Roger Ebert called Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991) “angry and romantic,” which sold me immediately, because that pretty much describes me. And, of course, due to my Chinese heritage, I had to finally watch this true story of a Chinese woman in the 1880s who was sold by her father to be married off in an Idaho gold-mining town. The film is based on an well-researched historical novel of the same name by Ruthanne Lum McCunn.
That storyline is fairly horrific, and while the movie isn’t too explicit, Rosalind Chao’s performance as Lalu is vivid and cutting enough to give you a good idea of how awful the experience might have been. It begins when she’s forced to leave her nomadic family life in northern China because her desperate father thinks the exchange will get enough grain to feed their drought-starved herd.
Then she’s shoved into a ship with a bunch of other women and transported to San Francisco, where she’s immediately sold to an unknown buyer. That was actually the better option — she could have been thrown into the dens or cribs where women were kept as slave-prostitutes. The ratio of Chinese immigrants was overwhelmingly male (going to the U.S. to work the gold mines or railroads), with very few females. White men generally did not allow Chinese men to fraternize with white women, and miscegenation laws prohibited interracial marriages in most West Coast states until the 1960s (lest you thought America’s racism was kept to the Old South!).
While Lalu escapes the worst fate, her buyer reveals what’s in store. He’s not to be her “husband” — he’s just the middleman sent to arrange the purchase. This guy, a somewhat assimilated Chinese fellow who lets the “white demons” call him Jim, takes Lalu via pack mule on a trek through the beautifully filmed Pacific Northwest. Even though she’s still hugely traumatized, she lets down her guard with Jim.
But it’s all going to hell when they arrive in town, and she’s given to her husband / owner, Hong King, a Chinese man who’s become very financially successful and runs the town’s saloon. His plan? Tart Lalu up, rename her “Polly,” and whore her out as a fancy exotic fuck to all the grubby miners, charging extra because she’s different than the rest of the town’s prostitutes. Lalu was kinda-sorta-maybe willing to go along and be Hong King’s husband, Confucian filial duty and all, plus being stuck in a strange country and not knowing anyone, but no way is she going to let those white demons have sex with her. She fights back and forces Hong King to accept her as wife-like-fuck and general housemaid.
She’s still trapped in America, understanding little English, and thinking that she’s been paid for and “owes” Hong King repayment. How she exerts her agency and gains personal freedom is an unusual story. There is romance, but it’s not quite the typical Hollywood cliche, and Lalu continues to pointedly refuse to use sex as a way out of her predicament. And apparently, this is historically accurate — the real Polly arrived in Warrens, Idaho, in 1872, and had was resourceful enough that she didn’t have any need to marry Charlie Bemis until 1894. Even then, it was probably a legality to help her stay in the U.S. after the Geary Act of 1892, which added restrictions to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (the first U.S. federal law passed banning a group of immigrants on the basis of race or nationality). The fictional Lalu / Polly, like the historical one, finds ways to earn her keep on her own terms, and she gain her independence.
Perhaps the most heart-rending scene to me — in a film that’s fairly gut-wrenching with all the sexism and racism — is when Lalu learns that it was not legal for her to be bought and sold in the United States and she should not be considered a slave. Guess who tells her? An African-American man, a former slave himself, who educates her about a little thing called the Civil War. Her new pal Charlie Bemis was a Yankee soldier in that war, but had neglected to mention the whole slavery-isn’t-legal issue when chatting up Lalu. At least she doesn’t let him get away with this condescending treatment.
Mirroring real history, the movie ends with the town kicking out the small Chinese population, similar to the “yellow peril” hysteria that lead to the Chinese Exclusion Act (which wasn’t repealed until 1943).
Costumes in Thousand Pieces of Gold
This isn’t a shiny costume drama, and the most stunning visuals are the landscapes, where Montana substitutes for the Idaho but sweeping mountain vistas abound. Still, the costumes here are accurate and relevant to ground the film, giving it a realistic depth that’s essential for this story.
Lalu starts in northern China, wearing the same traditional clothes through her passage to San Francisco and until she arrives in Idaho. Once there, the town’s leading prostitute Berthe dresses her up in a Western evening gown, doing her hair in a fancy style and loading on the makeup. Lalu hates this shit, although the outfit appears accurate for the 1880s, including full petticoats (you see them when she’s fighting) and either a boned bodice or a corset.
When she becomes essentially a housemaid, Lalu wears this one burgundy dress that I can’t figure out. It’s dumpy and nondescript, and I get that this serves the story because she wouldn’t want anything revealing or flashy, but it doesn’t even look like 1880s daywear. At the very end of the film, she’s briefly wearing a shirtwaist blouse and skirt which would have been perfectly historical and modest, so I don’t know why she’s not wearing that style throughout the whole film. At least the weird burgundy dress is appropriately stained and distressed — the textile effects team on this film gets a big thumbs up.
As Lalu beings to assert herself, she wears traditional Chinese clothes to work in. Given that she’s the only Chinese woman in town, the clothes would have to be men’s styles, which further emphasizes her independence.
Towards the end of the film, Lalu gets her own Western-style bustle gown, ironically to attend the Chinese New Year celebration. This time, she’s happy to wear the fashion as it’s more covered up and without makeup. She even has a proper hat and capelet. This outfit could be read as a sign of assimilation, except that it’s an aberration. She goes back and forth between Western and Chinese clothes, and by the end of the film, at least she’s doing it on her own terms. That’s really the point, and it’s what immigrants are sometimes forced to do.
While Thousand Pieces of Gold is not an easy film to watch, it’s rewarding due to an amazing performance by Rosalind Chao and a subtle screenplay that exposes issues in the past, holding them up so we can see how they compare with the sexism and racism of today. How much has America changed, how far have we come?