Thousand Pieces of Gold opens in 1870 as soldiers enter a Chinese village and confiscate the villager’s sheep. That night, as 18-year-old Lalu Nathoy sleeps, her father gently places her among several other young women sleeping in the cart of a procurer of women. After a long and hideous journey across the Pacific, we see her standing humiliated on an auction block in San Francisco, Chinatown.
Jim Chao, a handsome young Chinese man dressed in Western clothing, pays $2500 for her and leads her out of the auction. Lalu believes this man is her new husband. But Jim tells her gruffly that he is merely delivering her to Hong King, a Chinese saloon owner in the remote Idaho mining town of Warren’s Diggins. Jim is deeply attracted to Lalu, and is tormented by his role of delivering her to Hong King. He fills her with his dream of earning a lot of money and living in luxury in his village in China.
Hong King treats Lalu with casual cruelty. He uses her as his concubine and plans to sell her favors to the miners in town. He re-names her Polly, negating her Chinese identity with a word. Lalu’s courage and determination carry her through this difficult time, and she is even grateful to be owned by a Chinese man rather than a white demon. Her period of indenture is made bearable by the dream she shares with Jim of returning to China.
Hong King and Charlie Bemis, a Connecticut Yankee and gambler who owns the saloon next door, are engaged in a business partnership that brings in Chinese miners to pan for gold. One night, Charlie gets lucky and wins Lalu from Hong King in a poker game. As Charlie’s slave, she cooks and cleans, but refuses to make love to him. She makes his life so miserable that Charlie finally throws her out.
Her first thought is to return to China, but the passage money is much more than she can afford. Anti-Chinese pressure is growing in the white community, and a movement is afoot to drive the Chinese out of Idaho. Lalu is determined to save the money she needs to get back to China, and with Charlie’s help she establishes and operates a boarding house to earn the money for her passage.
Once she has left his cabin, Charlie sorely misses Lalu. He beings courting her formally. Lalu has grown determined to return to China that she will not allow anything, not even Charlie’s love, to stand between her and that dream.
Jim Chao is killed in an accident with his pack train out on the trail, and Lalu’s hope of returning to China dies with him. The fifth of July is announced as the day after which all of Warrens’ Chinese much be gone. Lalu says no one asked her whether she wanted to come to this place, and decides no one is going to tell her to leave. She finds Charlie at the Fourth of July celebration and amid the fireworks, Polly asks Charlie to marry her.
An epilogue tells us that Polly and Charlie married and spent the rest of their lives homesteading on the Salmon River.
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