The First Chinese Lady

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.