The year was 1834. Indigenous communities were being displaced from their ancestral homelands on the forced march known as the Trail of Tears. Over two million people of African descent were enslaved. And America’s first model minority, Afong Moy, was imported to New York: a 14-year-old girl with bound feet, made to perform for the white public in a room decorated with teapots, vases, lanterns, paintings, and other goods put on display by her white owners to arouse white middle-class desire for exotic objects.
The Chinese Lady
Through 6/18: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Tue 6/14, 2 PM; no show Sat 5/14, 4 PM; distanced performances Thu 5/19 and Tue 6/14; open captions Fri 6/10 and Sat 6/11, 4 PM; audio description Fri 6/17; Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-281-8463, timelinetheatre.com, $42-$57 (student discount 35 percent; military, first responders, veterans, and their families $25).
This month and next, TimeLine Theatre closes its 25th anniversary season with the Chicago premiere of Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady (2018), directed by Helen Young, with Mi Kang in the role of Afong Moy and Glenn Obrero as her translator, Atung. Slated for production since a TimeLine reading of the play in January 2020, the story of the first documented Chinese woman in America has become painfully legible after two years of pandemic-exacerbated xenophobia, nationwide reflection on past and present racial inequities, and ongoing anti-Asian violence. In the recent past, the country has witnessed the shootings of eight people, including six Asian women, in Atlanta in March 2021, hate crimes against Asian elders across the country, and even a brutal attack on a dancer on his way to perform before the first preview of Ma-Yi Theater Company’s production of The Chinese Lady at the Public Theater in New York earlier this year. However, these incidents are not new—rather, they exhibit the same performance of fascination, derision, and obliteration enacted upon Afong Moy in the brevity of her known life.
“The history of Afong Moy was lost to us,” said Suh in an interview with TimeLine dramaturg Yiwen Wu. (Wu shared the full transcript with the Reader.) “She disappeared, she was forgotten, she was discarded . . . . Her absence is significant to our accounting of what it is to be human, to study history, [and] to examine history.”
Afong Moy was not her real name—nor was “Julia Foochee ching-chang king,” the name under which she was first advertised. Bought by traders Nathaniel and Frederick Carne, she was exhibited in fine clothing on an ornamental chair, sang songs in Chinese, demonstrated eating rice with chopsticks, and walked upon her four-inch feet—over and over again, for hours a day, before spectators who paid 25 cents to see her act. Though some Chinese men already lived and worked in America—and millions more would follow in the decades after to labor under inhumane conditions for inferior pay—Afong Moy was the first documented Chinese woman to come to America and, for thousands of white Americans, the first and only Asian person they would ever see.
No first-person account of her life remains, as Afong Moy could not read or write. Instead, we know of her today only through the eyes of others, in advertisements, in the newspaper, in journal entries, and in poems—all in English, a language she could not speak the first years of her life in America. One advertisement touts her “mild and engaging . . . manners” alongside her “ASTONISHING LITTLE FEET!” An 1834 writer raves about her “delicate figure” and calls her “a perfect little vixen.” Another describes her “quiet demeanor and imperturbable composure.” Another catalogues her anatomy, from her “high and protuberant” forehead, to her eyes “with the peculiar obliquity of the outer angle,” to her “yellow silk pantalets from beneath the ample folds of which peeped her tiny little feet.”
The Carne brothers toured Afong Moy across major cities of the United States: New York, New Haven, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, Richmond, Norfolk, Charleston, New Orleans, Boston—as well as to Cuba. Her feet were advertised and fetishized—a body part that symbolized a barbaric foreign custom to be feared and detested, as well as an erotic body modification. In Charleston, to her reported shame, her unbound feet were a spectacle presented to an ogling public; in Philadelphia, they were a medical curiosity examined by physicians.
When economic downturn blunted the white middle-class appetite for foreign luxury products in 1837, the Carnes evidently abandoned Afong Moy. She survived several hard years, coinciding with the first Opium War, allegedly in a New Jersey poorhouse. During this time, Eurocentric attitudes shifted from admiration and desire for China’s advanced technologies, refined commodities, and exoticism into the perception of an alien and enemy other, fueled by drug addiction and skirmishes over territory created by Europeans using opium to dominate the global market.
Afong Moy returned to the stage in 1848 among a menagerie of freaks shepherded by P.T. Barnum, “the master marketer of difference.” By this time able to speak English, Afong Moy began to talk back to an increasingly jeering public. The circus cast her aside in 1850, in favor of a younger, more docile woman, Pwan Yee Koo, a new “Chinese Belle.” Afong Moy had by this time spent over half her life in America in servitude to a vision of China created by white men. No record of her remains beyond this time.
“Afong Moy was a real person,” says Young. “She was brought to America by two American merchants who were looking for a live demo doll of the products they were trying to sell—products that were not necessarily authentically Chinese, though they were made by Chinese artisans. I first looked at this as an opportunity to share a Chinese story. As I looked at it more and more it is not a Chinese story—it’s an American story.”
“The tricky thing about this play is, because it’s set in a time when Chineseness was appropriated, how are we going to represent these stories onstage without appearing as if we don’t know anything about China?” says Wu. “That friction was always there for us: Do we do what they were imagining China to be like? Or what the real China was like in the time?”
Yet China and narratives about China are impossibly intertwined with the white gaze, just as, in white America, all Asians look and therefore are “Chinese”: alien, foreign, feared, fetishized, feminized, elevated, cheapened, dismissed, discarded, overlooked, excluded, presumed wealthy, bought for less, exploited, silenced, never enough, hypervisible, invisible—other.
“When other people use you as a way to look at themselves, your own reflection will become blurred and fractured. You may even start to hate that reflection. The image that Moy presented to white Americans about Chinese people (and by extension, all Asians) persists to this day: Quiet and submissive. Foreign and exotic. Dirty and diseased,” writes Diep Tran in an American Theatre article on The Chinese Lady. “Some of those stereotypes were unfairly placed upon Asian Americans. Other stereotypes were performed by Asian Americans as a means of survival.
“For so long, being Asian American meant privileging the American part of that descriptor, subsuming the Eastern parts of yourself for the Western parts, which were deemed superior. It meant separating yourself from your diasporic community, and their pressing concerns around poverty, incarceration, deportation, and healthcare, and entering the upper ladders of society, which were inevitably Western. You give away your community to ascend, and then wonder why there isn’t anyone who looks like you when you get to the top.”
But as the only ethnicity that was deliberately prohibited by law from immigration to the United States by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which was repealed in name in 1943 and in practice in 1965 with the elimination of quotas that limited Chinese immigrants to 105 visas annually); denied American citizenship until 1952; and is still omitted from most mainstream American narratives—including those on race—is it surprising that Asian Americans have internalized the message of exclusion to the point of diminishing and rejecting Asian and Asian American culture, in order to better perform the role of a proper “American”?
“It goes back to the exoticizing—it’s [white] society’s fault that Asian Americans feel they have to prove they’re American,” notes Wu, who is from Shanghai. “I was talking about the play in an Uber the other day. The driver was Chinese American. I was like, ‘Do you know how unusual it is to have an all-Asian cast?’ And he was like, ‘Girl, I think you’re doing a great job, but have you considered hiring a white actor? That way more people will come to see your show!’”
“The view of Asian immigrants as ‘sojourners’ and European immigrants as ‘settlers’ is both a mistaken notion and a widely held myth,” writes Ronald Takaki in Strangers from a Different Shore. “Coming here from Asia, many of America’s immigrants found they were not allowed to feel at home in the United States and even their grandchildren and great-grandchildren still find they are not viewed and accepted as Americans.”
This sense of homelessness, of loss of place and identity, is the core and the vacancy of the Asian American experience, which recognizes its distance from its presumed homeland yet is not recognized in this one. “I was born in Hong Kong but came here when I was one,” says Young. “I always feel I’m less than Chinese. It would be better if I could say I lived in Hong Kong until I was 15 and can speak Mandarin perfectly, but here I am in America. I have this feeling of inferiority.”
To be less than is the only possible conclusion from a cultural standpoint that expects to see the vastness of China—or even of all of Asia—contained and presented in a single human being. And to be less than is the only possible conclusion from a cultural standpoint that has reduced that vastness to bound feet, vases, chopsticks, and chop suey.
“What is happening is a performance. For my entire life is a performance. These words you hear are not my own. These clothes that I wear are not my own. This Room in which I am seated is intended to be representative of China, just as I am intended to be representative of The Chinese Lady: the first woman from the Orient to ever set foot in America, and yet this Room is unlike any room in China, and I am unlike any lady to ever live,” Afong Moy says in the first minutes of a play written by a contemporary Korean American man from Indianapolis.
“The characters should be played by Asian or Asian American performers,” writes Suh in his notes to the play. “They should speak in their natural and organic speaking voices . . . the characters should simply move the way the actors move.”