A One Act Play
Unbinding Our Lives
By G. L. Horton
copyright © 1992
Research by Christina Chan, Judy Yung.
TIEN FU WU
(In a child's voice, as if 8 or 10 years old, TIEN FU WU sings
a Chinese game-song. She tells her story as if speaking to friendly
visitors to the San Francisco Mission)
My name? - is Tien Fu Wu.
I was 6 years old the last time I saw my family, and my home,
far away in China. (closes eyes) I remember a flowering plum tree
outside the door. I wasn't supposed to climb it, but I did climb
it, all the time, just for fun. My brothers would boost me up,
and I would scramble way way up to the top. Like a little monkey,
my brothers said. I remember the patch of smooth earth below the
tree, where my brothers and I would play, and a mingled smell
of animals and cooking that drifted out in the yard-- (opens eyes)
-- a smell that is like nothing else, you know. Sometimes when
I am walking in San Francisco's Chinatown, I smell something that
is almost like that smell, almost the same, and then the feel
of my mother's dress, (hand gesture, closed eyes) the sound of
her voice, will come back to me. (looks down in sorrow) Tears
come to my eyes. (pause) (looks up, shy smile)
My mother was good to me, that I'm sure. It may be that my mother
and father spoiled me, a little, when I was so young, you know.
(an excuse) Only six. (happy) I had plenty of time, then, to run
and sing and play games. I had my very own toys: kites and tops
and a doll and little carved birds that I kept in a bright red
lacquer box. ("flies" bird)
I helped my mother in the house, too, but when I was with my family
that was never hard. I never got tired or sad. Cooking was like
a game. I was especially proud when mother let me help make the
special cakes for the August Moon festival, or make the lucky
foods for New Year. My brothers and I would wear our best clothes,
and sing songs, and play singing games, like this ;
Do you know that game? Scissors, paper, rock, is how they say
it in this country. They tell me the children here play it too,
but I never saw them. (sad) Once I was away from my family, my
childhood was all over. I never even got a chance to say goodbye
to my brothers, you know, or give away my toys. If I had known
what was happening to me, I would have hidden my favorite bird
inside my blouse, and given the rest to my second brother so he
would remember me. (not to audience, thinking, sad) I wonder if
(smart) My mother's family was rich, I think. Or at least better
off than most people. When my grandmother came to visit she was
dressed rich, (gesture) all in silk and satin. Grandmother was
the one who brought us the wonderful presents, like my older brother's
dragon kite, and my carved birds.
When I look back to that before-time, when I was only six, I remember
it as if every day were a festival. Everything bright and exciting.
(glowing with happiness, clap hands) There was so much to learn,
and my father and mother would laugh and joke and look pleased
with me because I was so quick and strong. (wistful) I thought,
then, that I was special, and that people would always be pleased
But then the bad luck came. (angry) My worthless father gambled
away every cent we had! (explains) I had heard that sometimes
daughters were sold. Like when there was a crop failure, you know.
Everyone, even the smallest children, knew that such things could
happen. But before my worthless father had such bad luck I never
worried that this could happen to me. Our family had a good plot
of land. I had older brothers who worked hard. We had plenty to
eat. We were lucky. (shrug) Until that day.
(new beat, direct to audience, explaining)
You might ask, if my grandmother who loved me was rich, why didn't
she save me? But a wife couldn't spend her husband's money, or
her son's inheritance, you know. Not on her daughter's daughter.
Only a son carries on the family name.
(consider it: for revenge)
Many daughters who were sold committed suicide. They would hang
or stab themselves if they wished to bring shame on those who
had hurt them. Or just refuse to eat, and waste away from sorrow.
(outraged) The day my father took me to be sold, he lied and said
he was taking me to see my grandmother. I was very fond of her,
you know, so I got on the ferry boat with him very happily. My
mother was crying, (grow younger: puzzled, with the voice and
body of a very young child) and I couldn't understand why mother
should cry if I go to see Grandma.
(pleased, excited, show these gifts) Mother gave me a new toothbrush
and a new washrag in a blue bag when I left her. I said, (in Chinese,
then translate) "Don't cry mother. (wave) I'm just going
to see grandma and be right back." (older, very angry) And
that worthless father, my own father, he sold me on the ferry
boat. Locked me in the cabin while he was bargaining to get a
good price. I kicked and kicked and screamed and screamed: (in
Chinese, then translate) Daddy! Don't leave me! Daddy, let me
out! Let me out! Daddy! But I wasn't let out! Not until my father
had made his bargain and left the steamer. Then they turned me
loose. I ran up and down, up and down, here and there, but my
father was gone away so I couldn't find him.
That boat took me to a bigger boat, and then across the ocean.
I arrived in San Francisco in 1893. The agent who brought me,
sold me for a house servant. I suppose I was not so good as a
servant, because I was sold three more times. Or maybe I was traded.
I didn't understand the bargains, or what these people wanted
of me, or how to please them. After all, I was only 7 and 8 years
old. I cried and cried. Over and over, I begged each of my mistresses
to send me back to my mother.
Finally I ended up with a terrible woman. She beat me. Hard. She
had a big fat baby and I was supposed to carry him on my back
all the time, even though I was little for eight years old. (act
it out) Carry that fat baby all the time, even when I was trying
to do the laundry. I would be trying to stoop over to scrub laundry,
and the fat baby would be pulling at me and crying, and I got
desperate and I just didn't care what happened. I pinched that
baby on his cheek, his seat, you know, just gave it to him. Well,
his mother went and got a red hot iron tong, and burnt me on the
arm. Somebody must have heard my screams, or seen my scars. Some
kind person who reported my mistress to the Mission workers, and
they came and took me away to the Mission Home in San Francisco.
At first I was not happy there, either. Still I was rebellious.
I couldn't understand why I wasn't allowed to run and play and
do as I liked. Or why couldn't I go back to my mother and my brothers?
I was always quite a tomboy, always running around and looking
for fun. I didn't want to pray with the ghost-ladies, or scrub
in the kitchen or learn to sew. I would pray to the Goddess of
Compassion to come and take me home, and run out in the back yard
and sing the old songs as loud as I could. (sings)
I would hide behind flour sacks in the cupboard when I was supposed
to be working, and imagine myself a heroine in a story. Pretend
that all this trouble was just an adventure. One day I would be
rescued, and be happy again forever. Like in the old plays. There
was one performed sometimes in the village, called FIFTEEN STRINGS
OF CASH. It's about a stepdaughter who runs away from home because
she thinks she is going to be sold. Really, she wasn't. Her drunken
stepfather was only joking to tease her, you know. He loved her,
but when he was full of wine he thought making a joke about such
a terrible thing would be fun.
The daughter has a song speech that I remember -- although when
I watched the play with my brothers we didn't pay much attention
to the girl. We liked the clown, the evil King Rat. His tricks
and acrobatics made the children all laugh and clap their hands.
But after I was sold, it was the daughter's part that came back
to me. It goes something like this: (stylized)
"I am only his stepdaughter
So he was as happy to sell me
As if I were not even known to him.
How can I move him to see me as his own?
How difficult to touch his heart and change his mind!
Oh, how this hurts me!
There is a pain in my chest as if I had been shot through and
through with arrows.
It is worse than boiling in oil.
I'll pray to the gods, I'll call on heaven, call on my dead mother,
cry again and again and again,
until my throat is dry and my lips are cracked and bleeding."
(drops style, fan, becomes Tien Fu Wu again)
The girl considers suicide, she even picks up the axe: but then
she changes her mind:
(back "in character")
"I'll take this opportunity while he is drunk asleep to run
I would have run away every day, if only I could have thought
of anywhere to go. What a trial I was to the good ladies who ran
the mission home. I was so naughty!
But I was also sensitive, and I could not bear to be criticized.
One time when I didn't do my work, and matron chided me, I hung
my head out the window on the very coldest day of that year. When
matron found me, she asked me what I was doing? I told her I was
going to catch pneumonia and die, so that I could come back as
a ghost and haunt her for being so mean to me!
When I was a teenager at the Home, there was a Chinese matron
lady there, Ah Tsun. She had been smuggled into this country a
long time before, in 1877. Her owner was going to sell her to
be a prostitute. She ran away to the Mission Home. But then her
owner had her arrested, claiming that she was a thief. This happened
all the time. It was the way that the owners got the American
police to help them keep Chinese in bondage. Slavery was supposed
to be illegal, but what did Americans care what happened to a
After two court trials, Ah Tsun won her freedom. Ah Tsun was not
like me. She was happy at the Mission from the start. She became
a Christian, and worked for the Mission as an interpreter, preaching
and teaching. She could play the organ, too, and lead the congregation
I could understand why she would like to do that part. I liked
the hymn-singing, too. I used to imagine that I would grow up
and pound out the chords on the organ. Make such a wonderful big
noise! Sometimes I would sneak into the parlor and try out the
keys-- just out of wickedness, you know. Because when the matron
scolded me, and said if I wanted to play I must take lessons and
learn the hymns, I said, no! I wasn't interested!
Ah Tsun married a Christian Chinese, Mr. Wing. When there were
anti-Chinese riots here in San Francisco, in 1885, and hoodlums
of this very neighborhood stoned her house, she and Mr Wing and
their children went back to China. She studied and taught at the
Bible School in Canton until her husband died, and then came back
here again. I was very impressed that a Chinese woman could be
so respected, and have so much education. I thought maybe I would
like to be an educated woman, too. But most of our studies seemed
to be about the Bible, and I didn't care for that part so much.
Mrs. Wing tried to convert me to be a Christian, you know, but
I was still too wild and stubborn. How could I go against my ancestors?
How could I give up the gods and the festivals and the family
that still lived in my heart?
Then one day when I was almost grown, I made up my mind to be
a Christian. Shall I tell you how that came about? Miss Donaldina
Cameron was the head of the Mission, and her personal assistant
was a young woman named Yuen Qui. I told you that I was a wild
loud girl? A tomboy? Well, Yuen Qui was just the opposite, you
know. A quiet student, a seamstress and a reader. But she never
made me feel that I was bad. She was my best friend, and as dear
to me as a sister. If I could do my work in Yuen Qui's company,
I wasn't lazy, and I wasn't tempted to spoil it. I even stopped
dreaming that some day I would run away.
Then my dear friend became sick. I asked Miss Cameron if I could
help to nurse her. We sponged her and fed her and held her hand,
and when Mrs. Cameron prayed I joined in with all my heart. But
nothing we could do was any help. Yuen Qui was burning up with
fever. She was wasting away. When Yuen Qui died I was very grieved
myself, but Mrs. Cameron just absolutely broke down. This respected
woman! Broke down completely. I felt very sorry. I decided then
and there to take my dear friend's place as Mrs. Cameron's helper.
It's what Yuen Qui would have wanted.
And I have succeeded in this. Mrs. Cameron often says that I am
like a daughter to her. I too, am becoming an educated Chinese
woman, even more than the respected Ah Tsun. In 1905, I went to
the Stevens' School in Pennsylvania. I spent four years there,
and then 2 more years on a scholarship at the Toronto Bible School.
Now I assist in the rescues -- Rescues can be very exciting, going
in with the constable to save some poor woman from bondage. Her
master might hide the woman away in a cupboard. So the constable
goes around with a crowbar, tapping to find a hollow wall to break
down, to find the prisoner. Most times, that poor woman is terrified.
All she knows is what her master's told her, scare stories about
wicked white people. She thinks we're coming to torture or kill
her. She's weeping and shrieking, while I am trying to explain
that we are her friends.
Or sometimes the owner will threaten us. He'll say to me -- in
Chinese, so the constable doesn't understand -- that I will be
sorry. How dare I join in with the Mission ladies against my own
kind, and set the American law on him?
But I don't pay any attention to that man. He knows he is not
allowed to own somebody in this country. I don't waste any time
feeling sorry for him. And I refuse to be afraid. I remember what
it was like to be sold: to weep and shriek and be shut up all
alone. I find the place where that girl is hidden, and I break
it open like the cage of a bird, and set her free.
(A mature, dignified woman, giving a speech to the Women's Suffrage
Society in 1895.)
Madam Secretary, and distinguished ladies of the Suffrage Society,
I want to thank you for inviting me here to talk to you today.
My name is Mary Tape. I was born in Shanghai, but I have no idea
who my parents were. Probably they were very poor. The birth of
a girl-child was such an economic disaster that they felt they
had to abandon the baby, so I was left out to die.
Christian missionaries took me in. They raised and educated
me in the Shanghai orphanage. When I was 11 years old, the missionaries
moved back to their home in America, and they brought me with
them. They had worked and preached against slavery, strong in
the hope that one day my adopted country would show the world
that with equal opportunity, people of whatever origin can rise
to unprecedented heights. I was educated by them not only for
my own sake, but to set an example.
This was in the 1860's, during this country's War Between the
States. No one was sure what kind of nation this would be after
that terrible War. Would there be liberty and justice for all?
In the Dred Scott case, the Supreme court said that Negroes had
no rights that white men were bound to respect. But it wasn't
clear how this applied to people of Asian ancestry.
During the Gold Rush, thousands of poor Chinese laborers were
brought to California--, to Gold Mountain, as it's called. The
labor contractors who supplied the workers advertised that these
"coolies" would work harder and eat less than Negro
slaves. They were kept in filthy huts. They had no way to wash,
no sanitary facilities. They worked ten or twelve hours a day
at backbreaking jobs in the mines or building the railroads. Nobody
expected these Chinese to stay in America. These men were here
just to earn money and go back home to their families. There were
almost no women. In 1850, out of 4000 Chinese, only 7 women! By
the time I arrived, a dozen years later, there were a few more.
But still, maybe one woman for every two hundred men.
Can you ladies even imagine what life would be like in that kind
of a situation? With such an imbalance between the sexes? It is
difficult for me, too, to think about such things. I lived and
worked in the shelter of the Ladies Relief Society until I married
Since I came to this country I have always worn Western dress.
The Relief Society was a center for education and reform, with
a progressive outlook that was unusual even for Western women
in those days. I learned to play the piano, and sing, and I also
had lessons in drawing and watercolor. Some of my paintings are
on display in the lobby of this hall, so you may judge for yourself
if I am entitled to call myself an artist. But my strongest interest
is the wonderful new art and science of photography. Some of you
may have seen my photographic work already. My portraits and scenes
of life in Chinatown have been published in many books and journals.
I must tell you, though, that I have found out that my work is
more likely to be accepted if I send it out under my husband's
name. Imagine the look on the face of the editor, when he discovers
that the photographs he admires were done by a woman, and a Chinese
woman at that!
In spite of his western name, my husband Joseph Tape is a businessman
of Chinese descent, interpreter for the Chinese consulate. He
is is proud to have an educated wife, and he has always been eager
to obtain a first-class education for his daughters, too. I must
admit to you that this is not common among the Chinese here. Even
wives of well-off merchants such as my husband often live miserable
lives, confined in their ignorance to a narrow room, far from
their relatives in China and with no friends to talk to. As I
told you, very few of the Chinese were allowed to bring their
wives to America. And when I was young, I did not meet any wives
from China. My friends were my old school classmates, and the
emancipated women I met through my interest in welfare work and
the arts. But I heard terrible stories from the Relief workers,
about the conditions of the wives: the ones with bound feet and
Can you imagine being afraid to go out on the street for fear
that you will be kidnaped and sold to be a prostitute? This could
be a very real danger. With so many men and no women, the black
market price for a prostitute becomes very, very tempting. Under
American restrictions, the only women allowed to immigrate are
the wives of merchants. Typically, this Gold-Mountain woman is
not what you would consider the man's real wife, ladies. She is
a second wife, or a concubine. The merchant who brings her over
to this country leaves his number one wife in China. With her
mother-in-law, and with his favored sons.
For the first few years here, before she has a son of her own,
the Gold Mountain wife is not allowed to see anyone. Maybe, if
he is rich enough, her husband will buy a little servant-girl
to help his wife with household work that is too hard for a small-foot
woman to do with her bound feet. But the second wife is in the
position that if she angers her husband, or he loses his money,
he can sell her at any time. To a different "husband",
or to a brothel. After she has sons, and if her husband is prosperous,
the wife's position gets better. She might be permitted to have
other wives over to visit. Or she might have a hairdresser or
storyteller come in to break the monotony of her days.
Not every Chinese wife is in such a position. Some husbands, like
my dear Joseph, are kind and generous. I believe, much more in
America than in China. There the household is ruled by the husband's
mother. The mother in law doesn't permit her son to spoil his
wife with gifts and attentions. Here, women are rare, and so may
be valuable. They aren't a surplus, as in the old country. But
what security does a wife have? Not just a Chinese wife: as you
ladies well know, this is a serious matter for every woman. A
wife can cook, and keep house, and embroider. But if she has been
raised as most girls are raised, she has no skills to earn a living,
if she were mistreated or left a widow.
I wanted my own four children to be well educated, not just have
the rudiments. I wanted each to play an instrument and have good
manners. I wanted them to go to school where our family lives,
not in Chinatown. In Chinatown, the only schooling available was
Christian Sunday School, or night school, run by charity. The
poor children of Chinatown work all day, and can only go to school
at odd hours. At one time there had been a publically-supported
school just for Chinese children. But in the 1860's the anti-Chinese
managed to get it closed down.
So, when my oldest daughter, Maime, was eight,-- in 1884-- I took
her down to enroll in the public school nearest our home. Can
you guess what happened, then? The teachers, the principal, wouldn't
let us in! The San Francisco School Board said that they had the
power to exclude Chinese because they are -- here, ladies, I will
quote you their insults:-- (puts on glasses, reads from note card)
"children of filthy or vicious habits, or children with infectious
diseases." The Board said--- and I quote them--, that (another
card) "the association of Chinese and white children would
be very demoralizing mentally and morally to the latter"!
"Demoralizing"! My beautiful intelligent well-behaved
children! Take a look at my pictures of my children, hanging out
in the lobby, and tell me if they look to you as if they deserve
As you can imagine, I was very angry. Joseph and I took our cause
to court, and the judge ruled in our favor. But the State Superintendent
and the Board would not yield. They adopted a resolution that
any principal who admitted what they called a "Mongolian
Child" would be subject to dismissal. By now, the papers
reported all this, and the Chinese community made our court case
You see, in 1884 The California Supreme Court had ruled that a
child born in the U.S. of Chinese parents is a natural born citizen.
The child has a citizen's rights. Even when this was confirmed
on appeal-- in 1885--, the school board ruled that Chinese children
must be taught in segregated schools-- and then refused to establish
any! I was furious! I wrote this letter to the Board. (puts on
glasses to read letter)
"I see that you are going to make all sorts of excuses to
keep my child out of the Public Schools. Dear Sirs, will you please
tell me! Is it a disgrace to be born a Chinese? Didn't God make
us all? What right! have you to bar my child out of school because
she is of Chinese descent? There is no other worldly reason that
you could keep her out. Her playmates are all Caucasians ever
since she could toddle around. If she is good enough to play with
them! Then is she not good enough to be in the same room and study
with them? It seems no matter how a Chinese may live and dress,
so long as you know they're Chinese then they are hated as one.
Maime Tape will never attend any of the Chinese schools of your
making! Never!! I will let the world see, sir, what justice there
is, when it is governed by the race prejudice."
Yes, I swore my children wouldn't go to the segregated Chinese
school. But the very day it opened, I was there, with Maime holding
one of my hands and her little brother the other. What else could
I do? Until we have equal justice for all in this country, we
must make the best of what opportunities we can get. We are only
a small group here, we Chinese, and unless we can find strong
allies among reform-minded people such as yourselves, we will
never be able to take our rightful place at the forefront of progress.
Science, especially, is the key to modern life. When logical thinking
is universally taught, we shall be rid at last of the prejudice
and ignorance that allows one sex or race to mistreat the other.
My good friend, Wong Hong Tai, is a well known scientist. He is
called the Chinese Edison. With him I have done experiments that
qualify me to be a scientist, too. Or at least a scientist's assistant.
I have seen how superstition yields to proof. Today I have come
before you to offer myself as a kind of living proof that a woman
of Chinese descent can take advantage of the very best education
this country can offer.
Once again, I thank you for your hospitality, and your kind attention.
I only hope that my speech here today has gone some way to convince
you to see my cause as linked with yours. Like yourselves, ladies,
I have had the good luck to escape from many of the burdens and
restrictions placed upon our sex. Now, let us, together, join
hand in hand to do the great reforming work that makes this country
a beacon to the world. I can tell you, ladies: my dear husband
Joseph's biggest regret is that he will never be allowed to become
an American citizen some day, and vote. But I don't mind that
so much. I realize that you, daughters of the patriots who sacrificed
to found and preserve this land of freedom, have still to win
your own full rights. But my children are citizens. And I know
that when you ladies succeed in your struggle, and Caucasian women
win the vote, my daughters will get that precious vote, too.
POLLY BEMIS -- (very old, a bit crippled, in cowboy dress )
My name's Polly Bemis. My American name. When I was little, my
father called me Treasure. Made me feel important. When I was
getting to be about old enough for my father to think about my
marriage, he wanted me to make a good one. Leased some land, to
get an extra crop. The weather turned against him, though. Couldn't
afford a helper any more, and my father kept getting deeper and
deeper in debt.
What could he do? If my father sold himself into indenture, while
he was working off the debt our family would starve. If he sold
me, my mother and my little brother would be all right, the family
would go on. I begged my father to wait, though. I said I would
be his helper. Work with him in the fields. Take the place of
the field hand we couldn't afford. My mother wept and moaned.
What a disgrace! Neighbors would be scandalized, to see a girl
work like a man. I'd never be able to hold my head up, never be
married. I said anything was better than being sold. Work hard,
worry about the future later.
My mother agreed, finally, and unbound my feet. A little bit at
a time, day by day. Painful to do field work. Trudge for hours
on my broken toes, carrying the hoe and the buckets over the rough
plowed earth. But, if you can believe it, I enjoyed that work!
Glad to be out in the open, glad to be tilling the soil and making
The bad weather continued, though, and all our work was for nothing.
I was sold. What happened to me after that was almost like an
old tale of adventure! Didn't think so at the time, though. Just
trying to stay alive. I was stolen by bandits; escaped, was captured
all over again. Thought sure the bandits would all rape and murder
me. But they didn't-- I was worth good money shipped whole to
California, to the Gold Mountain.
When I got to San Francisco, I was herded into a big shed. All
stripped naked and auctioned off. Last to be sold would be the
lowest prostitutes, the ones penned up in the cribs. Cribs were
tiny rooms, choking hot in the summer and stinking with bad air.
Barred windows where the women would call out to customers. Offering
themselves for 25 cents! Terrible life: never to see the open
blue sky, never walk over the green fields. A short life, too.
What with the disease and the beatings, few women made it for
more than 3 or 4 years.
Not all prostitutes have such a hard life, though. Very first
Chinese prostitute was a famous one, named Ah Choi. She came in
1849, from Hong Kong. Already a success, there, serving foreign
sailors. Ah Choi heard about the gold rush, and she came over
here bringing her jewels and her fancy clothes. Knew enough English
that she couldn't be cheated.
Ah Choi set up to charge one full ounce of gold. Enough money
for a person to live on maybe two months! Miners lined up around
the block, waiting turns. Men had so much gold then, hardly any
women to spend it on. Most all Ah Choi's customers were whites,
though. Ones who could afford her prices. European prostitutes
charged even more.
Two years, Ah Choi traveled back to China to bring in more girls.
Two more years she opened a big house on Pike Street. Branched
out and opened a store with import goods, too. But the Tongs saw
that there was a market, took over the business. From the beginning,
many many Chinese men for every Chinese woman. Time I got here,
after the Exclusion Act, no way for a woman to come legally, or
on her own. All of us were somebody's property.
When I was bought by a merchant named Hong King, I felt I was
lucky. Hong King had a store and a saloon in Warren Idaho. I was
shipped to Warren over the miner's trails. Dangerous trip, by
muleback. When I arrived, I worked very hard for Hong King. Was
his personal servant. His concubine. Worked in his saloon, serving
the miners and building up the boss' business.
Warren Idaho was a work camp. Men and a few bar girls, German
mostly. I was a favorite-- They called me China Polly. Miners
all seemed to like it that I was so small: like a little doll,
they said. The boys would lift me up on top of the bar, and I'd
dance on my poor mangled feet. Sing the songs the miners taught
Johnny Bemis tried his hand at mining. He was really a gambler,
though, like Hong King. One time those two got in a poker game,
just the two of them, lasted all day and all night. Hong King
won almost all Johnny's gold, but then the luck turned around
and Hong King started losing. Johnny said, "Stake your girl
Polly!" Isn't that something? Right out of the old stories!
One hand, winner takes all. My boss agreed. Called me to the table
to watch. I came up and stood beside Hong King all smiling, but
I was worried. I could see that my boss had three aces. Looked
to me like I was going to be Hong King's bar girl forever. But
Johnny Bemis drew to a flush, and so he won me. In that game,
I had the luck. Yahoo! Happy ending!
You' surprised that I'd rather go with the American? With Johnny?
Johnny was young and strong and cheerful. Johnny liked me. Liked
me a lot. Hong King was a rich Tong leader. I was glad to get
away from him, though-- bad tempered ugly old man. Hong King had
no idea that a young girl might want to be out with the sunshine
and the mountains. Might want to decide a few things for myself.
Oh, I wasn't free, now, either. But with Johnny Bemis I began
to see what freedom could be like. Johnny'd ask me: Polly, do
you want this? Polly, do you think we should do that?
I helped Johnny with his placer claim. Kept his cabin clean. When
he went gambling, I stood behind his chair and watched so no one
could cheat him. Now, some people thought I was doing more than
just watching. One time, a sore loser thought Johnny and me were
cheating, and put a bullet through his chest!
Doctor and all Johnny's friends thought he was a goner. But I
strapped him on his horse and took him home and I nursed him.
Gave Johnny herb tea and broth. Kept his wound clean and his fever
down. When he was well, Johnny took me in to Warren and he married
me. Maybe it wasn't legal, our marriage-- the law said Chinese
couldn't marry whites, couldn't be citizens or own property. But
far away as we were from the courthouse, we were pretty safe.
Johnny and I considered us married, and our neighbors did, too.
Maybe I'd've worried more about it, if I'd had children. I like
children. Always happy to have the children of friends come visit.
Still, I didn't think Johnny and I ought to have any of our own.
Asked Johnny what he thought, he said that's all right with him.
We were enough, he said.
When the mines gave out around Warren, we moved up to Salmon River
Canyon. Johnny rocked for gold, I started a vegetable garden.
Oh, that was some garden! Land around Salmon Creek was a lot like
where I was born: rocky soil and wind. Dry hot summers. Cold winters
with heavy snow. I knew about that kind of land. Could make things
grow in it, long as the rains come.
I planted what I thought would grow easy, and set myself to learn
as much as I could, so that I could grow more. Radish and cucumber,
turnips and carrots, potatoes and tomatoes. Sold them to miners
all down the canyon. In town, too. Canned and pickled and dried.
With the money, I bought a herd and two horses -- if only my father
and mother could see me, what a green thumb I have!
I have a dog, too, and a goat, and cats, and even wild animals
will come to me when I call. I'm nurse and midwife for my neighbors.
My cookies and jam are famous for miles around.
Johnny's getting old, now. Crippled up so he can hardly get around.
Our friends say when Johnny dies I should move into town, they
can keep an eye on me. I don't think so, though. This is my land,
you see. I've come all this way, I want to stay right here. This
land that I've made bloom.