death—and lived out her long days as a highly respected lady on a picturesque ranch on the Salmon River. Her story is remarkable, and Corbett’s research is certainly thorough. The Poker Bride adds immeasurably to the Asian-American nonfiction catalog.