Drawing of opium pipe

Asian American Comparative Collection: 
Ongoing Research

Asian American Comparative Collection (AACC)
University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Drive, MS 1111
Moscow, Idaho 83844-1111 USA
Priscilla Wegars, Ph.D., Volunteer Curator

Renae Campbell, M.A., RPA, Research Associate

Ongoing Research

Photo of
      Polly Bemis

Polly Bemis

Idaho's most famous Chinese woman resident, Polly Bemis, arrived in Idaho Territory in 1872. She has received widespread attention since the publication of a biographical novel, Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, and the release of a movie with the same title, loosely based on the book. Since Polly Bemis was inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame in August 1996, it is important that we both celebrate the known facts about her and allow the stereotypical, undocumented legends to die out.

Polly Bemis's life has been greatly romanticized by many people who have written about her. There is no evidence for the truth of the most persistent legend, that she was "won in a poker game." As she neared death in 1933, both Polly and C. J. Czizek, "one of her most intimate friends from the Salmon country," vehemently denied the rumor.

Another common misconception, not in McCunn's book, is that Polly Bemis was once a prostitute. Again, there is no evidence for that assumption. Although a Chinese resident of Warrens (now Warren), Idaho, paid $2500 for her, and had her brought to that community by an old Chinese man (alas, not the handsome, young "Jim" of book and movie), Polly's owner undoubtedly purchased her as his concubine. In China at that time, a wealthy man might have one or more wives, plus one or more concubines, all living in the same household. Our term "mistress" most closely approximates the term, but it does not equate with the concept as it existed in China, where a concubine held a legally-recognized position as a family member, and whose children were considered legitimate offspring of the man and his primary wife.

Chinese custom decreed that if a man immigrated to the United States to work, his wife should remain at home in China to look after his parents. While abroad, however, he might take with him, or acquire, a concubine to perform "wifely duties" (see, The Concubine's Children, by Denise Chong). A Chinese man fortunate enough to have a concubine would not use her as a prostitute because he would "lose face" through sharing her with others.

Other myths about Polly include the use of the name "Lalu Nathoy" for her; there is no evidence for that being her name. Also, there is no evidence that her owner's name was "Hong King."

We do not yet know how Polly managed to extricate herself from her Chinese owner; perhaps he died. Whatever happened, it occurred before mid-1880 since that year's U.S. Census lists her as living with, but not married to, Charlie Bemis. In September 1890 a "gambling affray" resulted in Bemis being shot. He hovered near death for some time, and Polly nursed him back to health. They married in 1894, and moved down to the Salmon River where they took up a mining claim, not a homestead, as is commonly believed.

For over two decades Priscilla Wegars collected documentary information about Polly Bemis in preparation for several, more accurate, works about her life. They include Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer (2003), a brief biography for 4th graders; the lengthy chapter "Polly Bemis: Lurid Life or Literary Legend?" in Wild Women of the Old West, edited by Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain, 45-68, 200-203, (2003); and Polly Bemis: The Life and Times of a Chinese American Pioneer (2020). Wegars has also taught a summer school/enrichment class for the University of Idaho in which participants compare both the book and the movie with what is known about the real Polly Bemis, while visiting Polly's restored cabin, now easily accessible only by jet boat. For more information about this class, see Tours. A slide lecture is also available, as are Lessons for 4th graders based on the book.  A recording of Priscilla Wegars' slide lecture on Polly Bemis, presented for the Lemhi County Historical Society and Museum on February 10, 2021, can be viewed on YouTube.

Scheduled PowerPoint Presentation with Book Signing:

None currently scheduled.

Please email pwegars@moscow.com to schedule a PowerPoint presentation and/or a book signing.

Chinese Restaurant Wares and Ephemera

Ashtray, Far East Cafe,
      Portland, OR
Ashtray from Tea Garden Cafe, Portland, Oregon, AACC-2004-1, in
the "God of Longevity" pattern.                           Donated by Elaura Niles.

Ashtray mark, logo
      for F. S. Louie Co.; "Made in Japan" sticker
Base of  Tea Garden Cafe ashtray, showing logo for F. S. Louie Co.,
Berkeley, CA, partially covered with "Made in Japan" paper sticker.

F. S. Louie Company

About 1950 the F. S. Louie Company of Berkeley, California, began wholesaling china to restaurants.  Following the founder's death in 1996, his son continued the business for a few years. Before closing the business, he generously gave the AACC many examples of Chinese restaurant wares that remained in the company's inventory.  In addition, the AACC has two company catalogues, from 1960 and 1983.  When compared, these show differences in patterns offered for sale and in prices charged to restaurants.  The major patterns are God of Longevity (above), Dragon/Phoenix, Bird/Flower, and Women/Characters.  As the above paper sticker indicates, most of this ware was made in Japan because, for political reasons, the U.S. government did not allow U.S. firms to import anything from The People's Republic of China for many years.  For more information on the F. S. Louie Company, from which this brief account was taken, see Amber Creighton, "Chinese Restaurant Ware and Its Importance to Asian American Archaeology," Journal of Northwest Anthropology, 36(2):227-240, Fall 2002.

At the time of her article, Ms. Creighton had located wares marked with the F. S. Louie name or logo and bearing the names of Chinese restaurants in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Washington, DC.  Since then, others from Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Virginia, and Wisconsin have been offered for sale on the Internet.  The AACC is always happy to learn of additional F. S. Louie wares marked with restaurant names and addresses.

The F. S. Louie Company has used several different base marks during the course of their operation.  They are based on stylizations of (a), the Chinese character for thunder, pronounced "louie" in Cantonese.  Mark (b) is probably the first one used by the company; mark (c) is later, and mark (d) is the most recent (Creighton 2002:235). All three marks are represented on F. S. Louie ceramics in the AACC.

F. S. Louie logos
Scans by Brad Codr.

Another F. S. Louie mark is represented in the AACC by an oval platter in the "Longevity" pattern, AACC-2001-258; the "Longevity" pattern is different from the "God of Longevity" pattern.  This mark appears on F. S. Louie ceramics manufactured for the company by the Sterling China Company; see Barbara J. Conroy, Restaurant China Volume 2: Identification & Value Guide for Restaurant, Airline, Ship & Railroad Dinnerware (Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 1999), 616.
F. S. Louie
      Sterling logo
 Scan by Brad Codr.

          vault; passageway under sidewalk    Metal door in
        sidewalk above sidewalk vault

"Chinese Tunnels"; the illustrations above are from Baker City, Oregon

Many communities where large numbers of Chinese people once lived are today rumored to have so-called "Chinese tunnels" under downtown buildings and streets. This myth continues to be perpetuated despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For the most authoritative debunking of this tale, see David Chuenyan Lai, The Forbidden City within Victoria, Victoria, BC: Orca (1991). Chapter 4, "Tunnels of the Forbidden Town," pp. 34-39, details how the myth became established. Lai's "Summary," p. 39, can be applied to any city with reported "Chinese tunnels."

During Priscilla Wegars' extensive research on the Chinese in the West, she has never found any documentation or substantiation for these rumored "Chinese tunnels." In cities where the Chinese owned buildings and utilized the basements, the latter may have been subdivided or partitioned into smaller areas as living quarters or opium-smoking establishments, with hallways, but these in no way can be considered "tunnels."

In Lewiston, Idaho, for example, Erb Hardware Company President Jeanine Bennett graciously led Wegars on a tour of the store's basement areas, in response to a local newspaper's suggestion that it contained entrances to such "tunnels." Instead, the arched openings actually lead to passageways under the sidewalk (today either in use as storage areas, or blocked up) that were once used for delivery access, or to admit light. The architectural term for these passageways is "sidewalk vaults."

Although the sidewalk openings (metal doors) or glass blocks to allow light (round or rectangular; eventually colored purple by the sun), no longer exist in the sidewalk around Erb's, they can be seen in the sidewalks of many towns and cities throughout the West. The passageways underneath them are simply access channels, and have no connection with early Chinese residents. The same can be said for the so-called "Chinese tunnels" rumored to exist in Boise and Pocatello, Idaho; Baker City and Pendleton, Oregon; Seattle and Tacoma, Washington; Victoria, BC, and many other places.

Wegars would appreciate receiving information about other communities with rumored "Chinese tunnels" and would especially welcome descriptive information from anyone who has visited what they were told was a "Chinese tunnel." Chinese tunnel myths are often perpetuated through tourism and mass media. In Pendleton, Oregon, for example, the "Pendleton Underground" tour takes visitors into basements that some guides call "Chinese tunnels." Although there was apparently once a Chinese laundry in one basement, there is convincing evidence to indicate that any other Chinese people once lived "underground" there. See the Oregon Encyclopedia for a debunking of this particular myth.

For more information on this topic, please see Priscilla Wegars' article, "Exposing Negative Chinese Terminology and Stereotypes," Chapter 4 in Chinese Diaspora Archaeology in North America, ed. Chelsea Rose and J. Ryan Kennedy, pp. 83-108 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020).

Other projects in progress

Return to AACC
July 2021/research.htm/pwegars@uidaho.edu