Noe Valley Voice November 2004

This 'n' That

By Laura McHale Holland

The ancestors of most Noe Valleyans were nowhere near the American colonies at the time of the first Thanksgiving. For the most part, our forbears toiled on other continents, leaving barely a trace behind when they emigrated from their homes. And we know a mere fraction of what they experienced personally once they got here.

Yet every so often, someone leaves footprints that capture the attention of a writer--a writer who is willing to combine imagination and research to bring them back to life on the page. In her award-winning biographical novel Thousand Pieces of Gold, Castro Street author Ruthanne Lum McCunn did just that for Lalu Nathoy, a young Chinese woman whose father was forced by bandits to trade her for food when famine struck northern China in 1871.

Initially sold to a brothel, Nathoy was sold again to a slave merchant headed for America. In San Francisco, she was sold at auction to a saloonkeeper from Warrens, Idaho. He dubbed her Polly. Later her friend Charlie Bemis won her freedom in a poker game. In time, the two married. And Lalu Nathoy became known as Polly Bemis. The two homesteaded near the Salmon River, and their ranch was a haven of warmth and generosity for many throughout the region.

Thousand Pieces of Gold, first published in 1981, has just been reissued by Beacon Press. The new paperback edition contains an essay, "Reclaiming Polly Bemis: China's Daughter, Idaho's Legendary Pioneer."

"In the 21-plus years since the book was published, more information has surfaced about her life. I've also been asked so many questions about what is true and what is not true in the book, I wanted to share some of my research process with readers," McCunn reflects. "Also, in the time since the book was published, Lalu's final cabin has become a museum, and she is no longer buried in town, but by her cabin back near the Salmon River."

McCunn is of Chinese and Scottish descent and was raised in Hong Kong in a household of modest means.

"In those days, only hardback books were available. They were very expensive, and there were no public libraries in Hong Kong at that time. There was no television, and the radio just had two stations," McCunn recalls. "But there were professional storytellers who would come around, and my family members would tell stories, too. So I was very lucky to have that in my life.... After I came to America and the paperback revolution was in full swing, I went wild with books. But when I sit down to write, it's those voices and rhythms from my childhood that I hear in my head."

Thousand Pieces of Gold was McCunn's first novel. She was inspired to write while she was teaching in a bilingual program at Benjamin Franklin Middle School.

"This was in the mid-1970s, and my students were immigrant students," McCunn says. "I was researching the history of Chinese in America because there was nothing available in the schools at the time. I came across Lalu's story, and it resonated very deeply with me because on my mother's side of the family, the Chinese side, my great-grandmother had been sold into slavery at just about the same time as Lalu. I was also aware of the stereotypes of Chinese women here in America, and I wanted very much to write a story that would break the stereotypes, as Lalu certainly does."

The success of her first book enabled McCunn to become a full-time writer and lecturer. Her other books include The Moon Pearl (2000), Wooden Fish Songs (2000), Sole Survivor (1999), Chinese American Portraits (1996), and Pie-Biter (1998). She will be reading from her work on Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. at Notre Dame de Namur University, 1500 Ralston Avenue, in Belmont, Calif.


Another award-winner in the neighborhood is KFOG Program Director Dave Benson, who has been living in his "funky little home on Elizabeth Street" for three years.

KFOG just won the 2004 National Association of Broadcasters Marconi Radio Award for Rock Station of the Year. As program director, Benson is responsible for "whatever comes out of the speakers," so he deserves much of the credit.

"I think the award recognizes the good work done by many people over the 20 plus years of KFOG's service to the Bay Area. Since the very beginning, KFOG has tried to reflect the musical and social tastes of our audience," Benson notes. "Because we are a local radio station, in an area with such active and diverse cultural ideas, KFOG ends up being so much more than a corporate-clone radio machine. I think we won the award because our audience has made us something special."

Benson emphasizes that winning awards isn't his goal. However, it does give him the chance "to pause and realize how fortunate I am to work with a very special group of people at a job I thoroughly enjoy in one of the most unique cities in the world."


Another denizen who thoroughly enjoys her work is 25th Street remodeling expert Deborah Yacobellis. An engineer by training (material science), with a successful track record as a construction project manager for Williams Sonoma, she recently launched her own firm, Remodel Project Management.

Yacobellis helps clients who are renovating their homes find a contractor and materials, helps negotiate contracts, and then manages the project. This can mean everything from holding job site meetings to managing payment schedules. She also helps clients deal with thorny problems like when you open a wall and discover that none of the electrical work in your home is up to code.

"My dad is a contractor, and when I was growing up, my family owned about 30 apartments, which we remodeled and sold. When your dad's a contractor, it's in your blood, " she says, "and I really like residential work. How could you not love remodeling kitchens and bathrooms? It's all so exciting."

If she sounds like someone you'd like in your corner before you pull down any walls, give her a call at 595-8586.


That's all for November, folks. Please send us news of your personal milestones long before the tryptophane in your turkey makes you nod off on Thanksgiving Day. We're interested in everything from new babies to new ventures, book signings to academic honors.

Contact us by e-mailing thisnthat@ Or if it's more convenient, leave a message at 415-821-3324 or write the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez Street, San Francisco, CA 94114.