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Afong May, the Chinese Lady

Afong Moy on the 21st century stage

“I wish I could have!” As an historian, I have often wished I could slip into the person I was researching and rewrite their story, especially one whose record is obscure and whose fate is unknown. It would have satisfied my sense of justice to put a fulfilling end to a challenging life rather than to record all the complicated details of their difficulties through the pursuit of pesky and elusive facts.

The story of Afong Moy, the first known Chinese woman on American soil, and the first Chinese person to come face to face with American audiences across the country, was such a case. Coming to America in 1834, her trials were unending as an unwilling sojourner traversing the country with bound feet. As I labored for years to pursue the historical details of her life, friends and colleagues tried to persuade me to fictionalize her story. They said it would have been so much easier to create a persona rather than track down all the interminable elements of her life deeply hidden in libraries and archives. 

But I could not. 

I could not abandon the complexity of the research on this person for whom I cared so much. My trade as a historian bound me to the facts and it was the only way I could tell Afong Moy’s story. And I could not deviate, because I lacked the skills of a playwright or novelist who could conceive and present her life in ways meaningful to such an audience. 

Yet some years ago acclaimed playwright Lloyd Suh found Afong Moy’s story compelling and creatively presented her life in a way I could not. Unaware of my research, he wrote a script based on what he knew of her life. Only as my book, The Chinese Lady: Afong Moy in Early America, came into print in 2019 did we realize that our work intersected. 

The play, The Chinese Lady, had already debuted in New York City in the fall of 2018, directed by Ralph Peña. Peña knew of the upcoming book and introduced me to Suh. After reading his script, I suggested some factual changes which he might include in later productions of the play, but I applauded the inventive agency he provided Afong Moy. 

What is less evident in the play, but emphasized in the book, is Afong Moy’s role in advertising the wares of American merchants, who traded in Chinese goods for the American market—her sole reason for coming to this country. For the first time, the burgeoning middle class was able to afford the vast array of consumer goods—floor and window coverings, comestibles, and toys— available from China. These products, as well as American and European objects, copied and reproduced in China at a lower cost, presaged today’s flood of “Made in China” at Walmart and other retail establishments across the land.

Many in the theatre’s audience might reflect upon their “coming to America” experience in the play. Since it is called The Chinese Lady without Afong Moy in the title, this could be the story of anyone who feels alienated and misunderstood in a new land. Based on reviews, this is how some people in the house do respond to the play. In contrast, the book with its subtitle indicates that it is solely focused on the experience of Afong Moy in early America. 

Suh provides his character of Afong Moy with a sense of intentionality. Though she has had no part in establishing herself in America, Suh grants her the role of pseudo missionary once she arrives. On stage, her duty to the audience is to promote understanding between peoples of difference. Historically, Afong Moy does present her differentness on stage—her bound feet, her clothing, and the chop sticks she employs—but the reality is that there is no indication that she considered her mission a promotion of audience understanding or appreciation of difference. 

In the historical record, Afong Moy was discarded by the merchants who brought her and eventually abandoned to play P. T. Barnum’s exotic on the same stage as the renowned Tom Thumb. Intriguing newspaper and diary accounts of the time record her reaction to these roles, and to her mistreatment, but sadly, her own voice is mostly silent. 

What was not silent in the historical record was how Americans responded to her and what that said about early nineteenth century racist attitudes toward China. News accounts, personal letters, and diaries commenting on Afong Moy document American’s first reflections on meeting a Chinese person. Afong Moy was the first Chinese to meet a United States President, Andrew Jackson. His appeal to her to return to China and rid the country of female foot binding is no less culturally tone-deaf than the expectations of today’s politicians that China might only thrive by following a Western model of political and economic development.

The play revolves around only two characters. Suh develops the second persona of Atung, Afong Moy’s on-stage Chinese translator, who in fact did serve in this capacity at the behest of Moy’s minders. We know little of Atung’s background, though in the book I speculate on the possible intriguing circumstances that brought him to the United States. The newspapers of the time effuse about the courtesies of “that very interesting and polished youth A’tung, whose handsome face, graceful manners, and Chinese dress, and well-spoken English, are of themselves a principal attraction.…A’tung moves about…. with all the grace of a gentleman and is at the same time an excellent cicerone to explain the different curiosities.” Although their relationship in the looplay is conflicted, surely his presence provided Afong Moy with some solace, and his departure after a year must have been wrenching. Unfortunately, neither recorded an account of their relationship. 

I was not able to establish her death date in the book, but Suh brilliantly projects Afong Moy forward in time, beyond her reasonable death. In this way she can address all the challenging moments of oppression experienced by Asians in America from the brutalities during the western Gold Rush to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Bringing her into the more immediate past allows the audience to confront current immigration issues and to grasp the historical comparatives. 

Hopefully, the book sets that stage.

Featured image by Gwen King on Unsplash 

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