In 1834, Afong Moy was brought from Guangzhou, China, to New York City to be a zoo animal.
She was the first Chinese woman in known history to immigrate to the United States of America, and the two merchants who brought her, Nathaniel and Frederick Carne, displayed her in a human zoo to promote their own business, which sold Chinese goods to Western customers interested in the “exotic East.”
Afong Moy’s story should be significant — something for American history to remember. And yet, as Lloyd Suh, the playwright behind The Chinese Lady, showing at Magic Theatre through Nov. 3, attempted to do more background research on her life, he couldn’t find much.
“There’s some news and mostly advertisements at the height of her popularity. But even then there’s nothing from her point of view,” Suh says. “There’s nothing that addresses her psychology, or how she felt about all of this.”
We know that Moy was displayed in a room filled with Chinese furniture so she could sing songs, use chopsticks, and show off her four-inch-long feet, which were small from foot-binding — something Westerners were obsessed with seeing. We know that Moy travelled the East Coast, visiting cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where she met President Andrew Jackson. We know about some aspects of her performances in a human zoo, but not much else.
“Why is there nothing there?” Suh asked himself. For Suh, the answer became immediately obvious.
“It’s because nobody cared,” Suh says. “Nobody asked. Nobody checked.”
To write The Chinese Lady, Suh had to reimagine what it must have been like “to perform one’s identity, to be aware of how others perceive it, and how much of that leads into your actual identity,” something that Suh says is a frequent conversation between him and other Asian-American theatrical peers.
Suh’s play is perhaps all psychology. The Chinese Lady consists of two characters — Moy and her translator Atung — and is structured around Moy’s internal thoughts, which she narrates to the audience directly. In The Chinese Lady, Moy tells theater-goers about her dreams for world peace, her ambitions to see the city of San Francisco, her confusion about her family and home.
Chinese-American history is also heavily featured in The Chinese Lady and its playbill, which showcases a full spread of major events in Chinese America.
“The pain of that, of knowing nobody cared, lined up with why I’m interested in Asian-American history to begin with,” Suh says. “Why isn’t it taught? Why wasn’t I taught that in my teens and 20s? Why isn’t it part of the American consciousness? Why isn’t it taught in schools? Oh, it’s because nobody cares.”
In the play itself, Afong Moy observes and grapples with the history around her — the Opium Wars, the Gold Rush, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Moy meets President Jackson just four years before the first Opium War. In the play, Moy expresses her dream for better international relations before the chaos happens, believing that she can play a role in world peace. “The Afong Moy that I was writing was so full of hope,” Suh says.
“I know that some of these stories are dark, and some of them are bleak,” Suh says. “I’m not interested in dwelling in pain. I don’t romanticize pain on any level.”
But one of Suh’s objectives is, perhaps, to look from the past to a new kind of future.
“When I think about the future of Asian-America — the present tense of Asian-America but also the future of Asian-America — a lot of that is recognizing that Asian-American history is not considered American history. It has not entered the American consciousness in a way that is palpable, in a way that is understood,” Suh says. “But it has to be in order for Asian America to feel like a part of the future of American consciousness.”
The Chinese Lady, through Nov. 3, at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D. $20-$75; 415-441-8822 or magictheatre.org