by Katherine Chou
Afong Moy was brought to New York City in 1834 at fourteen years old. She was the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States. Exhibited as “The Chinese Lady,” she performed an hourly demonstration of how she spoke, how she ate using chopsticks, and most sensationally, how she walked in her bound feet.
Afong was instantly met with the American public’s fascination. At the time, China was largely unknown, with all international trade flowing through a single port city, Canton (now Guangzhou). Most Chinese immigrants to the United States were bachelors seeking their fortunes in order to send money home to their families. A Chinese woman was an exotic rarity. Afong’s exhibition and subsequent tours around the country, including a meeting with President Andrew Jackson, were covered extensively in the press.
Over the years, American views of China shifted due to the Opium Wars, the opening of more ports to trade, and the perceived weakening of the country. By extension, Afong’s show fell out of popularity and was incorporated into P.T. Barnum’s sideshow empire. By 1850, Afong had dropped from historical record. We do not know if she ever returned to China, as was originally intended after two years, or if she spent the rest of her life in the United States.
The Chinese Lady highlights the ways in which history repeats itself and reminds us of what is at stake if we do not learn from our past. Chinese immigrants of Afong’s time were used as cheap labor. They farmed land, mined, and built the Transcontinental Railroad, but were never truly welcomed as Americans. Eventually, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act banned immigration from China outright. Afong herself was only ever allowed to be an object of curiosity to be gawked at and othered.
These experiences resonate through time to the present day. What is currently happening with immigration and xenophobia in this country is not new. This play raises important, evergreen questions about how we determine “value” in our fellow human beings, how we police entry into certain spaces, and how men in power build infrastructures to disenfranchise others. The Chinese Lady was a product of her time, as we are a product of ours. This play, the story of her life on display, is a space – a Room – where the two can meet.
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