Thousand Pieces of Gold

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Thousand Pieces of Gold

by Ruthanne Lum McCunn


A novel about a Chinese slave girl set in China and Idaho from the late 1850s to the 1930s; published in 1981.


A Chinese girl is sold into slavery and brought to America in the late nineteenth century. Beginning as a barmaid in a mining-town saloon in Idaho, Lalu eventually wins her freedom through a poker game. She manages a boarding house and later marries the man who won the poker game.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Ruthanne Lum McCunn has written several books about the role of the Chinese in American history. A Chinese American herself, McCunn lived in Boise, Idaho—the state in which her novel is set—with her father’s family. She later moved to San Francisco, where she wrote Thousand Pieces of Gold. The well-researched biographical novel serves as a depiction of the life of a typical female Asian immigrant in Idaho during the gold rush era.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place


While McCunn’s novel does not expressly state that its main character Lalu had to work as a prostitute, many Chinese barmaids did. Chinese prostitution became common in the United States during the latter half of the nineteenth century. While whites entered the profession too, conditions for the Chinese were vastly different from those of their white counterparts. White prostitutes usually worked independently or for wages, whereas Chinese prostitutes were bought and sold as slaves. In 1860, approximately 85 percent of the Chinese women in San Francisco worked as prostitutes, and by 1870 the figure had dropped only slightly—to 71 percent.

Most of the Chinese prostitutes came from rural families in China. Chinese families sometimes sold their daughters into slavery when they could no longer afford to keep them. Others were captured or tricked into immigrating. Using deceit and bribery, importers smuggled these women into the United States. Some women signed contracts in China that bound them to a life of prostitution for a particular owner or brothel. Mostly illiterate, these women often misunderstood the contract, believing they had signed a marriage agreement. Other women were simply auctioned off without the formality of a contract. They were taken to a barracoon, a large auction room that held up to a hundred women, and sold to the highest bidders as prostitutes, mistresses, or concubines. Some, like Lalu, wound up in mining camps, where they often suffered harsher treatment than prostitutes in the cities; a few women committed suicide in order to escape their terrible fate.

The life of a Chinese prostitute was a bleak one. Brothel owners generally forced the females to work steadily for approximately four to five years, after which the women obtained positions as cooks or housekeepers for the enterprise. Others continued working as lower-class prostitutes, sitting in tiny rooms, calling out to solicit passersby through barred windows. Most prostitutes had no medical care and died early; many were beaten and some were murdered. Perhaps most striking is the case of “The Yellow Doll,” a prostitute in Deadwood, South Dakota, who was chopped up into tiny pieces. The mistreatment of prostitutes persisted even after death. When male Chinese laborers died, their bodies would often be sent back to China for a proper burial. When female Chinese prostitutes died, their bodies might be dumped on the streets of the local Chinatown.


The practice of foot-binding served various purposes in Chinese society. On one hand, the practice controlled women because a woman with bound feet could not run away. Most could not even walk short distances without enduring extreme pain. On the other hand, foot-binding served as a status symbol, since females with bound feet could not carry a full workload and often required extra care. In fact, peasants who hoped to marry a daughter into the upper classes would bind her feet in order to make her more attractive. In the novel Lalu’s family bound her feet for this reason, but halted the process because they needed Lalu in the fields. Although her feet remained small, they still looked larger than completely bound feet, and Lalu suffered the consequences. She was continually chastised for their size throughout her childhood.

Chinese in Idaho mining towns

The Chinese constituted a large portion of the mining population in Idaho during the latter half of the nineteenth century. By the late 1860s, whites had worked the easiest areas and sold the leftover, low-grade or abandoned mines to the Chinese, who paid as much as $8,000 for a claim. The 1870 census lists 4,274 people of Chinese descent in Idaho, most of whom were miners. These people constituted more than one-third of Idaho’s population and almost 60 percent of the miners. A number of the mining camps were almost exclusively Chinese, and, according to some sources, in the year 1872 the Chinese worked two-thirds of all the gold claims in Idaho.

In the novel, Lalu arrives in Warrens, Idaho, in the early 1870s. At that time Warrens contained a sizable Chinese population. By 1881 there were approximately 100 white miners and about 400 Chinese miners in a town that, like others of its kind, was quite remote. Often only one or two trails led to the town, and visitors were infrequent. For the Chinese prostitutes and servants who lived in such towns, life was in some ways more difficult, in others more flexible, than for the urban servants in San Francisco. Chinese women in rural areas tended to suffer much more abuse than their urban counterparts. As illustrated in the saloon featured in the novel, the customers behaved more roughly and the ethnic tension was greater because the clientele was more racially mixed. Yet the rural women enjoyed a higher degree of relative freedom. They could, for example, walk alone in their areas, which was an impossibility in the cities.


After the United States abolished slavery in 1865, aspects of it persisted for certain minorities through contract labor arrangements and other schemes. Chinese prostitution enterprises existed in the western regions of the country. Most of the potential prostitutes were either kidnapped or lured into such arrangements. A few entered into contracts in which they knowingly consented to become prostitutes for a time, but loopholes trapped them into the contract forever. If a prostitute became pregnant or sick, for example, an extra year could be added to her contract period. In fact, life proved so harsh for the prostitutes that many did not even live out the terms of their contracts. A Chinese prostitute was not allowed to keep any wages a client might give her, although she could sometimes keep gifts. She was locked into a position of slavery or, at best, semislavery in America.


The late 1800s witnessed rampant anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the West. The economy had slowed, and many whites found it easy to blame their economic woes on the Chinese. In 1869 the railroad was completed and, suddenly jobless, tens of thousands of its former Chinese laborers spread throughout the West looking for work. The Chinese were often willing to work for lower wages than whites, so employers hired them as strikebreakers, a practice that fueled anti-Chinese resentment among white workers. Other economic factors further aggravated the situation. In 1875 the price of gold dropped in California. Unemployment spread, and wages dropped. In San Francisco, especially, people blamed the Chinese for the lower standards of living. Most of the immigrants flocked first to this city, where other residents considered the Chinese newcomers a “Yellow Peril.” There was strong fear that hoards of Chinese immigrants would swoop down on America to grab the country’s shrinking riches.

During this period, citizens passed a significant number of anti-Chinese laws. Californians were usually the first to adopt such laws, but they quickly spread throughout the West. The 1850 California Foreign Miner’s Tax, for example, increased the price of a mining license and was initially aimed at discouraging European, Mexican, and South American miners. In 1852 it was specifically renewed to include the Chinese, whom it charged a monthly tax of $3. In 1870 the California state legislature refused to let any Chinese woman into the country who was not of “good moral character.” In 1879 the U.S. Congress restricted the number of Chinese vessels that could arrive, and later it signed a treaty limiting the number of immigrants. Most devastating was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the immigration of Chinese laborers for the next ten years and forbade the immigration of any woman who was not American-born (even those born overseas but conceived by American immigrants); it also forbade the immigration of unmarried women. The Geary Act in 1892 extended the Exclusion Act for another ten years, and in 1904 Chinese laborers were barred from entering the United States indefinitely. In 1922 a non-Chinese American woman who married a Chinese man would lose her U.S. citizenship, and in 1924 all Chinese women were barred from entering the United States for permanent residence. Additionally, Alien Land Laws throughout the West prohibited the Chinese from owning property and forbade interracial marriages in many Western states.


Throughout the novel, the narrator refers to Lalu’s feet and, in so doing, reflects a Chinese preoccupation with the female foot. The Chinese considered tiny feet a sign of great beauty; the ideal length of a woman’s foot was supposedly three inches long. Foot-binding was a common practice in China during the nineteenth century. A custom which dates to the tenth century, it entailed tightly wrapping a young woman’s feet in cloth in order to make them small. Over time the fabric was wrapped tighter and tighter until the arches of the feet were broken and the toes permanently bent underneath.

Numerous instances of racial violence occurred as well; the lynching incident described in Thousand Pieces of Gold was not uncommon. Over a hundred Chinese people were killed in Idaho between 1866 and 1867. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, many Chinese people were beaten or murdered in a riot in 1871. The year 1885 proved especially violent. In an act that sparked racial riots across the West, twenty-eight Chinese people were murdered in Rock Springs, Wyoming, eleven of the bodies being burned and dismembered. On the same day, eleven Chinese were murdered at a farm in Puget Sound, Washington. An additional thirty-two Chinese people were killed at Douglas Bar, Oregon, that same year. The Chinese had no recourse to counter such attacks; bringing cases to court was useless. “He doesn’t have a Chinaman’s chance” became an expression that aptly summed up the plight of the Chinese during this time.

Chinese women did not escape the violence. During the 1880s, it escalated to such a degree that 1,163 Chinese women set out to return home to China, and only 917 women arrived. The women who remained in the United States meanwhile suffered discrimination in a number of ways. Not recognized as persons of individual worth, most were assigned generic nicknames such as “China Mary” or “Polly.” One Boise newspaper editorial described the Chinese mining camp women as “Ye pining, lolling, screwed-up, wasp-waisted, putty-faced, consumption-mortgaged and novel-devouring daughters of fashion and idleness, you are no more fit for matrimony than a pullet is to look after a family of fifteen chickens” (Peterson, p. 60).

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Thousand Pieces of Gold tells the story of a young Chinese girl named Lalu Nathoy, a farmer’s daughter whose family is dependent on their crops for survival. One year when the crop is extremely poor, Lalu’s family nearly starves to death. Although they consider selling Lalu in order to save themselves, they instead decide to unbind her feet so she can help her father work in the fields, an uncommon activity for women in Lalu’s village. Five years later, Lalu’s region is hit by a severe drought and many of its residents resort to crime in order to survive. The village is

attacked by bandits. They catch Lalu, give her father two small bags of seed in exchange for her, and then sell her into slavery in America.

The boat ride to America is cramped and dirty. Lalu and many other girls like herself are smuggled through customs with fake identification papers and bribes. The slave traders divide the girls into two groups; those with contracts and those without. Girls with contracts have unwittingly signed a paper agreeing to the use of their bodies for prostitution. Lalu and the other girls without contracts are stripped and sold on an auction block as prostitutes, concubines, or slaves. Lalu is sold as a slave to a man she will meet in Idaho weeks later.

Lalu journeys with a guide to Warrens, Idaho, where her owner, Hong King, runs a saloon. Since there are few Chinese or American women in Warrens at that time, Hong King intends to use Lalu as a business attraction. He first tells Lalu, “A slave does not choose her own name. From now on you are Polly. Is that understood?” (McCunn, Thousand Pieces of Gold, p. 117). “Polly” spends years working in the bar for Hong King. She is initially afraid of the rough men who frequent the saloon and who eagerly gather around to stare at her. Eventually she befriends Charlie Bemis, a white saloon-owner next door who protects her as best he can from the abusive atmosphere in which she lives.

Polly dreams of attaining her freedom. She realizes that her family considers her dead and that she can never return to China. But not giving up hope, she hoards the gold dust that falls between the cracks in the saloon, hoping to one day buy herself from Hong King. She decides that if she wins her freedom, she will never marry. As a Chinese woman, her whole life has belonged either to her father or her owner. As a married woman, she would belong to her husband. She therefore resolves never to give up her freedom by marrying.


Polly struggles against anti-Chinese sentiment in Idaho. After Charlie wins her in the poker game, she tells him that she intends to start a boarding house, whereupon he informs her that only Americans, not Chinese, can own land in the United States. Polly counters that she intends to become an American, to which Charlie replies that the only way for a Chinese person to become a citizen is to be born in the United States. Such racial obstacles affect Polly’s major life decisions. Charlie tries to convince her to marry him for her own protection. If they marry, she could not be deported, and she could retain their property if Charlie dies. After almost twenty years of living with him, Polly agrees to marry Charlie on the condition that they will never have children. She does not want racially mixed offspring, whom, she has observed, are treated as outcasts in American society.

Polly learns that Hong King has no intention of ever selling her and if she tries to flee, he plans to doggedly track her down, so one night she decides to kill him. When she enters the saloon, however, she discovers Charlie Bemis and Hong King playing a very serious game of poker. Each man bets everything he owns, and Hong King eventually bets Polly herself. Hong King turns over a straight, but Charlie turns over a full house and it wins him the game. Polly is angry at the manner in which the men carelessly play with her life. “But this is my life,” she tells Charlie. “Not Jim life. Not yours. Mine.” (Thousand Pieces of Gold, p. 159).

Charlie loves Polly. Although she refuses to marry him, they remain intimate friends and he builds her a boarding house with her gold dust savings. For the next fifteen years, Polly manages a respectable boarding house and earns the admiration of the community. On one occasion, a man shoots Charlie in the face and Polly gains further respect by dislodging a bullet fragment from the back of his neck and nursing him back to life.

After Charlie regains his health, he finds a beautiful spot along the River of No Return (Salmon River) and plans to build a homestead there. Polly loves the place and finally agrees to marry him. They claim their ranch in Charlie’s name since Polly cannot own land. One day, the house catches fire. Bedridden with tuberculosis, Charlie thinks only of the ownership papers that Polly will need if he perishes. She manages to rescue Charlie from the flames, but he suffers smoke inhalation and dies shortly thereafter.

After Charlie’s death, Polly feels a need to leave the homestead. She travels to Warrens and Boise, but returns after about a year to live her final days at the homestead.

Chinese women in the nineteenth century

Polly’s attitudes toward marriage stem directly from the limited social position that women in China occupied during the nineteenth century. Chinese society considered women distinctly inferior to men and expected women to obey males at all times. Confucian philosophy dictated that women act in accordance to the “Three Obediences” and the “Four Virtues.” The “Three Obediences” ordained that Chinese women must obey their fathers while living at home, their husbands after marriage, and their eldest son if they were widowed. The “Four Virtues” dictated that women should follow such ethical codes as obedience and chastity, along with rules such as speaking rarely and always in a pleasing manner, taking care of their appearance, and excelling in domestic tasks.

Chinese women did not choose their husbands. Instead, marriages were arranged by a matchmaker or by the family. Often a young girl was promised to a particular boy as a child, and the couple met for the first time on their wedding night. Although men could both divorce and remarry, women were not allowed to do either. New wives served their in-laws as virtual slaves and were often abused. The Chinese valued sons highly, and if a new wife produced sons, the family considered her valuable, whereas if she produced daughters, she was seen as a failure. In the words of one Chinese proverb, the feeling was that “eighteen gifted daughters are not equal to one lame son” (Yung, p. 13). Families strove to marry their daughters early, and in times of extreme poverty daughters were often sold like Lalu, and small girl babies were sometimes drowned or abandoned.


Ruthanne Lum McCunn was born in San Francisco, California, and raised in Hong Kong. The child of a mixed marriage, she lived briefly with her father’s family in Boise, Idaho, where she experienced severe racial prejudice, a shock to her after her life in Hong Kong. She then returned to San Francisco and resolved to write about the Chinese-American experience.

Polly Bemis was a real-life Chinese girl who was sold as a slave and lived in Warrens, Idaho, during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Although Thousand Pieces of Gold is a novel, the author attempted to reconstruct Bemis’s life story. Ruthanne McCunn used newspapers, journals, private papers, and oral histories to piece together the novel. She was able also to interview people who knew and remembered Polly Bemis.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Women in China

Since Lalu’s time, the position of women in China has seen some important gains. The practice of foot binding, for example, was abandoned early in the twentieth century. Child-brides have also been forbidden, as has the practice of drowning female children.

Even more dramatic changes for women began in China in the early 1950s when the new communist government enacted laws to improve their social and economic status. The government guaranteed equality between the sexes as well as the right of women to own land and work for wages. One edict, the Marriage Law, granted women freedom in a variety of ways by restricting the power of men to control them through marriage. Reissued in 1980, this law discouraged arranged marriages. Women could choose whom they wanted to marry, and if their parents opposed them, the law granted women access to support organizations and even court trials. The Marriage Law also prohibited the transaction of money in marriage, in order to limit the buying and selling of brides. The reissued law raised the legal age of marriage to twenty-two years for men, and to twenty years for women. It also reaffirmed a woman’s right to a divorce.

Beginning in the 1950s, other laws gave women the right to participate in the work force. Yet despite these advances many traditional beliefs regarding the inferiority of women have continued to affect behavior, especially in the rural areas of China. The birth of a son, for example, is still considered by many to be a greater honor than the birth of a daughter. Moreover, while more women have entered the work force in recent times, their position there is often inferior to that of men. Just before the writing of the novel, in the late 1970s, women were performing the least skilled, most repetitive jobs in Chinese society.

Chinese and Chinese American women

The Immigration Act of 1965 abandoned the quota system, which had limited the number of immigrants according to their nation of origin. One result was a dramatic increase in the number of female Chinese immigrants to the United States. In 1950, for example, there were only 100 Chinese women for every 162 Chinese men, but by 1970 the ratio was 100 Chinese women for every 107 Chinese men. Chinese American women also made significant economic and social advances during the past century. In 1970, 58 percent of women of Chinese ancestry between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four were enrolled in school, and throughout the 1970s they continued to enter universities in record numbers. According to a 1980 census, Chinese American women were generally better educated than many other sectors of the population.

Yet such generalizations do not portray a complete picture. During the time the novel was written, many Chinese American women still encountered sexism, racism, and exploitation in the work force. In the 1970s garment workers in a U.S. Chinatown, for example, often labored overtime for below the minimum wage and received no benefits such as time off for moving or illness.

For More Information

McCunn, Ruthanne Lum. An Illustrated History of the Chinese in America. San Francisco: Design Enterprises of San Francisco, 1979.

McCunn, Ruthanne Lum. Thousand Pieces of Gold. San Francisco: Design Enterprises of San Francisco, 1981.

Peterson, Ross F. Idaho: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976.

Yung, Judy. Chinese Women of America: A Pictorial History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986.