A Woman to Know: Afong Moy

Her beauty is of a soft and sleepy cast, as all Chinese beauty should be. — The New York Times

(image via New York Public Library Digital Collection)


When Afong Moy arrived in America in 1834, she entered a brocade-walled parlor room, decorated with Chinese tapestry and delicate bonsai trees — and there she'd sit, for nine hours a day, while American tourists paid to see her "in her natural environment." The exhibition hall, run by the avaricious Carne brothers, invited visitors to watch Afong eat with chopsticks or pace the room in her bound feet. She sat amongst Chinese trinkets and "artifacts," all for sale, of course, provided you met the Carne brothers' price.

The New York Times reviewed "The Chinese Lady" as a museum exhibit. The New York Advertiser declared "she will no doubt have many admirers." The New York Mirror published a full-page editorial decrying the show as "burdensome," writing that "the lovely creatures were made for anything but to be stared at." And yet despite all the press and paper, no one asked to interview Afong herself.

We don't know what happened to Afong at the end of her exhibition days. An advertisement for a curiosity museum suggests she toured with the Carne brothers for decades, visiting cities throughout the country, even meeting President Andrew Jackson. In 1850, Peale's Museum on Broadway hosted Afong's "farewell performance," promising "pains taken to gratify the curious, as to the manners and customs of these singular people."

Admission: 25 cents for adults, half-price for children.

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