The Poker Bride: Of Gold and Bondage – The First Chinese in the Wild West

DOMINIQUE BROWNING – The New York Times

THE POKER BRIDE
By Christopher Corbett
Illustrated. 218 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press. $24
It’s astonishing to think that there was once a time when news from California could reach Hong Kong long before it came to the attention of the president of the United States, but that’s exactly what happened when gold was discovered in the winter of 1848. California wasn’t even a state when the developer of a sawmill took a morning stroll and noticed a nugget gleaming in a stream, a discovery that was to transform America.
Christopher Corbett’s new book, “The Poker Bride,” documents one aspect of that transformation: the little-known story of the tens of thousands of immigrant Chinese who arrived in the West over the next decades, hoping to strike pay dirt. Though some became wealthy, theirs is generally a horrific tale of violence, exploitation and sex slavery. It culminated in one of the most shameful chapters in America’s sad history of racial prejudice.
Before the gold rush, as Corbett explains, most Americans were familiar with only two ethnic Chinese: the “Siamese twin” brothers who had toured the country as “professional freaks” with P. T. Barnum. The brothers, Chang and Eng, became household names, amassed enough money to buy land in North Carolina, married two American sisters, fathered many children and owned black slaves. Within the span of their lives, they would see the rise of a significant anti-Chinese movement.
As immigrants arrived in ever greater numbers, taking jobs not only in mines but as carpenters, laborers, laundrymen and porters, American newspapers began to warn the public about a “deluge of yellow men.” Even though the Chinese never became a significant proportion of the national population, they were the focal point for antipathy toward outsiders — partly out of concern that “cheap Chinese labor” was taking jobs from white workers, and partly, as Corbett notes, because most didn’t expect to stay. Rather than integrate into the community at large, they settled in sequestered Chinatowns. They remained the Other. By 1880, virulently racist labor agitators were organizing “Chinese Must Go” rallies. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, barring the entry of Chinese into the United States for 10 years. It was later extended.
Chinese men willing to work in the gold mines endured lives of hardship and disease. Violence was rampant and punishment harsh. Corbett describes the squalor of the mining camps, the chaos of the pack trains, the isolation and danger of the work itself. But at least the miners — whether Chinese, Irish, Australian, French or Mexi can — had come voluntarily. “Long after blacks were freed in the United States,” Corbett writes, “practices involving Chinese women were tolerated in California and elsewhere in the American West that were, in essence, bondage.” Accounts of Chinese sex slave disputes can be found in Idaho newspapers as late as 1917.
Most of the Chinese women and girls arrived in San Francisco, often kept in “holding pens” to be auctioned in what became a flourishing sex trade, as lucrative as selling opium and gambling. “During the early 1890s,” Corbett writes, “prices ranged from about $100 for a 1-year-old to $1,200 for a girl of 14, which was considered the best age for prostitution.” These women were called “daughters of joy” or “100 men’s wives,” and were at the bottom of the class system even among prostitutes, working in filthy, crowded “cribs” or “hog farms.” Many had been kidnapped in China or sold there by families in desperate poverty. A girl in China at the time, Corbett notes, “was nearly worthless. . . . The streets of Chinese cities were often littered with abandoned babies.”
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