In the mid-1890s, a pioneer woman named Polly Bemis moved 17 miles north of Warren, Idaho to a wild area of land that, even today, is difficult to access by road. While the circumstances of Bemis’ arrival in the United States are shrouded, she was most likely sold to bandits in her home country by her impoverished family, and then sold again into slavery in the States. By the time she moved to her final home in Idaho, she was married to a friend of hers named Charlie Bemis, with whom she lived and worked for the next 40 years until her death in 1933 at the age of 80.
Against the appearance of her name and what the history of the late 19th century might suggest, Bemis was a Chinese woman, standing just over four feet tall. She and Charlie had wedded in a marriage of convenience that helped Polly establish legal residency in America. Today, their Idaho cabin is a designated historical site, and Polly Bemis’ life story has been dramatized in literature and film, most notably in a 1981 biographical novel and a 1990 film based on the book. Among the often faceless, nameless Chinese of the American frontier, Bemis towers as a romantic icon—apparently anachronistic; apparently singular.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1800s during what constituted the first major wave of Asian migration in American history. They came seeking better lives, whether fleeing turmoil back home or looking for stable work—or even fortune—in America. Just as American prospectors from the East flooded California in the mid-1800s, many Chinese were drawn by the rumored promises of gold. (The name for San Francisco in Chinese still translates, literally, to “old gold mountain.”)
Men constituted the majority of the Chinese population of this period, mostly as laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad, but women—like Bemis—weren’t wholly absent. Many of these women were sex workers—and many of them had been forced into such work. Like other people of color, the Chinese Americans of this era were also the targets of racially discriminatory laws, the most famous of these being the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned them from citizenship. Chinese Americans were the subjects of outright violence, too, like the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles, an incident sometimes described as the largest mass lynching in American history. And although Chinese workers comprised 90 percent of those who built the Transcontinental Railroad—during which they endured harsh conditions and treatment—their involvement was largely obscured by their contemporaries.
Outside of these sanitized historical records—or the notes on extraordinary lives, like Bemis’—we have few personal records of these Chinese lives. No full social history exists for Bemis’ fellow Chinese Americans. “I suppose I look like these Chinese men, but when I gaze upon those old photos, I see those Chinamen the way white settlers must have seen them, real funny-looking in their padded pajamas and long weird braids, like aliens photoshopped into a Western,” Korean American poet Cathy Park Hong writes in Minor Feelings, a collection of essays on the Asian American experience. Hong cites the paucity of surviving firsthand accounts by these Chinese Americans for this disconnect: “Their meal plans, their exhaustion, their homesickness—most of that went unrecorded.” This means that the task of telling their stories, of mending the holes, today largely falls to fiction.
As the romanticizing of Bemis’ life demonstrates, there is no shortage of fascination with the buried or hidden possibilities of the lives of minorities in American history. (Less laudable are the imperfect racial imaginaries that often accompany this enthusiasm.) But more and more Asian American authors have taken up the mantle of filling in what was once left out, as interest in this subject matter seems to have accelerated in recent years.
In speculative fiction author Ken Liu’s short story “All the Flavors,” collected in his award-winning volume The Paper Menagerie (2011), a young white pioneer girl befriends a Chinese prospector. Stacey Lee’s young adult novel Under a Painted Sky (2015) follows a Chinese American girl on the run after an act of self-defense, and who teams up with a runaway Black slave girl on a passage west to California. The first third of Peter Ho Davies’ The Fortunes (2016) tells the tale of Ah Ling, a railroad baron’s young, half-Chinese servant who becomes one of the first Chinese to labor on the railroads—based on the real-life houseboy of the historically real Charles Crocker.
Even more recently, Linda Sue Park’s Prairie Lotus (2020) reimagines, for young readers, Little House on the Prairie through the life of a half-Chinese pioneer girl. Last year also witnessed C Pam Zhang’s breakout debut How Much of These Hills is Gold, which narrates the journey of two orphaned Chinese American siblings across the Old West, telling a dreamlike tale infused with elements of magical realism.
Now, 2021 brings us Tom Lin’s The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu—a revenge story wrapped in a romance; staples and familiars of a Western. But the book’s complex relationship with factual history and its Asian diasporic authorship link it to those works that have come before. Lin’s novel enters into a limited-but-expanding canon that we might call, tongue-in-cheek, the “Eastern Western”—a growing body of literature that is constructing a new American sensibility through its reclamation of a classically xenophobic genre.Lin’s novel enters into a limited-but-expanding canon that we might call, tongue-in-cheek, the “Eastern Western”—a growing body of literature that is constructing a new American sensibility through its reclamation of a classically xenophobic genre.
The titular Ming Tsu is a “large Chinaman with no queue” (it was chopped off by a villainous overseer for easier recognition) who is found as an orphaned infant and raised by a California crime lord to be a hitman. Ming does his job with incredible effectiveness and little remorse; the first sentence of the novel readies readers for this, announcing that: “For a long time it had ceased to trouble him to kill.” The story opens as Ming is partway through his journey in reclaiming his kidnapped wife, Ada, the daughter of a railroad magnate, and exacting revenge on her abductors. Along the way, Ming enlists the help of a blind, elderly Chinese prophet and a traveling circus troupe of performers with magical abilities. Through it all, Ming’s modus operandi is total elimination of those who stand in his way—he has a written list of those involved in Ada’s abduction, but anyone else who might try to stop him—local sheriffs, young train conductors—shouldn’t expect to get away merely wounded. The body count goes up quickly with the pages.
This dense violence, coupled with a general preoccupation with action over interiority, makes for a wooden story, although it also renders the few moments of self-examination more powerful. Ming’s Chinese American identity hovers over every scene of the story—he is, after all, identified by others first and foremost by his appearance; after Ada is taken, Ming’s punishment for their “illegal” interracial love is being condemned to work on the Transcontinental Railroad—but his Chinese heritage is not the focus of the narrative, and it is in fact often treated less-than-thoroughly amidst all the firing guns.
There is, however, one chapter that is particularly insightful. Ming and his circus troupe companions set up a show in the town of Dun Glen, populated almost exclusively by Chinese laborers. The troupe’s ringmaster, frustrated by the Chinese audience’s responses to their show, asks Ming to act as a translator, but Ming, of course, doesn’t speak a lick of Chinese. The ringmaster continues on to call the Chinese laborers Ming’s “countrymen” until Ming grabs the ringmaster by the throat. “Don’t you ever call them Chinese my countrymen again,” he growls. “God help you—if I ever hear you call me one.”
What Ming grapples with in Dun Glen is a variant of what many children of diasporas experience throughout their lives—an urge to distance themselves from the larger demographic for fear of losing their assimilated identities. In an interview with The Sacramento Bee, Lin remarks on this specific episode, saying, “I think I wrote that scene because I wanted to see Ming struggle with the Chinese part of Chinese American. I think that one of the kinds of responses that systemic racism engenders is a kind of rejection of alterity.” That sort of rejection is something with which Lin himself is intimately familiar. “I remember like there were times when I was growing up, and I desperately wanted not to be Chinese,” Lin continues. “Not because I didn’t like being Chinese, but because I so badly wanted to be American, and it seemed that the thing that was preventing me from doing that was that I was Chinese.”
Positioning Ming as a character caught in-between—unable to speak Chinese, raised by a white man—allows this fracture to rise to the foreground. We find this effective model of characterization in those works that come before Lin’s as well: Ah Ling from The Fortunes likewise acts as a mediator between white overseers and the Chinese laborers. (Legend goes that Crocker was inspired to use Chinese labor on the Central Pacific Railroad after observing Ah Ling’s strength and efficiency.) Ba—the father character in Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold—is also recruited by a railroad boss to act as teacher and translator for new Chinese hires. But Ba doesn’t actually speak any Chinese; like Ming from The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, Ba was born on American soil and found as an orphaned newborn.
Ba’s and Ah Ling’s work is doubly alienating. Ba finds his position patently uncomfortable, not only because he must pretend to understand Chinese, but also because the Chinese immigrants’ “language and gossip were strange, as was the easy way they called each other fat and picked loose threads from each other’s sleeves.” He asks: “What did it matter that we looked alike? I came from the hills, and the two hundred spooked at the sound of jackals. They were soft people who’d believed a pack of lies, and I didn’t need them.” Ah Ling considers, too, that in his Western attire and hat, “he must have looked like a ghost in the night,” and that “startled Chinese had stepped aside for him, cursed him in Cantonese under their breath.” For a while, before he decides otherwise, Ah Ling is comfortable playing the comprador, comfortable in his relative privilege, even as he knows that his fellow Chinese hold him in contempt.
In their liminal statuses, these characters and their stories interrogate what an American birthright really is: does it consist of who you are, what you look like, where you were born, where you were found? Land, unsurprisingly, is of utmost importance in answering the question in all these works. In How Much of These Hills is Gold, the land itself takes on the role of a character through its constant intervention in its inhabitants’ lives. In The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, striking passages build up Ming’s harsh Western territory through the repetition and accumulation of language—akin, perhaps, to the processes that form their real-life sedimentary rock counterparts. (This fixation also unfortunately leads the story into being emotionally minimalistic to its own detriment. By the book’s end, its emotional effect might best be captured through a sentence from one of the many days that Ming spends traveling: “The only sound was the horses’ breathing and the rhythm of gear jostling in Ming’s pack. Everything else was swallowed whole by the resplendent emptiness of that vast landscape through which they passed.”)
These books make clear that an American birthright is more abstract and expansive than many Americans were once raised to think it was. Still, this recent reclamation of the Western may not be without its costs; after all, the typical genre Western is white fantasy. In their innovation of the Western, works in this subgenre still frequently depend on the genre’s tropes; a reliance that can appear like attempts to use the abuser’s weapons against said abuser. The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu embraces violence as a mode of characterization. How Much of These Hills is Gold, for all its lyrical beauty and snappy one-liners, proclaims its thesis statement with grating self-consciousness: “I grew up knowing I belonged to this land,” Ba tells his daughter Lucy. “You and Sam do too, never mind how you look. Don’t you let any man with a history book tell you different.” In all these stories, there lurks that possible overall criticism: that such naked efforts in undoing and revamping Westerns are really just another way of operating within—and perhaps pandering to—the white gaze.
But perhaps a more empathetic way to envision the work being done by these books is to see it as truth-seeking; as truth-making. The United States of the 1800s wasn’t as white as history books or John Wayne movies would have us believe. What happened to the classic Western? It is being reimagined and expanded, yes—but it’s also being shown for what it really is, and readied to be left behind.
There is no one path forward in the project of portraying the humanity of those queued men we see only in 200-year-old photos. There is no single “how.” But these books, these new “Eastern Westerns,” take their best shot. They are patient; they don’t quit—2022, for example, promises us Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky, which tells the tale of a Chinese girl kidnapped and brought to the American frontier in the 1880s. These books are paving a road on which those that come after can walk, or even run—sprint across California’s golden hills like Lucy and Sam in How Much of These Hills is Gold, where they might “hear on the wind…something like and unlike an echo, coming from before or behind”—the sound of a familiar voice “calling your name.”