Information about the first Chinese immigrants to the United States is generally difficult to acquire, due to the scarcity and unpredictability of finding reliable records. Most sources agree, though, that the earliest woman of Chinese descent to have ever set foot in the United States was Afong Moy.
She arrived in New York City in 1834, over a decade before the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived during the California Gold Rush, and had a career as a human exhibit. Moy’s short and enigmatic experience in America bore similarities to the human zoos that existed across the world, and formed part of the Western fascination with Asia during the late 19th century.
Many of the most basic details about Moy’s life remain unclear. Her dates and places of birth and death are unknown, and the name Afong Moy was crafted by Americans in order to make addressing her easier. She was found and brought to America by businessmen Nathaniel and Frederick Carne, who travelled to China to acquire goods to sell, and hit upon the idea of featuring a Chinese person as a lucrative show business opportunity. Moy hailed from Canton, or the city of Guangzhou in southern China, and her father was a “distinguished citizen”, suggesting that Moy’s family possessed some wealth. Moy’s father received a substantial payment in exchange for allowing his daughter to travel abroad, with the promise that she would return in approximately two years. Moy arrived on the ship Washington in New York harbour on October 17, 1834, and was described by the New York Daily-Advertiser as “a beautiful Chinese lady, called Juila Foochee ching-chang king, daughter of Hong wang-tzang tzee king. As she will see all who are disposed to pay twenty five cents. She will no doubt have many admirers.” The Carne brothers claimed that Moy was a Chinese princess, but there is no evidence to support this assertion.
Like Chang and Eng Bunker, the legendary Siamese twins, Moy gained a reputation as a figure of wonder, at whom the public paid money to marvel. Hardly any Asians were present in America at the time, and Moy astounded audiences by performing the most quotidian mundane tasks during her act. Visitors paid 50 cents to observe Moy, who sat in a room adorned with Chinese furniture and art. Moy debuted to crowds on November 6, 1834, and presented herself as living normally in a room while people watched her. She would eat rice with chopsticks, walk around on her bound feet, speak Chinese, and answer questions from the crowd through an interpreter. According to contemporary advertisements, Moy was nineteen years old, stood four feet and ten inches, and had bound feet that measured only four inches. The exhibit of “the Chinese Lady” attraction much attention in the press,
Showed off her bound feet
For over a decade, Moy performed in venues throughout New York and Boston, and some reports suggest that she visited other American cities as well, going as far as New Orleans and Philadelphia. She sang songs in Chinese, gave explanations of Chinese customs, and sometimes removed the bandages on her feet to show the audience their crushed and mutilated condition. During her career, she was a household name, met members of Congress and President Andrew Jackson, and gave visitors their first encounter with Chinese people and culture.
Moy toured the United States from 1834 until 1847, after which virtually no mention of her can be found. One source states that in September 1847, she departed for Europe to tour. Just as Moy’s career was winding down, Chinese immigrants, drawn by the prospect of finding gold in California, were sailing to the United States en masse. She never knew it, but Moy paved the way for other Chinese people to live and work in the United States.
Besides Moy, other Asians became celebrities simply by virtue of being there and looking different. The aforementioned Siamese twins became international celebrities and toured multiple countries, and eventually settled in North Carolina, where they became plantation owners and married local women. Tateishi Onojiro, a young Japanese samurai, was the youngest member of a Japanese delegation that visited New York City in 1860. He immediately became a social sensation, receiving marriage proposals and gregariously interacting with curious Americans, and even had a song written about him. These people represented the very first Asian immigrants in the United States, and generally enjoyed admiration and wonder from Americans. This was a marked contrast to the later persecution and bigotry that Asian immigrants endured.
Left a mystery behind
It is intriguing to imagine what Moy privately thought about moving to a new country, being surrounded and stared at by foreigners, and not recognizing the language and culture around her. The circumstances of Moy’s final years are a mystery, and it is not clear if she ever returned to China or remained in America. She left behind almost no personal written documents, and no information exists about where or when she died.
Moy was able to become a celebrity due to the total absence of Asians in America at the time, and from deep interest in Asian art featured in trends like chinoiserie and japonisme, along with the spread of human zoos. Much of Moy’s reputation rested on being thought of as a perpetual foreigner, with Asian culture as a whole seen as mutually exclusive from American culture. Sources of the time remarked on how strange it was to hear Moy speak English, and dismissed any notion that she or any Chinese people could ever become American. In spite of her exploitation, Moy is a pioneer and an unsung heroine for Chinese Americans, and much is owed to her.