The First Chinese Women in the United States
In 1834, Nathaniel and Frederick Carne docked their boat, The Washington, in the New York Harbor. Inside was an assortment of “treasures” from China, including the nineteen year old “Julia Foochee Ching-chang king”, as she was called in the New-York Daily Advertiser. In the three weeks after her arrival, the Carne Brothers—traders by profession—successfully obtained an exhibition hall.
Before she even set foot on the stage, the New York Journal of Commerce wrote a description of the Chinese Lady’s encounter with a woman sewing with her left hand. They claimed that the Chinese Lady had never seen a left-handed person and as a result, “burst into an immediate fit of laughter”.
On November 6, 1834, the Carne Brothers ran their first ads announcing the exhibition of the Chinese Lady, whom they renamed Afong Moy. The ads offered this description: “she was nineteen years of age, four feet ten inches in height, dressed in her national costume, and her feet were but four inches in length, as a result of her having worn iron shoes throughout her childhood”. For the price of fifty cents, anyone could come and gaze upon Afong Moy between the hours of 10am and 2 pm, as well as 5pm to 9pm.
Viewers saw Afong Moy use chopsticks and speak in Chinese. In addition, an interpreter, a man named Atung, was in the room to help viewers communicate with Afong Moy. She remained seated throughout, save every few minutes when she was instructed by Atung to walk around the room to display her bound feet.
Although the general public was intrigued by Afong Moy, several reporters found the Carne's treatment to be cruel. One reporter, at “the sight of a woman so disabled in her physical structure, [was] inspired to pen a small diatribe against the cruel process to which she had been subjected”. The New-York Mirror issued a one-page editorial on why it refused to cover the exhibition, “We have not been to see Miss Afong Moy, the Chinese lady with the little feet; nor do we intend to perform that universal ceremony, unless we should find the notoriety which the non-performance must occasion inconveniently burdensome…The lovely creatures were made for anything but to be stared at, for half a dollar a head”. Although the editors seemed to feel that the exhibit was exploiting Afong Moy, they too objectified her as a cultural curiosity.
Little is known of Afong Moy’s fate after arriving in New York. There are conflicting sources regarding her exhibition and departure from the public eye. Apparently, she toured the U.S. for several years, between 1834 and 1847, performing along with other cultural “oddities”. The July 9, 1836 issue of the New York Times noted the last appearance of Afong Moy at the Peale’s Museum as a “farewell, prior to departing for her native country”. The ad claims that she had toured “nearly every City in the Union”, although other historical sources contend that she stayed primarily in New York and left for Boston sometime after 1847. 3