The First Chinese Lady8 min read

Andrew Singer on Afong Moy, China’s first female immigrant to the US

Afong Moy is generally accepted as the first Chinese woman to arrive in America, when she stepped off a ship in New York City as a teenager in 1834. She lived there for 17 documented years, and most likely the remainder of her life, but wasn’t mentioned in historical sources after around 1850. A few sailors and itinerant Chinese men had previously traveled across the Pacific since the first decades after the American Revolution, but only a handful or two, and long before the influx of immigrants during the Californian gold rush of 1848. Back then, China was an exotic mystery imbued with Orientalist myths and easy stereotypes. Afong Moy was a living, breathing representative, and her life reveals much about the earliest Chinese treatment in America.

Moy’s story is told in Nancy E. Davis’ biography The Chinese Lady: Afong Moy in Early America. Davis weaves a flowing, well-researched narrative (including 42 pages of end notes and a ten-page bibliography) of this quasi-tragic character. However, it is the character of America and Americans, not China and the Chinese, which is most clearly revealed in these pages. Part of the reason is because, as the author notes, almost all of our knowledge of Afong Moy has to be pieced together from third party sources looking at, talking about, and interacting with her – not the other way around. As such, what we glean about this young woman, with a few significant exceptions, is the gloss placed on her by the American viewer. In the reflected rendering of a Chinese woman, we see the views, prejudices and goals of the commentators.

It is the character of America and Americans, not China and the Chinese, which is most clearly revealed in these pages”

Afong Moy’s origins in southern China and her final years in America are shrouded in mystery. Her name itself is one of the anglicized names given to her when she was brought, as a curiosity, to New York; her true Chinese name is unknown, as is her family background. The window we peer into is that of a touring personality, with an intervening stint as poorhouse castaway, immersed in an ascendant America. She was well traveled, on a loop taking her from New York down much of the East Coast, then over to Cuba, back to Florida, up the Mississippi, before returning to the northeast through the Midwest. She did not lead her own life, but rather was led – first by enterprising businessmen (Francis and Nathanial Carnes) and later by an influential showman (P.T. Barnum).

The Carnes Brothers, aided by Captain Benjamin Obear and his wife, Augusta, brought Afong Moy to America as part of their international business ventures. Their business at this time was importing boatloads of Chinese cargo for the growing masses of America. So why was this young woman with bound feet transported, possibly illegally, from Canton to an elaborate, “oriental” sitting room in a respectable New York City house? Simple. To help sell stuff.

Whether she was rented to the Carnes for one or two years (which appears to be the case) or sold, Afong Moy was purposed as the unwitting ancestor of the future carney shill – strategically placed to entice Americans to buy, buy, buy. What better way to sell something exotic than to pitch it with the exotic? The citizens of New York were invited into the showroom, bedazzled with the spectacle, enamored with the frill, and then scooped up the inventory positioned around Afong Moy, who sat elegantly in an elevated position commanding the room. The parties directing Afong Moy spared no expense in her accoutrements.

Globalism is a tarnished word in the early 21st century, but it has a long pedigree. In the early 19th century, the Carnes Brothers and other enterprising businessmen brought in products to the United States that Americans pined for, including fireworks and firecrackers, card cases made from sandalwood, lacquered furniture, and tea of a quality that no self-respecting Chinese person would deign to drink. More astutely, they came up with a business model that made them wealthy men, and which is still used to that purpose today. If they gathered items already in demand (silk shawls from Italy, carpets from Brussels, French perfume, London foodstuffs, the latest European pharmaceuticals), and had them reverse engineered and mass produced in a factory on the other side of the world in southern China, they realized there would be a ready market in America for attractive, low-cost substitutes. It did not matter that these were not the high-quality, elaborately crafted and designed objects desired by the elite. Instead, this was mass market merchandise – and it flew off the shelves. Appointing one’s home with these cheaper foreign products, then displaying them as a sign of status and refinement, was an instant hit.

In a precursor to the modern ‘Made in China’ inventory on the shelves of Walmart and other retailers, Davis adds:

“The Carneses imported other household goods from China that, surprisingly, were cheaper to bring in from afar than to obtain locally. These included washbasins, feather dusters, fly whisks, and baskets.”

However, Afong Moy’s use to her handlers (who changed over time) began to change not too long after her arrival. The exotic became odd, alien, frightful. At one early stop on her tour, they made Afong Moy unwrap her bound feet so that eminent doctors could gawk and confirm that they were indeed real; at another stop later in the journey she had to unwrap them for the audience directly. These were invasive violations of Chinese societal norms, not to mention the professed American notion of privacy. Glowing news accounts of Moy and her sojourn across the ocean soon became more outlandish to satisfy the shifting tastes of the American audience. Whether China was like what was written, or if Afong Moy held the beliefs and practiced the customs ascribed to her, was beyond the point. She was transitioning to spectacle. No longer just the pitch person to sell Chinese housewares, she was a “curiosity” to be viewed by a public searching to contrast their urbaneness with the outsider’s wild ways.

Afong Moy had to unwrap her bound feet for the audience, an invasive violation of Chinese societal norms”

America was in a delicate state during Afong Moy’s time, and she was presumably witness to many significant moments in US national history. She arrived in Florida in March 1836, during the tinderbox of the Second Seminole War after President Andrew Jackson ordered the native population to be removed to allow white settlers in. Shortly thereafter, she was in Cincinnati not long after white mobs rioted and attacked the black community in the pre-Civil War south. Once Moy left the limelight in the late 1830s, she was mostly abandoned as being no longer useful and put up in poorhouse accommodations in rural New Jersey. It was not a gentle process for her.

Afong Moy was briefly plucked from obscurity once again in the late 1840s by none other than showman P.T. Barnum himself. He incorporated her as a featured attraction into his variety show, with General Tom Thumb, an American dwarf (as they were then called) who was a performer in Barnum’s show, and other acts. In his marketing materials, Barnum intended to woo the ladies. In Davis’ words, “his invitations variously appealed to the traditional, genteel, parlor-dwelling ladies or to the unescorted, single women who would feel safe in a moral atmosphere of learning.” By the same token – or in scripted harmony with this intent – a pamphlet Barnum prepared for an 1849 tour “portrayed Afong Moy as vain, conceited, prideful and shallow. It noted that she ‘reads little or nothing, as a very limited degree of education is bestowed on women in China, a few accomplishments making up the sum total of their intellectual training.’”

The tide of immigration officially turned after around 1848, when more significant numbers of Chinese began emigrating to California seeking gold, then spreading to other States and territories. Laws began being enacted to limit the Chinese presence in America, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880. Long before this, however, Afong Moy’s renewed usefulness to P.T. Barnum and American society waned again, this time permanently. Afong Moy disappeared from public record after 1851 – but it is logical, as the author suggests, that this then middle-aged woman with bound feet never returned to her native land.

In reading The Chinese Lady, it began gnawing at me that telling Afong Moy’s tale required so much conjecture and reference to others who documented her life through their eyes. I realized that the heart of the story is not just the Chinese visitor to America, but its reflection of the early attitudes, prejudices and development of the United States. ∎

Nancy E. Davis, The Chinese Lady: Afong Moy in Early America (Oxford UP, July 2019).
Header: A nineteenth century painting of Afong Moy, surrounded by ‘exotic’ Chinese items.