The ABP Journal
Fall 2006, Vol. 2 No. 1

Hellen Lee-Keller is Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literatures in the English Department at California State University, Sacramento. She is a contributor to the Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Literature. Her current research examines the ways in which late nineteenth-century narratives of upward economic and social mobility minimized and concealed racial, class, sexual, and gender struggles within the diverse transnational contexts of two major U.S. port cities: San Francisco and New Orleans.

[journal table of contents]


Underneath the macabre veneer
of "The Haunted Valley" lies Bierce’s radical politics that condemn the U.S. nation-building project built upon hypocritical Christian charity, racist
ideologies of white superiority,
and virulent anti-immigrant nativism.

Bierce uses this triangulated relationship among the two white men and Ah Wee to represent the ways in which white men projected their fears and anxieties regarding politics and labor onto Chinese immigrants.
Bierce shows us how racism and patriarchy are intertwined with religious chauvinism as a means to disguise the exploitation of racialized women's labor.
Bierce teases his readers by, on the one hand, portraying Dunfer and Gopher as not sexually drawn to or involved with a Chinese immigrant man, but a Chinese immigrant woman.  Yet, on the other hand, Bierce never actually clears up the mystery.


FEATURING AN AX-MURDER and a transgendered love-triangle, Ambrose Bierce in his short story "The Haunted Valley" (1871) launches a searing critique of the anti-Chinese sentiment circulating in California and across the U.S. during the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Complete with glittering eyes peering through knotholes, eerie and foreboding valleys, and disarmingly-lucid insane characters, Bierce's first published short story reads at a quick glance as though it were simply a ghostly tale.  Yet, underneath the macabre veneer lies Bierce’s radical politics that condemn the U.S. nation-building project built upon hypocritical Christian charity, racist ideologies of white superiority, and virulent anti-immigrant nativism.  Even though in his fiction Bierce was unable to escape entirely the prevailing influence of racist politics and religious chauvinism of his period, he nevertheless recognized and unequivocally criticized the contradictions of a civilizing mission that, among other things, purported to tame the wilderness of the western frontier. Through the story’s focus on a Janus-faced white politician’s obsession with—and murder of—a Chinese immigrant worker, Bierce makes clear that the discourse of "civilization" often disguised the violent subordination of feminized and racialized immigrant workers.

Bierce grounds the story with references to the highly-charged anti-Chinese sentiment alive during the period. For example, even though the story is ostensibly about three white men—a nameless narrator acting as the redactor of the recollections of Whiskey Jo. Dunfer, a local politician/saloonkeeper, and Gopher, Dunfer’s employee—the story itself hinges upon the one character who never speaks, has been murdered, and with whom all three are obsessed: the Chinese immigrant figure, Ah Wee.  Bierce consistently interweaves a critique of the growing anti-Chinese discourse that was gaining legitimacy through the relentless attacks of journalists such as Henry George and through the reincarnation of the Workingman's Party in the mid-1870s under the stewardship of Irish immigrant and labor rabble-rouser Dennis Kearney. [1]

Because the murder-love story is complex, I here provide a detailed summary.  The narrator tells the story in halves, based on two separate encounters that are spaced four years apart.  Peppered with Dunfer’s local-color dialect as well as the narrator’s own descriptions full of menace and mystery, the story partially unfolds in Dunfer’s saloon.  From the start, Dunfer clearly displays his animosity toward Chinese immigrants as he expounds to the narrator his antipathy for the "infernal yeller devils" (89) and "Chinagration," Chinese immigration (88). [2] Further, Dunfer intimates that he killed Ah Wee, whom he describes as "that miser'ble, pig-tail Mongolianer," because Ah Wee persisted in "hewin' away at the saplin's all round the stems, girdleways" rather than "on two sides, so’s to make ‘em fall right" (89).  In fear of Dunfer's fury at this vivid recollection of improperly felled trees, the narrator immediately takes his leave.  In the following scene, punctuating the middle of the tale, the narrator stumbles his way into a shadowy ravine, entombed with a "death chamber hush" (90).  In the midst of the valley, he finds the trees "hacked all round, in a most unwoodsman-like manner" (91) and nearby he discovers a well-tended grave, adorned with garden violets, and a rough-hewn tombstone that reads:

Aig unnone.  Wirkt last for Wisky Jo. 
This monment is ewrecked bi the saim to keep is menmerry grean
 an liquize a wornin to Slestials notter to take on ayres like Wites. 
Dammum! She wus a good eg. (91, emphasis added) [3]

Even though the narrator claims not to be surprised to find the grave itself, he is puzzled by "the ludicrous transition of gender and sentiment" (91) on the stone.  In the end, the narrator decides to ignore the mysterious fluidity of gender pronouns on the tombstone because finding out the truth might be "a pitiful anti-climax" (91) and quits the valley and the region altogether. It is only years later, when the narrator returns to the valley, that he learns from Gopher about the love triangle.  As the tombstone indicated, Ah Wee was not, in fact, a he, but rather a she, and Dunfer killed Ah Wee in a fit of jealous rage thinking that Ah Wee and Gopher were involved in a sexual relationship.  Ultimately, Dunfer, who had fallen in love with Ah Wee over the years, fell into despair when he realized what he had done, started drinking heavily again, and grew even more anti-Chinese. 

Bierce uses this triangulated relationship among the two white men and Ah Wee to represent the ways in which white men projected their fears and anxieties regarding politics and labor onto Chinese immigrants.  For example, Bierce's criticism of a race-baiting political agenda that manipulates Christian chauvinism appears through a soliloquy by Dunfer, locally known as a "very important personage in those parts" (88).  Bierce untangles the unholy trinity of religious, racist, and rhetorical underpinnings of early California politics when Dunfer says:

I didn't pan out well, them days: drank more'n wus good fur me, and hadn't no nice discriminatin' sense of my duty as a free W'ite citizen; so I got this pagan as a kind of cook, and turned off a Mexican woman—as nice a Greaser as ye ever seen.  But when I got religi'n, over at the Hill, and they talked of runnin' me fur the Legislater, my eyes wus opened.  But what wus I to do? If I made him sling his kit and mosey, somebody else'd take him, and mightn't treat him well.  What was I to do? What'd any Christian do, 'specially one new to the business? (89, emphasis original) [4]

By illustrating that Dunfer's understanding that the proper behavior of a "free, W'ite citizen" was based on a religious awakening, tied to advancing a political career, Bierce highlights the internal contradictions—charity vis á vis chauvinism—of calling upon Christian values in labor politics.  On the one hand, Dunfer's religious conversion makes clear that close contact with "pagans" is morally wrong, thus highlighting fears of contagion that permeated anti-Chinese sentiment and politics from the early 1850s—such as in the racist and inflammatory labor-organizing speeches of Kearney or the equally race-baiting economic jeremiads of George. [5]  On the other hand, if Dunfer fires Ah Wee, he fears that "somebody else'd take him, and mightn't treat him well."  Dunfer's fear is not merely based in grandiosity, that no one would treat the Chinese servant as well as he does; it also suggests Bierce's awareness of the violent hostilities aimed at Chinese immigrants.  Not only were Chinese immigrants run off their mining claims by European immigrants and native-born whites, they were also blamed as the cause for the recessions of the 1860s.  By the time "The Haunted Valley" appeared in print, white workers were unfairly displacing their justifiable anger toward growing monopolies onto racialized others, specifically the Chinese. This anger translated into action and, in turn, influenced local and national legislation being passed to restrict the immigration of Chinese laborers.  By 1870, three municipal and state laws were passed in California specifically targeting the Chinese working population, especially women. [6]  By 1882, three federal laws would be passed that equally restricted or limited Chinese workers from entering the country. [7]

Chinese immigrant men and women were not the only ones onto whom the fears of white men and European immigrants would be displaced; as Bierce alludes to, in depicting the two cooks as Chinese and Mexican women, racialized women from many backgrounds suffered the brunt of labor politics that traded on racism and religious chauvinism.  Many women regardless of race or national origin during the first few decades of statehood in California found it difficult to find employment outside of sex work.  Since traditionally "feminine" labor, such as cooking, was performed by white men and laundering was often undertaken by Chinese immigrant men, women were generally left to scramble for the few jobs left. Some women were able to carve out a niche within this high-pressure economy by teaching grade school, running boarding houses, and some even by marrying. A number of women, however, worked in the extra-legal economy in brothels, either as sex workers or as service workers (i.e. cooks, launderers, housekeepers, etc.).

If white women found it difficult to secure any work, racialized women found the situation even more dire.  It is no accident that Dunfer's female cooks are a "Greaser," then a "pagan." [8]  Bierce would have been well aware that many whites were contemptuous of Mexican and Chinese women and consequently they would have only been able to find employment as cooks in the most morally dubious establishments, such as Dunfer's saloon.  In the facile exchange of one racialized woman for another, Bierce illustrates the ways in which notions of whiteness and gender normativity were interrelated and alternately emphasized racial or ethnic particularities at certain moments—"Greaser" as opposed to "pagan"—but downplayed them at others as one racialized woman is easily substituted for the other.  Further, by juxtaposing an epithet focusing on race with one on religion, Bierce points out how racism and religious chauvinism are interconnected. For example, even though Dunfer proclaims that his first Mexican cook was "nice" and that Ah Wee needs protection, which can be read as different permutations of docility and subordination, the two women would never be able to attain True Womanhood because of the insurmountable obstacles of racial and ethnic difference. Ah Wee's path to True Womanhood is foreclosed because she is a pagan; as such, she is outside the parameters of Christian charity and piety.  The Mexican woman, with her Latin roots, would also be disqualified since she would probably be Catholic, which in the minds of many Protestants was the near equivalent to idol-worshipping pagans. [9]

If the juxtaposition of the terms "Greaser" and "pagan" are symbolic of the ways in which racialized women are demeaned as objects of ethnic or religious contempt, then Bierce also shows us how racism and patriarchy are intertwined with religious chauvinism as a politically expedient means to disguise the exploitation of racialized women's labor. Even though Dunfer invokes Christian charity by taking in Ah Wee for fear that someone else might mistreat him, this so-called charity actually provided Dunfer with very cheap, if not free, labor. Dunfer's reduction of the two racialized women to mere epithets—"pagan" and "Greaser"— might be interpreted as Bierce's criticism of the hypocrisy of a standard of Christian charity. By emphasizing Dunfer's bigotry in one breath and that Dunfer "got religion" as a means to forward a political career in another, Bierce exposes the ethnocentrism of Christianity that refuses to recognize the individuality or even the humanity of non-white women since one racialized working woman is so easily traded for another. Ultimately, Ah Wee's death acts as a symbolic removal of Chinese immigrant women from the U.S. entirely.  The removal, however, was not only symbolic, for within five years of the publication of the story, there would be exceedingly little tolerance for Chinese immigrant women in white US-American society; in 1875 Congress ratified the Page Law. [10]  In short, Bierce points out that political expediency outweighs any sense of integrity, racist or not.

Bierce's scorn at the hypocrisy and fluidity of political expediency is also apparent in his handling of Ah Wee's gender ambiguity.  Rather than settling on a solely masculine reading of Ah Wee's gender, I suggest that Bierce's purposeful use of the pronoun "he" in Dunfer's account of the story and "she" in Gopher's allows for multiple readings. That is, Asian Americans are frequently doubly disenfranchised as falling short in terms of fulfilling normative gender and class roles. [11]  This double disenfranchisement, both gendered and classed, is what makes Ah Wee's gender indecipherable. Ah Wee is legible as a man because Chinese working-class immigrant men were often seen as feminized through their association with domestic labor, and because Chinese immigrant women were purportedly hyper-sexual.  Given this logic, on the one hand, if Ah Wee did not exude sexuality then she could be perceived as de-feminized since she would fail to perform her prescribed role as seductress. Yet, on the other hand, Chinese men who performed domestic work were seen as de-masculinized; that is, Chinese men were not necessarily always feminized, but at times rendered gender neutral. Thus, the combination of designating Chinese immigrants as inherently deviant and illegible in terms of normative gender and sexuality allows for the gender masquerade, where men can pass for women, and women for men.

Accordingly, the obsession with the perceived sexual deviancy of Chinese immigrants, registered in the story as gender fluidity, allowed white U.S.-Americans to avoid confronting homosociality as well as homosexuality. [12]  Thus, the civilizing project here is not only to tame the deviant and disobedient Ah Wee, but also to domesticate Ah Wee’s perceived gender and sexual deviancy.  This domestication of deviancy is a heteronormative imperative since, as Bierce illustrates, the feminization of Chinese immigrant men creates a situation where white masculinity can express its homosexual desire.  At the very opening of the story, the narrator foreshadows this desire by describing Dunfer's abode as a "hermaphrodite habitation" (88). While this ambiguity of this structure is immediately clarified as "half residence and half groggery" (88)—his home is neither a residence nor business, but both—Bierce's choice of the term "hermaphrodite" stresses the incarnation of multiple sexualities within a single body and suggests multiple sexual desires of that body. This multiplicity of this desire is echoed and contained in Dunfer's final iteration of the feminine pronoun "she" on the tombstone that, then, operates as a domesticating device by circumscribing Dunfer's and Gopher's desire as heteronormative.  Bierce teases his readers by, on the one hand, portraying Dunfer and Gopher as not sexually drawn to or involved with a Chinese immigrant man, but a Chinese immigrant woman.  Yet, on the other hand, Bierce never actually clears up the mystery, thus the possibility remains.  In this way, Bierce underscores the potentially paradoxical outcomes of the civilizing project; specific civilizing discourses of racial hierarchies at times undermine the discourses of heteronormativity.

In closing, I am not trying to depict Bierce's politics anachronistically as I call attention to the radical nature of his politics.  Indeed, even in his critique, Bierce at times perpetuates the myths he contests.  By focusing on the gender ambiguity, he offers a sympathetic view of the Chinese immigrant woman and yet he still depicts her as a servant caught in a compromising sexual situation.  The narrator, Dunfer, and Gopher all accept that she is a servant without question, therefore inviting the reader to do the same.  Further, not one of them shows any qualms that she ended up in Dunfer's employ because she had been reduced to a commodity; as the story explains, she had been traded in a poker game.  The general composure regarding Ah Wee being reduced to the stakes that can be gambled away overshadows the conditions leading to the increasing numbers of Chinese immigrant women available for purchase, sale, or exchange.  Nevertheless, despite Bierce's moments of falling prey to racist and sexist stereotypes, I do not want to diminish the degree to which Bierce's politics were contextually radical.  In this sense, "The Haunted Valley" calls attention to the fact that radical politics have always existed in U.S. history, condemning the inequalities posed by bigotry regarding racial, gendered, and national differences.


I am grateful to Jake Mattox and Gabriela Nuñez for their assiduous readings and conscientious suggestions. I also thank Shelley Streeby for her careful guidance and mentoring over the years. And, finally, I thank the anonymous reader for a few key comments that helped strengthen and nuance my argument.

1. For an example of the negative press, see Henry George, "The Chinese in California," Racism, Dissent, and Asian Americans from 1850 to Present: A Documentary History, eds. Philip S. Foner and Daniel Rosenberg (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1869), 84-87.

2. All further citations will be from the original version, Ambrose Bierce, "The Haunted Valley," Overland Monthly 7.1 (1871): 88-95. While Bierce would later make changes to the story when he revised and reworked the body of his writings for his Collected Works (1909-1912), I cite from the original version of the story because his later edits would excise crucial phrases and passages that explicitly represent and reproduce the social tensions of a multi-racial and multi-ethnic California during the late nineteenth century. I address the specific changes when analyzing the passages under discussion. For the standardized version of the story, see Ambrose Bierce, “The Haunted Valley,” The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, ed. and comp. by Ernest Jerome Hopkins (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984); and Ambrose Bierce, The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, vol. 3 (New York: Gordian, 1966). For letters written by Bierce discussing the tedious process of editing and revising for the Collected Works, see Samuel Loveman, ed., Twenty-One Letters of Ambrose Bierce (Cleveland: George Kirk, 1922), 16, 17, 22, 27, 31; Bertha Clark Pope, The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, with a memoir by George Sterling (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1922), 150, 151.

3. My translation:  "AH WEE—CHINAMAN.  Age unknown.  Worked last for Whiskey Jo.  This monument is erected by the same to keep his memory green and likewise as a warning to Celestials not to take on airs like Whites. Damn ‘em!  She was a good egg."  Bierce updated and standardized this passage for volume 3 of his Collected Works (1910). In this later version, he made the slight changes that brought the spelling on the epitaph closer to standard spelling: "AH WEE—CHINAMAN. Age Unknown. Worked for Jo. Dunfer. This monument is erected by him to keep the Chink’s memory green. Likewise as a warning to Celestials not to take on airs. Devil take ‘em! She Was a Good Egg." I prefer the original version because we can see Bierce playing with local color, and, more importantly, his insistence upon Dunfer being unschooled. The reworking of the passage presents Dunfer as more educated—and possibly more credible—than in Bierce’s original representation of him.

4. My translation: "I didn't pan out well in those days: I drank more than was good for me, and I had no nice, discriminating sense of my duty as a free, white citizen; so I got this pagan [Chinese immigrant] as a kind of cook and turned off a Mexican woman—as nice a Greaser [Mexican] as you ever saw. But, when I got religion, over at the Hill, and they talked of running me for the Legislature, my eyes were opened. But what was I do? If I made him sling his kit and mosey [pack up his things and leave], somebody else might take him [in], and might not treat him well. What was I to do? What would any Christian do, especially one new to the business [religion]?" In the standardized version of this passage, Bierce excised the epithet "Greaser." The revised text simply reads: " … so I took that pagan in, as a kind of cook." By omitting the word Greaser, Bierce changes the tenor of racial hostilities from whites in California to be primarily anti-Chinese rather than directed at all non-white populations as the original version suggests.

5. These fears were not only related to religion and economics, but also to a rhetoric and logic of scientific discourse that was gaining prominence. For the ways in which these fears transferred and manifested into medical discourses, see Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). For examples of George’s jeremiads, see "What the Railroads Will Bring Us," Overland Monthly 1.4 (1868): 297-306.

6. In 1854, San Francisco passed Ordinance No. 546, "To Suppress Houses of Ill-Fame Within the City Limits," which selectively targeted Mexican and Chinese brothels in its application. See Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 31; Sucheng Chan, "The Exclusion of Chinese Women, 1870-1943," Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943, ed. Sucheng Chan (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 97. This was followed by an 1866 ordinance, "An Act for the Suppression of Chinese Houses of Ill-Fame," Yung, Unbound Feet, 32. This legislation, specifically targeting Chinese-American women, was successful in containing them within a designated area of the city. In 1870, the state passed a law that made it illegal to bring any Chinese women into the state of California without paperwork authenticating that they came willingly. See Yung, Unbound Feet, 32; Chan, "Exclusion," 97. This ordinance, "An Act to Prevent the Kidnapping and Importation of Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese Females for Criminal or Demoralizing Purposes," restricted the entry of Chinese women into the state by requiring them to undergo detailed and humiliating physical examinations. This law effectively curtailed immigration from China and from the rest of the U.S., since violations were determined at the discretion of the officials.  Eventually the California Supreme Court struck down the law since it was in direct violation of the Burlingame Treaty that the U.S. had signed with China in Washington, D.C., in July 1868. The treaty, which was named after Anson Burlingame, a political appointee of President Lincoln, declared that both the U.S. and China would grant most-favorable-nation status to the citizens of the other, authorizing unabridged rights to travel, work, trade, and immigrate. The restrictive laws in California, however, made clear the sentiments of the politically powerful in the state. See Robert G. Lee, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 89; Benson Tong, Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 60; Yung, Unbound Feet, 33.

7. The Federal 1875 Page Law forbade "the entry of Chinese, Japanese, and 'Mongolian' contract laborers, [and] women for the purpose of prostitution." See Chan, "Exclusion," 105. This law effectively excluded all but elite Chinese women and the wives of businessmen from entering the country.  Working-class women or women without male protection were considered prostitutes or easy prey to prostitution, thus were refused entry. In 1879, as anti-Chinese sentiment spilled over from Chinese women to all Chinese Americans, Congress passed the Fifteen Passenger Bill, which limited the number of Chinese passengers on any ship coming to the U.S. to fifteen. See Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 138. The final restriction was the enactment of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited the entry of both Chinese men and women except for the elite few who qualified for exempt status as merchants, scholars, diplomats, travelers, U.S. citizens and their wives. As these laws indicate, the solidification of class, gender, and racial formations that eventually coalesced around white, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian dominance was not a natural progression of a superior social group asserting its domination. Rather, it was a hard-fought struggle won through the displacement and disenfranchisement of and discrimination against numerous other social, ethnic, racial, and economic groups.

8. The epithet greaser has many negative connotations, which all serve to collapse significant intraracial and interethnic differences. As Shelley Streeby points out, the pejorative term greaser flattened the social and class hierarchies in California between the working classes and the elite Californios as well as the differences of national origin among the native-born Californians and immigrant Peruvians, Chileans, and Mexicans. See Shelley Streeby, American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 270. Judy Yung points out that Latin-American women who worked in the sex trade were ignominiously called greaseritas. See Yung, Unbound Feet, 31.

9. The understanding that Catholicism was idolatrous and dangerous was widespread among Protestants in the nineteenth century. Best-selling novels published in the late 1830s that sensationalized the sufferings of young women at the hands of nuns and priests were still widely circulating in the 1860s. See Nancy Lusignan Schultz, Veil of Fear: Nineteenth-Century Convent Tales by Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk (West Lafayette, Ind.: NotaBell Books, 1999). While it is widely thought that anti-Catholicism reached its apex in the early nineteenth century and was waning by the mid-century, Philip Jenkins argues that anti-Catholicism still held sway in the late-nineteenth century as a result of the rise in nativism and labor politics. As he points out, "for Protestants of the 1870s, Catholics were quite as aberrant as the stereotypical Moonies or Hare Krishnas of a later age" (29). See Philip Jenkins, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 28-29.

10. See footnotes 6 and 7.

11. As Lisa Lowe writes, "the history of racial formation of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans has always included a 'class formation' and a 'gender formation,'" Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996), 14.

12. For discussions of male/male bonds in relation to homosociality and homosexuality, see Susan Lee Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (New York: Norton, 2000); Lee, Orientals; Michael Davidson, "The Lady from Shanghai: California Orientalism and 'Guys Like Us,'" Western American Literature 35.4 (Winter 2001): 347-371.

Copyright © 2006 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.