In my novel Joy that Long Endures, the feisty character of Xiang Ju—Fragrant Chrysanthemum—comes to live at the unlikely location of South Pass City, Wyoming Territory. As improbable as Ju’s story might sound, there are at least two historical instances of a Chinese woman deep in the mountains of the West in the final quarter of the nineteenth century.
At the completion of the transcontinental railroad with the meeting of the rails at Promontory, Utah, in May of 1869, there were thousands of Chinese in the state of California and in the U.S. Territories. It had long been the practice of the Central Pacific to import Chinese laborers, and as the Union Pacific took over mining the coal seams located on the land grants it acquired at completion of required sections of track, it too began employing Chinese men in large numbers. In 1875 ninety-nine Scandinavian miners and the remaining British, Welsh, and Cornish miners who remained after a strike in 1871, went out on strike when the company lowered the price paid for digging a bushel of coal from five cents to four.
In days, mining resumed with fifty Rock Springs men who hadn’t been fired during the unrest as well as Chinese numbering around 150, brought in on U.P. freight trains that were delivering supplies to build company houses. In addition the U.P. was employing Chinese on its sections, maintaining the track itself.
As well as a resource for fueling its steam engines, the Union Pacific’s board of directors quickly realized the company could make money not only on selling the coal but also had a lucrative monopoly on shipping all Western coal, their own and that of the independent mines.
Typically these early coal mining towns were heavily populated by foreign born bachelors. Records regarding the Chinese in the West are sparse enough for males, but the documented presence of Chinese women east of California is almost nonexistent.
The Chinese had started arriving in the ports of California in the 1850s, soon after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill and concurrent with increased misery for the peasants from natural disasters and civil turmoil in their crowded home country. Despite official Chinese penalties including beheading for leaving, twenty thousand arrived in 1852. They came on the “credit ticket” system: paying for their passage with their labor in America. Conditions aboard many of the sailing ships were horrendous, with some carrying double the legal number of men packed below, thirsty, hungry, and often in danger of drowning. Taken advantage of by brokers selling rancid meat, exposed to disease and in danger of shipwreck, conditions for Chinese immigrants improved with the introduction of steamships only by the length of the voyage. There were instances of captains treating their passengers with kindness, although the editor of the Oregonian newspaper marveled at the arrival of 270 Chinese he described as “healthy” and “robust.”
Chinese men came of their own accord. On the other hand, a girl had the gold paid for her placed in her palm to satisfy the requirement that she agreed to the transaction, but it was immediately given over to the person selling her. Significant numbers of Chinese girls, sold by families facing famine at home or abducted by unscrupulous brokers, arrived to service the sex trade. The best and prettiest were auctioned as wives or concubines, with the rest falling somewhere on a descending order of prostitution from brothels to the notorious crib shacks.
Jeunes Filles Chinoises (Young Chinese Girls), China [c1901] R Parison
[RESTORED] www.flickr.com/photos/31778725@N08/ (CC BY 2.0)
Slavery was nearly universal in China. Even the poor kept slaves. But besides the societal acceptance of the practice, the girl—whose families, in selling what usually was the youngest daughter, may have thought she was to become a wife or house servant in America—were under an obligation of honor to repay the debt of whoever bought her.
But that often became an increasing, ultimately unpayable burden. A woman named Wong Ah Sing related a common tale: A girl purchased at ten years old for $20 in China might sell for $40 to a private buyer, then for $120 at twelve years old, and if marketed to the rural areas of lots of gold but few women, going for as much as $750. If she objected, she could have her face disfigured or be sold to the cribs where she would be subjected to the attentions of an ever-changing torrent of men who paid as little as two bits each.
There was the rare instance of a Chinese woman appearing in the mining camps east of California. In 1872 a Chinese woman who would come to be known as Polly Bemis arrived in Idaho, probably transported there at great expense. Purchased by a Chinese merchant, Polly was won in a poker game by Charlie Bemis, who later married her. It has been surmised she became his bride in order to avoid any chance of her deportation.
In 1885 Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, there was reportedly a Chinese woman, Mrs. Soo Qui, wife of the “boss Chinaman.” It was said she was the lone Chinese woman in the camp in the month of August, compared to three hundred and thirty-one Chinese men and a hundred and fifty white men.
The character of Xiang Ju in my novel, like Polly Bemis, survives being sold away from her home in China to live in early Dakota (Wyoming) Territory. Ju is representative of all women in the late nineteenth century who had to rely on their own inner strength to overcome difficult circumstances and thrive in what would later become the “Equality State.”
For further reading:
The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West, by Christopher Corbett
Booms & Busts on Bitter Creek: A History of Rock Springs, Wyoming, by Robert B. Rhode
The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, by Iris Chang
The Chinese Massacre at Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, September 2, 1885, by Isaac H. Bromley