The First Chinese Immigrant in America Was Constantly Dehumanized as a Circus Attraction

afong moy

Afong Moy was 16 years old when she arrived in New York City in 1834. The name, which was not her own, was given to her by Nathaniel and Frederick Carne, the traders who brought her stateside.

While not much is known of her early life, Moy is said to be born and raised by her “distinguished” parents in Canton City (now Guangzhou), China. She would later become the first Chinese person to receive wide public acclaim and national recognition in America.

According to “The Chinese Lady: Afong Moy in Early America” by historian Nancy E. Davis, her instant fame came soon after the Carne brothers exhibited her as “The Chinese Lady.”

The Chinese Lady with Little Feet

In the beginning, her exhibitions involved showcasing her clothing, her language and her shrunken feet. It became public knowledge that Moy had undergone the process of foot binding as a child.

For the price of 50 cents, viewers can watch her perform between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and then again from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. She gave her first performance at an exhibition hall at No. 8 Park Palace. Other venues she performed in include the American Museum, Peale’s Museum and the Brooklyn Institute.

In the advertisements, Moy was described as 19 years of age, 4 feet 10 inches in height, “dressed in her national costume,” with feet that were “but four inches in length.”

Davis’ book noted that the fascination over Moy bordered on the edge of “patrician Orientalism.” Her handlers took advantage of her perceived “exoticism, beauty, dignity, and revered history” to promote their goods. Her performances took her across the United States.

It was in the late 1830s when Moy became more of a spectacle than a promoter of goods. Her new handler P. T. Barnum, the master marketer of difference, often highlighted her “otherness” through her clothing, objects and images.

An Orientalist Presence

Her tours were given heavy press coverage. Her celebrity status rose to a point in which she met U.S. President Andrew Jackson. A year after moving to the U.S., a lithograph of Afong Moy, titled “The Chinese Lady” was published by New York firm Risso and Browne.

Not only was Afong Moy the first female Chinese immigrant to the U.S., but she also became the first Chinese woman to achieve fame throughout the nation. As the first Chinese woman many Americans got to interact with, Moy influenced their perceptions of Asian women and Chinese culture.  

Afong Moy’s popularity grew and waned amid great upheaval in American cultural and economic life, in which issues such as slavery, Native American removal, the moral reform movement and ambivalent attitudes toward women permeated in the population’s consciousness.

Promoted for her “orientalist presence” from 1834 to 1837, she was paraded to the public eye as a commodity earning both praise and ridicule from an audience who barely knew who she was or what she represented.

While she occasionally needed an interpreter, her language skills were reportedly enough for most audience interactions at the time. For her performances, she would demonstrate use of chopsticks or explain Chinese religious rituals on stage. 

The Chinese Stereotype

By the 1840s, public sentiment regarding China changed as the opening of four additional Chinese ports created new views of the country and its people. 

Afong Moy’s performances began receiving more and more negative commentary in the press. The American public developed stereotypical views of the Chinese as “backward, arbitrary, undemocratic, and sometimes cruel.”

Scientists and philosophers substantiated this idea by their classification and designation of “types” of people. Critics then began associated the racist characterizations of the Chinese with Afong Moy. 

Her bound feet and the customs she portrayed as a Chinese woman drew comparisons with what it meant to be an American woman. Her rituals drew criticisms from moral reformers and other Christians. 

The Chinese emperor’s absolute power and governance that she discusses in her performances became a dark contrast with “American republicanism and its emphasis on virtue, self-government, education, and self-control.” China’s culture was viewed as ancient and a complete opposite of America’s perceived progress.

Fleeting Fame

Soon after her exhibitions stopped, rumors began circulating that she had been discarded in New Jersey by her proprietor. Eventually, the county authorities of Monmouth, New Jersey boarded her in the local poorhouse.

She would return to the stage in the late 1840s after “a company of persons redeemed her, by defraying the expenses of her maintenance and giving security for the future.”

But her popularity waned and her last recorded exhibition was in the New York City Hotel in April 1850. It was unclear what happened to her afterward. In 1850, her records were already gone and Moy was not mentioned again in the newspapers.

While she was viewed by thousands or even more, what we know of her existence in America were sourced from 11 audience members who recorded commentaries in their diaries, poems, letters or scrapbooks.

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