Thousand Pieces Gold Essays

For some measure of the progress of women, consider "1000 Pieces of Gold," set in the 19th century and telling the story of a Chinese woman sold from man to man as if she were property. The film is based on the little-known fact that years after slavery was abolished in America, Asians were still held in involuntary servitude - sometimes by their own people. Inspired by true stories, the movie is angry and impassioned, but it is also, somewhat surprisingly, a romance.

Rosalind Chao, an actress of great character and presence, stars as a young woman named Lalu, born in China where girl babies were not highly valued, and sold by her father to a Chinese "wife-trader" (Dennis Dun). He brings her to America and sells her as a wife to Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), another Chinese man, who runs a saloon in a dismal backwater settlement in Idaho, and plans to use her as a prostitute. Lalu reacts to his plans violently, with a knife, refusing to prostitute herself, and Hong King wisely observes that she does not seem cut out for the profession.


Lalu's innate self-esteem is her only protection in the wilderness. American laws deny Chinese men citizenship - they are wanted mostly for cheap labor - and women are viewed as even more insignificant. Lalu, nicknamed "China Polly" by the cowboys who cannot be bothered to pronounce her name, is saved from prostitution but then becomes Hong King's slave, until her husband's white partner, a genial alcoholic named Charlie (Chris Cooper), explains to her that slavery has been outlawed.

Charlie, a good man when he doesn't drink too much, is attracted to "Polly," but she dreams only of buying her freedom and returning to China. Then Hong King, short of funds and tired of living with a "hellcat," decides to auction his wife to the highest bidder - and Charlie, in a rare stroke of luck, wins her. She lives with him, but in fierce chastity, until Charlie is shot in an anti-Chinese race riot, and as she nurses him back to health she falls in love with him.

Meanwhile, the wife trader, whose conscience has been bothering him, returns to the mining camp with enough money to buy Lalu's freedom. He hopes to marry her and take her back to China, but, seeing her living with a white man, he considers her hopelessly damaged and abandons his plans.

I gather that this development, like most of the film, is based on fact, but as a consequence "1000 Pieces of Gold" paints an overwhelmingly negative portrait of Chinese men - from the father who betrays her, to the trader who sells her, to the saloon keeper who wants to prostitute her. The only man portrayed positively in the film is Charlie, the white. There must have been good Chinese men in America in those days, but you will not meet them in this film.

The story is told with power and high drama, however, and the love that grows between Lalu and Charlie, like all loves that smoulder for a long time, becomes a great passion. And Rosalind Chao's performance is a wonder - the sort that, in a conventional Hollywood epic, would inspire Oscar speculation. She gives us a character who begins as a child in grief and confusion, and prevails in a strange land until she is finally able to stand free as her own woman. It's quite a story.

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By Ruthanne Lum McCunn

Our 2015 reissue of Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s classic, Thousand Pieces of Gold, is on sale! First published in 1981, McCunn's novel was adapted to film a decade later with actors Chris Cooper and Rosalind Chao. It's been a star of the Beacon backlist for all these years, being adopted by book groups and used in classrooms (middle school, high school, and college). For this new edition, we've reissued it with new historical material. McCunn has written a new essay, taking readers through the challenges she encountered while researching Polly Bemis’s life. Readers will note how her discoveries and the documents she found outline the hardships Polly endured as a legendary pioneer fighting for independence and dignity in Gold-Rush America. 


Lalu Nathoy/Polly Bemis left no written records. Neither did the person closest to her: Charlie Bemis. So I looked for the two in pioneers’ recollections, newspapers, photographs, and documents. Sifting through my findings, examining, reexamining each fragment for value, I always feel like a miner panning for gold.

From the start, Polly’s Certificate of Residence and marriage certificate shone bright. These papers, having survived a devastating fire, must have been important to Polly and Charlie. Why?

The 1892 Geary Act required each Chinese laborer living in the United States to register and apply for a Certificate of Residence within the year. Those who did not would be presumed to be in the country unlawfully and, therefore, subject to arrest and deportation—unless a white witness swore that the failure to register had been due to illness or accident. Protests and legal challenges by Chinese failed to overturn this law but did extend the period for registration.

In The United States vs: Polly Bemiss [sic], In the Matter of the Arrest and Deportation of said defendant, a white character witness corroborated that the roads had been impassable, and the judge granted Polly a Certificate of Residence.

The headshot affixed to Polly’s certificate is from a full-length portrait she gave Gay, the little schoolgirl who boarded with her in Warrens. When Gay showed it to me, she said Polly referred to the image as her wedding photograph, thus firmly linking her 1894 marriage to the couple’s hopes it might prevent her arrest and deportation.

Idaho’s First Territorial Legislature (1863–64) had prohibited the marriage of whites and Indians, Chinese, and persons of African descent; even their cohabitation. So it should have been impossible for Polly and Charlie to marry. But A. D. Smead, the justice of the peace who had issued their certificate of marriage, was himself illegally married to Molly, a Lehmi Shoshone from the Sheepeater Band.

Similar instances of officials flouting unjust laws abound, lending credibility to the multiple written and oral sources alleging Polly gave her neighbors a deed to the Bemis Ranch despite an Alien Land Law prohibiting Chinese from owning property. Yet I could find no record of a deed.

Then, a group of pioneers gathered to reminisce about Polly digressed into talk of mining, including how a mining claim entitled the claimant to the property so long as he continued to mine it. As they spoke, I flashed on Charlie’s uncharacteristic diligence in mining Polly Place every spring, the threat of losing their home during the Buffalo Hump Rush. Charlie owned other property and could easily have purchased the land. But the U.S. government had made emphatically clear that neither marriage to a white man nor the esteem and affection in which Polly was held by so many could protect her from the long, relentless reach of anti-Chinese laws.

So I looked for a mining claim—and found gold.


For additional findings, see my webpage. For a complete analysis of all my sources, see “Reclaiming Polly Bemis: China’s Daughter, Idaho’s Legendary Pioneer,” inFrontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 24, no. 1 (2003). Click here for readers' guides.


About the Author

Ruthanne Lum McCunn writes about the Chinese on both sides of the Pacific. Her award-winning books include The Moon Pearl and, most recently, Chinese Yankee. McCunn’s work has been translated into thirteen languages, published in twenty-two countries, and adapted for stage and screen. She lives in San Francisco


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