The world is so small these days that it’s hard to imagine being the first of your people to visit a foreign country that you’ve had no real contact with or know nothing about. But back in 1834, the idea of an Asian woman coming to America would have been akin to someone today visiting a newly discovered alien civilization on another planet. Yet, that’s what it must have felt like for Afong Moy whom history has recorded as the first Chinese (and most likely first “Oriental”) woman to set foot on U.S. soil. But the circumstances under which Moy became a pioneer was not the most pleasant one.
In 1832, American traders Nathaniel and Frederick Carne made their first trip to China. Up to that point, they had made their fortune importing items from France but realized there was an untapped market in the Orient they could exploit. Their search led them to China where they started to import fancy, but affordable Chinese goods that the growing American middle-class population could afford.
The Carne brothers were also showmen, always searching for ways to better market their business to the public. And they hit upon the ultimate marketing ploy when they decided to go one step farther and import a real live Chinese woman to America for the first time.
On October 17, 1834, the cargo ship Washington under the command of a Captain Obear sailed into New York harbor with a bevy of goods from the mysterious Orient including what the New York Daily-Advertiser described 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 first Chinese woman in America was not only exotic and regal (the supposed daughter of royalty) but she would be little more than a circus attraction; no better than an animal at a zoo that people would pay money to see. The Carne brothers changed her name to the easier-to-pronounce Afong Moy and rented an exhibition hall where the public could observe this strange woman with freakishly tiny (bound) feet. Newspapers described her as 19-years-old (though her age would fluctuate in different accounts), four feet ten inches tall, dressed in her “national costume” and with feet that were only four inches in length due to having worn “iron shoes” throughout her childhood.
Moy immediately became the talk of the town with newspapers reporting most likely fabricated details such as how she had “burst into a fit of laughter” upon seeing a left-handed person since such a thing didn’t exist in China to how the sound of a gun being fired at a rally scared her so much that she ran away.
The Carne brothers decorated the exhibit hall with artifacts and other items from China. They told reporters that they wanted to display Moy in her “natural environment,” but no doubt it wasn’t a coincidence that those were the very items they were importing from China to sell and that their business increased as a result of the popularity of the exhibition.
Moy went on display on November 6, 1834 and the public could see the Chinese woman from the hours of 10 AM-2 PM or 5 PM to 9 PM. Spectators witnessed such exotic things as Moy eating with chopsticks and speaking Chinese. There was even a Q & A session where people could ask her questions through an interpreter. Every few minutes she would be ordered to walk around the room with her bound feet.
Not everyone was impressed with the exhibit and recognized its exploitative nature. The New York Mirror published a full editorial explaining why it would not cover the exhibit: “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.”
Still, none of the newspapers, regardless of how sympathetic they were to her situation, bothered to interview Moy herself. I’ve searched to find more details about her life, but not much is known about who she was, her past history (the Carne brothers’ claims that she was a “Chinese princess” were most likely bogus) or even what her real name was.
How must she have felt to not only be the first Chinese woman in this strange land, but to have earned that title while being treated like a sideshow oddity? And this was also during a time when there were very few Asians in America at all, let alone women. The first big wave of Chinese immigrants didn’t arrive until the California Gold Rush and that was still 15 years in the future.
Not much more is known about her life in America either. According to records, she toured the United States between 1834-1847. The following advertisement from the July 9, 1836 issue of the New York Times suggests this appearance at Peale’s Museum would be her last: