It requires an inventive streak to write extensively of a person whose known biography might only fill a few pages. This is the long shot taken in The Chinese Lady: Afong Moy in Early America, by historian Nancy E Davis, who refers to her as “the first Chinese woman to arrive in America.”
Davis’s ambition pays off. She augments scant available material about Afong Moy, who was brought to the United States as a “cultural prop” to help sell Chinese goods, by painting in the negative space around her. While keeping Afong Moy in sight, Davis branches off to detail, among other topics, the foundation of US-China trade and cultural ties, beginnings of China’s manufacturing industry, and transformation of 19th-century American society.
Moy was viewed by thousands of people.
Afong Moy, who arrived in New York in October 1834, has a documented history in the country spanning 17 years, the middle half of which were spent in relative obscurity in a poorhouse in New Jersey. Davis divides Moy’s public life into two acts; first, she was an exotic “presenter” of Chinese-made goods and later, after an absence from a leering public—fallout from the economic Panic of 1837 made her an expendable luxury—she became a sideshow attraction from the late 1840s, mainly under the devices of PT Barnum. There are no known photographs of Afong Moy, no reliable idea about how she felt about her experiences in America, and no record of her at all after 1850.
The merchants who brought her over from in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou (it seems that “money likely changed hands”) played up her “exoticism”—her bound feet, clothing, and accessories—to promote the “authenticity” of Chinese imports. She was taken on a thousand-mile tour from New York to New Orleans, with a stop in Cuba, posing on stages alongside Chinese wares for sale. Moy was viewed by thousands of people, most of whom paid a small fee to lay their eyes on a Chinese woman for the first time. Of the exposure she endured, Davis writes that
her race provided an occasion for ridicule, jingoism, religious proselytizing, and paternalistic control.
A major strength of Davis’s book is its archeological flourishes, which befit her lifelong work as a museum historian. The text is enriched by observations about Afong Moy that have been scavenged, dusted off, and placed in context. These are sourced from personal memoirs and letters, publicity flyers, advertising broadsides, newspaper pieces, poems and fiction, and shipping records.
For a springboard to various topics, Davis frequently references a lithograph printed to advertise Afong Moy’s earliest “demonstrations”. The image most often associated with Moy (it is unknown whether it is an actual likeness) depicts her in Chinese dress and surrounded by vases, chairs, textiles, and other products. The items displayed—like many Chinese goods manufactured today for foreign markets—were mass-produced, often knocked-off from European designs, and marked up in price for an American middle class eager to reap the rewards of expanding trade with China.
Not everyone was game to gawk, repulsed by what they regarded as a crass commercial venture.
While no solid impressions survive on how Afong Moy herself felt about being objectified, there are hints. Davis writes that most disconcerting for her may have been “the attention paid to her by strange men in close proximity,” since women in China generally stayed out of public view. One business publication reported that “when some of them significantly ogled her through their quizzing glasses, we thought we saw on her brow, a frown of indignant rebuke.”
Not everyone was game to gawk at Afong Moy, feeling repulsed by what they regarded as a crass commercial venture that deprived her of dignity. An editorial in a New York City newspaper read:
We have not been to see Miss Afong Moy, the Chinese lady nor do we intend to perform that ceremony to convert a lady into an exhibition. [It is], by no means to our taste.
A young female who viewed Afong Moy also had a sympathetic take, writing in her diary that she “seems pained by walking,” and that “she is much to be pitied, she seemed very timid, and confused.”
Perhaps above all else, Afong Moy’s bound feet were an “exotic” feature of great curiosity and debate, even attracting doubts about their “veracity”; doctors measured her feet to confirm their length, and the press covered the “findings” of these “examinations”. These acts almost certainly mortified Afong Moy, who at times also revealed her nude feet for exhibition, likely having been, in one such instance, “compelled to sacrifice her sense of delicacy in consenting to the exposure.” Illustrations supposedly modeled on her uncovered feet circulated in American magazines, decades before photography and printing techniques had reached China, where such images would have been pornographic.
Racial and ethnic tensions in Afong Moy’s era resonate, depressingly, with American conditions today.
Afong Moy eventually began to “present” herself—still in a state of objectification but with perhaps deeper personal and cultural meaning and based on some of her own choices. Such events were, according to a newspaper in Rhode Island,
a better opportunity that we had ever had before been favored with, of learning something of the manners and customs connected with female life and fashions in the “Celestial Empire.”
By then, Afong Moy had gained confidence, and was able enough in English to communicate directly with audiences. She also sang, possibly the first performances in the United States of folk songs from her home province. Afong Moy also had emerged as something of a trendsetter; fashion plates depicted her “most becoming” hairstyle—stroked back from the forehead and knotted at the top of the head, a popular look widely adopted, especially by French women in New Orleans.
She met with President Andrew Jackson in February 1835.
Afong Moy’s last known chapter, unfortunately, relegated her to little more than a sensationalized caricature. From 1847, she was part of a sideshow, with PT Barnum pairing her with General Tom Thumb, his leading stage attraction, and joining her up with such figures as the Wonderful Monkey Man and the 430-pound Ohio Mammoth Girl. Her “differences” were mocked, and her personality was ridiculed. A pamphlet advertising her oddity remarked that her “habits, every-day occupations and pursuits” were “opposite to all the received notions of every other civilized nation on the face of the earth,” and portrayed her as “vain, conceited, prideful, and shallow.” Animus towards outsiders was beginning to grow, and “a disdainful and derisive attitude toward the Chinese” had become standard. By 1850, Afong Moy disappeared from Barnum’s spectacles, and she would be lost without further trace.
Racial and ethnic tensions in Afong Moy’s era resonate, depressingly, with American conditions today. The country she saw was gripped by nativism, as a fair chunk of Americans were wary of cultural and linguistic influences from overseas and advocated for tighter immigration and enfranchisement laws. Her commercial touring group missed by just weeks a race riot in Charleston, South Carolina. But differences in race were less uncomfortable and problematic where the population was not overwhelmingly Anglo; Afong Moy appears to have been treated with reserve and respect in New Orleans—by the French settlers—and in Cuba, where social decorum was valued.
Davis emphasizes that Afong Moy, with her singular uniqueness, served as a cultural bridge between China and the United States, including in private and among elites. She met with President Andrew Jackson in February 1835, becoming, in the author’s words, the “first concrete example of China to a sitting American president,” and was introduced to Vice President Martin Van Buren and other politicians and dignitaries. Neither mere curiosity nor happenstance alone can fully explain why these contacts were arranged; in part, they are a nod towards strengthening ties between China and the United States. Davis observes that the next encounter between a Chinese person and US president didn’t take place until 1868, and from then it would be twenty more years before an ambassador from China would be installed in Washington.
Davis’s book is a form of redress for a familiar injustice: the lives of the exploited, no matter how remarkable, rarely get remembered, much less told.
Those who wrote about Afong Moy rarely did more than judge her based on her differences from them. Still, the fact that Americans were moved to express thoughts about her indicated that the “Chinese Lady” had some effect on them. As Davis writes:
The theatre does not let us forget that questions of racial difference concern our most basic gut reactions, experiences, and sensations. Afong Moy experienced the white audience’s gaze, but she, in turn, gazed back. The gazing back, confronting passively or actively, was her significant contribution.
Davis’s book is a form of redress for a familiar injustice: the lives of the exploited, no matter how remarkable, rarely get remembered, much less told. Davis expresses hope that others can find out more about Afong Moy, particularly from when history seemingly lost track of her, which would bring the “Chinese Lady” into greater relief. If this happens, it would cast open wider a window into the treatment of women and racial minorities at tumultuous times in American history. And we might better grasp how attitudes and choices—about race, gender, culture, and economics—shaped that society, and in turn help us assess the direction the country is going in today.