Ruthanne Lum McCunn re: Polly Bemis

Ruthanne Lum McCunn re: Polly Bemis
Interview by Sara Kolbet
1 Disc, 44:42, 16 Tracks

TRACK 1 – 1:53


R: Hello, Sara. That was quick.

Good, good. Great. Yup, we are.

I’m Ruthanne Lum McCunn and although I was born in San Francisco, I grew up in Hong Kong and my great-grandmother was sold into slavery in China around the same time as Polly Bemis, so I’ve always had an interest in slavery, the issues of freedom, and I was very taken by Lalu’s story because it was so deeply familiar and yet it also brought it into the United States. And this was a form of slavery that was going on after emancipation, after the civil war and it is something that very few people know anything about so I felt it was an important story to tell.

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Well, Polly Bemis was born Lalu Nathoy in northern China and then brought to America and auctioned off as a slave here. And when she was in Warrens, Idaho she was given the name Polly and then she married a man by the name of Charlie Bemis and therefore became Polly Bemis, and that is the name she is known by in Idaho. But Lalu Nathoy was her birth name and the name she used for the first eighteen years of her life. So I very often refer to her as Lalu/Polly.

The mui tsai system.

She…Okay. The mui tsai system, mui tsai literally is ‘little sister,’ but when you say mui tsai people know that you mean little slave girl. And this was a form of indenture…I’ve even forgotten. Indentureship. Yes. So if a family was impoverished and unable to feed all of their children then a girl might be sold as a mui tsai and the family who purchased her for a mui tsai would be bound to or expected to give her her freedom when she turned 16, 17, 18, somewhere around there, and became of marriageable age. And they would give her her freedom through arranging a marriage for her, as though she were a daughter of the house, the same idea.

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And so that was really a form of fostering in a way in the best way, but very often of course there were terrible abuses. The girls were overworked or they would continue to be indentured even after they were way past their teens, or the marriages that were arranged for them would be abusive, so it was a system that perhaps could…not perhaps, it did save many girls from starvation, but nevertheless, it is a form of slavery.

Not at all.

Well, prostitution is just that, prostitution. And when a girl, I mean. Well, nothing is cut and dry. So a mui tsai could be sexually abused by the men in the household, but is that prostitution? How are you going to split hairs here? But a girl who was sold into prostitution, then she would have to serve many masters.

Lalu Nathoy was born in 1853 in Northern China to a farming family and her parents sold her at a time of great drought to bandits for two bags of seed. And then the bandits took her to Shanghai and she was shipped from Shanghai to San Francisco and auctioned off in San Francisco for $2500 and then taken up to the mining camp in Warrens, Idaho, by way of Portland and Lewiston.

Warrens, Idaho at that time was a mining camp and it was predominantly male. There were, the population fluctuated hugely depending on the amount

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of gold that was being uncovered at the time. And there was probably about the same number of Chinese and white men but there were also time periods where Chinese outnumbered whites, whites outnumbered Chinese. There were very few women. There were probably a dozen white women to well over a thousand white men. And another thousand Chinese men. And Lalu was the only Chinese woman, which made her very desirable.

Well, according to a good friend of hers, Bertha Long, she was purchased by Hong King, who ran a saloon in Warrens, and brought to Warrens for “the world’s oldest profession,’ but she was saved from it by Charlie Bemis, so apparently on her first night working in Hong King’s saloon Charlie went into the saloon and saved her from unwanted advances, so she never worked as a prostitute. But I would imagine that she would have had to give Hong King sexual favors. After all, he owned her.

Well, after she got her freedom, she ran a boarding house.

She was always described as somebody who was cheerful and loved jokes. Had a great sense of humor and was very lively, full of fun, and she was very popular for that reason, all of those reasons, and also because she was very compassionate and took care of people also. So

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she was a wonderful combination of strength and humor and compassion. But we also know that she came, after she married, she and Charlie moved to the Salmon River and lived there. She farmed the land there. And that was a very popular resting place for people, miners going across the Salmon River. And people were drawn by her warm hospitality, she was a great cook, and she said, or we know that she came to consider that “home.” And after Charlie died in 1922, he died shortly after a fire that burned down their house, so without anywhere to live there, she had to go back to Warrens, and she lived in Warrens for close to a year. At that time. But she really wanted to get back to the river. She loved the river, she loved that area. And we know that she did because she actually by then was 70 years old, but she walked the 18 miles through very rugged terrain back to the Salmon river and offered the men across the river the rights to her property on her death, so long as they would build her a cabin so she could return to live there for the rest of her life. So I would say that’s a pretty strong statement.

It’s a truly beautiful place and yes. The Salmon River area is different from any place I’ve ever been to except for there are parts of Mongolia, in Mongolia that are similar, and it’s possible that when Polly was Lalu, that she had lived in a very similar area, and that could have been part of what drew her to the Salmon River. But it is extraordinarily pristine and beautiful and it’s isolated.

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But isolated in the best way. And there’s just a lot of mountains and trees and wildlife and the river itself is incredible.

Absolutely. Of course she was brought into the country illegally so in 1892 there was the Geary act which said that every Chinese person in the US had to prove that they had a legal right to be in this country, and they had to carry a certificate of residency at all times. I believe that’s why she got married, because she and Charlie, according to the 1880 census, were already living together and suddenly they got married in 1894 and it was right about that time that the paperwork was being done for her residency. And I was able to get the paperwork for her residency through the National Archives and so you can really tell from the dates that it was very necessary for her in order to legalize her standing here in the US. Otherwise she would have been deported. And in fact, actually, the photograph of her that she refers to as her wedding picture, was actually taken for her certificate of residency.

She’s in the black dress, yeah. There are five different covers to my book, which is why I’m stymied. So I don’t know which cover you’re referring to. But it was certainly on the cover of the first edition.

Well, we don’t know exactly how…she said smuggled, but that’s all she said, was smuggled. Some women, sometimes they were smuggled in just by false papers,

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sometimes they were hidden in crates that contained other things and in fact would be dead by the time the crate was open. So it ran the whole spectrum.

I think she and Charlie had a very loving relationship and I think there was a very deep affection between them. And she actually, in 1890 Charlie was shot by a gambler and he was shot in the face and it shattered his cheekbone and the doctor said there was absolutely no way to save him because the bullet had fragmented in the cheek and it was impossible to get out all the fragments. And Polly took her crochet hook and fished out the fragments and she nursed him for months and cut out the bullet, part of the bullet that was in his neck and she just, she used herbs, she took care of him night and day, and really I think that shows the level of her devotion to him. And by the same token, I believe he was very devoted to her, because legally Chinese could not homestead and you had to be a US citizen in order to homestead, to own property in Idaho at that time. And actually the anti-misogynation laws were also in effect at that time so it’s ironic that Polly legalized her status in America through an illegal act of marriage. But the person who married them, the justice of the peace, was himself a white man married to a Native American woman. That was also against the law. So even, there are laws and then there are what people do, so

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it would have been easy for Charlie to purchase the property on the Salmon river, and he certainly purchased lots of other property, but in order to ensure that Polly would have a right to that property, he took out a mining claim, because Chinese could own mining claims, and having a mining claim entitled you to the property around the claim. And Charlie was notoriously lazy but in order to maintain a claim you had to mine a property every year and every year he would mine that property, even though work was the last thing he wanted to do. and so obviously he did that because of his devotion to Polly, to make sure she would have a right to the property should anything happen to him, which it did.

As far as I can tell, she was not close to the Chinese community at all, and we don’t know the exact reasons why, but I would guess that a large part of it had to do with the fact that she was from the North and the majority of Chinese in America at that time were from the south. And so there would have been a language difference, because the northern dialect of Chinese is very different from the southern. And then there might have been other reasons too. She was close to two healers, Chinese healers in Warrens. And so she did have relationships with individual Chinese but it didn’t seem like she had a lot going there.

We don’t’ know why she didn’t have any children, but we do know that she loved children. She knew not only the name but the birth date of every child in Warrens. She mothered children who didn’t have mothers around to take care of them. She actually took one little girl

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in to live with her. So she was a very loving to children, but she never had any of her own. And it could have been because she couldn’t, or it could have been a decision on her part, but that we don’t know.

“Thousand Pieces of Gold” tells the story of Polly Bemis, starting from when she was Lalu Nathoy, born in northern China. And sold by her family to bandits and then brought to America and auctioned off as a slave, taken up to the mining camps of Idaho, winning her freedom through a poker game and then ending up with her husband on the River of No Return. And I was drawn to her story because I think she’s such an extraordinary woman and I felt it would reveal a part of history that is unfamiliar to Americans and the title of the book, “Thousand Pieces of Gold” in Chinese is TIN GUM. And it’s a literal translation. And that’s a term of endearment for daughters. And I always found this very ironic, as a child growing up in Hong Kong, because my mother raised two cousins of mine as well as my sister and myself and one of those cousins was a boy. And I could see that even though I was TIN GUM, thousand pieces of gold, the daughter, I wasn’t getting what the boy was getting. So and certainly those ironies are borne out in Lalu’s life too.

I was very lucky that I did the research for the book when I did. Because that was in the late 1970s. because I recently went back to Idaho and all the people that I interviewed for the book are now dead. Lalu died in 1933 and so I was doing the research in 1979 and the people that I spoke to were quite elderly. And I was able to find people who had known her who I could interview and

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because she was so popular, so well loved, there were pioneers who would include her in their own memoirs. They would write about her also because of course she was so unusual. She was written up in the newspapers and then that whole incident of Charlie being shot, for example, and how Lalu nursed him. That was a whole series of newspaper articles about it. And at that time the newspapers were more like community news, really, so there was quite a bit of detail there.

The reaction has been very favorable and the book came out in 1981 and it’s been in print ever since and it was adopted by book clubs and has sold very well and it was made into a movie, but what I care about most is that the people on the river loved the book and they would pass copies from homestead to homestead, because there isn’t a great deal of money on the river, but the love to read. And so the book was shared in that way.

I’ve written. All my books are…what are all my books? My books are about the experiences of Chinese in America, mostly in the 19th century, but actually that’s not true. Because…what I should say is all my books deal with the experiences of Chinese on both sides of the Pacific and also with one man who was a castaway in the Atlantic, Pun Lim who holds the Guinness world record for survival at sea. His ship was torpedoed during World War II and he ended up on a raft for 133 days before he was rescued. And this was
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such an extraordinary feat that the US Navy brought him to New York to reenact his experience for the navy so they could use his techniques to save US sailors. And another book of mine, “Wooden Fish Songs,” tells the story of Lau Gum Nong, or Louie Gim Gong, who was a horticulturalist in Florida, originally from Choi San China. And he developed a citrus, an orange that won the Wilder Silver Medal in 1912 and it was a frost-resistant orange that brought millions to the citrus industry in Florida. So these are all stories of people who are survivors. Well, “Moon Pearl,” my most recent book, takes place on the other side of the Pacific, entirely in China, and tells about women in southern China who started a form of independent sisterhood called Di San They, they were independent women and at a time, the first incident of that was in 1837 and so these were women who ruled themselves at a time when women in the west hadn’t even begun to do that. So I feel that’s an important story too because so often we dwell on the slavery, the victim hood and certainly women were abused in China, but they were also abused elsewhere. And there were also women who took their fate into their own hands and found other ways of living.

Excuse me a minute, I have to let my cat in.

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Sorry about that.

I came to America when I was 16, I came to go to college.

Well, I think the books that I write are very reflective of my own background from the point of view of I’m of mixed race and at the same time I’m also of mixed cultures because I grew up in Hong Kong. And then I came to America as an adult, really. And then Chinese was my first language, English my second. So it helps me to look at things, it’s impossible for me to look at things from just a single point of view.

I don’t think in those terms.

No, I mean, when I say. Sure, people say that about bridges and so on, if somebody wants to say that about me, that’s fine, but I would never say that about myself.

Well, if she had not been strong, how would she have survived?

Every aspect of her. What is truly extraordinary about her is that there are a lot of strong women, but she actually survived without being bitter, and with her sense of compassion intact.

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I don’t even know that there is such a thing. Maybe there is such a thing but I don’t know of it. But her cabin on the Salmon River is now a national historic landmark and it’s a museum.

Because she was so generous and she was always giving and people really used her home on the Salmon River as a free hotel. And nobody left without being burdened with tons of food and gifts to take to other people. She took care of the sick, she was just giving all the time.

Well, she was one of the very few women from the North, for one thing. So that would set her apart from other women. Of course many women were brought in for prostitution. She was very luck that she didn’t end up in the city, that she ended up in Warrens Idaho. And I’ve found it doesn’t matter what minority you are, but if you are one of, or a few of, in a community, you generally have a lot better luck than if you are a larger group, because then the community doesn’t feel as threatened and are more likely to let you become a part of that community.

Well, she loved animals. And when she and Charlie actually found a cougar cub that

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needed nursing and so she took it back to their cabin and raised the cub until it became a great big full-grown cougar. And she treated it like a family cat and she nailed a tin plate on the table so that the cougar could eat when they ate and visitors were terrified of the cougar and she was the only person who could handle it. And she was a very tiny person, she was less than five feet tall, and she would be the one who would have to take the cougar outdoors if the guests felt too threatened.



I get letters from people who say that her strength, her ability to survive gives them strength.

I have no idea. One of the things that she would be very pleased by, though, is that she herself was illiterate, but the book is used in schools and colleges and I think she would be very pleased by that. And very often I get letters from people saying that it’s the very first book that they’ve read all the way through and that it’s turned them into readers and I think she would be very pleased by that.

I think you’ve pretty much covered it. And I know you said you might want to read an excerpt, that’s fine.

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As you say it would depend on what you end up cutting, using, etc, and at that time if you wanted to ask me whether there’s a match I might suggest, I’d be happy to.

Yeah, and I’m sure there’ll be no problem. There’s no problem with that I’m sure. Actually, the books’ been translated into seven different languages and it seems to touch people in the same way overseas. And it just goes to show how universal her story really is.

No, but I’ve spoken to people and the only letter I’ve received from overseas has been from a French girl.

Not at all, I look forward to your series. I’m sure you do too. It sounds like you’re well underway now.

Great, not at all. Michael can stop. All right, you too. Good luck. Great. Bye, bye.

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PB: (p.223) The ground cherries rustled in their paper shells as Polly tossed them into the five-pound lard bucket beside her. Their first fall in the Salmon Canyon, she had only had the cherries and wild thimbleberries, huckleberries, and blackberries to can. But each year, as her garden expanded and the trees she had planted in her orchard matured, her harvest had increased, and by the time the first snow fell on this, their fourth winter, the shelves that lined her root cellar would be crammed with bottled bear cracklings, plum butter, canned peaches, apricots, garden truck, venison, and grouse.

In addition to fruits and vegetables, she grew her own wheat and ground her own flour to make bread. The single cow and the hens provided all their dairy needs and she rendered her own grease and made soap from the occasional bear Charlie shot.

During the spring, summer, and fall, there were only the occasional prospectors and adventurers Charlie ferried across the river. But in the winter, when the river froze over with huge chunks of ice, ranchers and old friends from Warrens would come. They would stay up all night, getting caught up on news, retelling old stories, playing poker, eating, and drinking whiskey made from her own rye and hops. Then Charlie would bring out his fiddle, and there would be singing and sometimes dancing, and for days, their snug, two-storied log cabin would fairly shake from all the laughter and foot stomping.