Afong Moy

Gabi Kim

The first known Asian woman in America, Afong Moy, arrived in 1834 with merchant brothers Francis and Nathaniel Carnes. The two believed that bringing a Chinese woman back from their travels to the East could help increase the sales of cheap and “exotic” goods in America. Because Moy was used as a proxy to increase sales of these arguably superfluous goods, she can be understood through the concept of ornamentalism. Anne Anlin Cheng uses this term to describe how Asian femininity blurs the lines between human and object. She writes, “At the most basic level, ornamentalism, with its almost homophonic echo of Orientalism, names for me the critically conjoined presences of the oriental, the feminine, and the decorative.”[1] In other words, Asian women have often been commodified, fetishized, and presented to the American public in culturally unspecific ways, feeding into the Orientalist perceptions of the East as foreign, other, and exotic. This ornamental view of Chinese women, typically occurring alongside the buying and selling of Chinese goods, encapsulates the ways in which Moy was regarded. Her humanity was obscured when people treated her as a spectacle, especially viewing her bound feet as a strange yet cute form of entertainment. While the word “cute” did not assume its present definition until the late nineteenth century, analyzing Moy from a cute and ornamental perspective can provide insight into how, from the beginning of Asian women’s presence in America, the humanity of Asian women has been obscured as they were commodified and Orientalized by their white spectators. 

Figure 1. “Afong Moy: The Chinese Lady.” From Anne Anlin Cheng, “Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman,” Critical Inquiry 44, no. 3 (Spring 2018): 418.

Moy’s desirability in the U.S. can be attached to her distinct bound feet. Beginning as a Han Chinese tradition, the practice of footbinding would artificially impede the natural growth of a young woman’s feet to make them small.[2] The painful practice likely started during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China.[3] While the origin of footbinding is unknown, it is generally agreed upon that the practice began with the upper class as a symbol of wealth that trickled down to the other lower classes. Moy’s parents were presumably wealthy, as she required a special caretaker to tend to her feet. While the Carnes and Moy herself did not explicitly say why her middle-class family would give up their daughter, historian Nancy Davis conjectures, “Afong Moy’s status as the daughter of a local merchant or a comprador, a middleman who assisted foreign merchants in their households or in their business, is the most likely explanation of her background.”[4] It may be assumed that Moy’s parents were cruel and unusual for “selling” their daughter to strange Americans, but Davis notes that the rice scarcity and mass starvation from 1833-1834 in Guangzhou may have caused her family to surrender their daughter.[5] Moy’s family may have needed money to survive this difficult time, leading her to join the Carnes in an act of filial piety. 

While the events that led to Moy’s presence in the U.S. remain unclear, her bound feet drew significant attention from white American spectators. Moy’s desirability as an “exotic” woman from China with bound feet points to the obfuscation of her humanity as she was ornamentalized, fetishized, and commodified. In probably one of her most famous depictions, Moy sits in a chair among various Chinese goods (see Figure 1). This cute, “Oriental” lady fascinated the American audience, who was perplexed by her small and strange bound feet. Cheng describes Moy as a woman whose allure was not her body but the way she functioned as an ornament: “The Chinese Lady, offered a scopic pleasure that centered on her textual thickness: her material, synthetic affinities. Her appeal does not derive from her naked flesh but from her decorative (and projected ontological) sameness to the silk, damask, mahogany, and ceramics alongside which she sits.”[6] She was perceived as a commodity by the white audience that would gather to consume the “Oriental” and “exotic” qualities of a racial other in the early American landscape. 

This rendering of a person as an object can be further observed in how Moy was used as a mechanism for entertainment. At the time, people would not have described her feet as cute because the word was not colloquially used until the late nineteenth century. However, using a cute framework can allow for a better understanding of how the cuteness attributed to Asian women did not suddenly arise in the contemporary period, but carries particular historical attachments. In American culture, people of color have commonly been used as a source of entertainment and a means by which white people are able to feel a sense of power over what they might consider cute. Lori Merish explicates the historical commodification of cuteness in freak shows, claiming that cuteness is deeply connected to issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. In a discussion surrounding the cuteness and freakishness of a person like Tom Thumb, a so-called “midget,”[7] Merish describes the way Thumb was popularly considered to be amusing because of his performed American wedding in 1863.[8] He was cute due to his small stature but was also considered a freak for the same reason. Merish describes the wedding as an example of the “freak” being domesticated and familiarized with the sacred familial structure through the heteronormative wedding.[9] In a similar way, Moy was spectacularized and objectified when she was simultaneously adored and exoticized by her viewers. People were intrigued by her small and cute feet, and they may have found it cute when she hobbled on stage due to her limited mobility and evident helplessness. Moreover, Moy was seen as endearing since she was displaying the coveted homeware and other domestic goods to her audience from whom the Carnes hoped to profit. Both Thumb and Moy exemplify the early American entertainment form of viewing marginalized groups, such as disabled people and people of color, as cute and freakish. Later in their careers, the two even traveled together in showman P. T. Barnum’s entourage.[10

Part of the reason cuteness elicits such polarizing feelings of cuteness and freakishness can be understood through the word’s etymology. Sianne Ngai writes, “The word acute means coming to a sharp edge or point... So cute exemplifies a situation in which making a word smaller, more compact, or more cute results in an uncanny reversal, changing its meaning into its exact opposite.”[11] Disabled people are often viewed as cute but uncanny because they may look different from what is societally conceptualized as normal. The spectacularization of people like Thumb and Moy into forms of entertainment obscure their humanity and ornamentalize their personhood. By commodifying, selling, and consuming the otherness and cuteness of the two figures, American viewers could feel a sense of power over the subjects from whom they were trying to receive entertainment. 

Moy’s lack of ability to speak English when she first came to America, her bound feet, and being rendered an ornament to the spectators of her performance contained her into an essentialized version of an “exotic” and “Oriental” woman. Writing about the U.S.-Japan doll exchange that occurred half a century after Moy’s performances, Erica Kanesaka describes the dolls American missionaries brought to Japanese girls in the early twentieth century. Kanesaka states that the dolls represented “a type of containment, enabling Americans to experience Japan as merely a diorama of ‘beautiful things’ that ‘sit still’ — that is, of dolls.”[12] This concept of containing Asian culture into what white people curated and codified as “Oriental” shows how such depictions of Asian womanhood likely led white Americans to essentialize, other, and ornamentalize Asian women into a culturally unspecific Asian aesthetic. Moy’s performance was a way to contain the Chinese culture into what her white American managers wanted her to perform to her audience, and her feet being observed without any cultural understanding of the practice is a prime example of the ways in which she was a contained representative of China. 

Figure 2. Gwen Staffani’s Harajuku Lovers Fragrance Collection. From Jesa Marie Calaor, “Gwen Stafani: ‘I Said, My God, I’m Japanese,’” Allure, January 10, 2023. 

Moy’s legacy can still be connected to the usage of Asian women as objects to increase sales, as in the recent instance of singer Gwen Stefani. In the early 2000s, Stefani had used an entourage of Japanese women as props during her performances, partially as a means to increase the sale of her cute Harajuku perfume bottles (see Figure 2). In 2023, the singer claimed, “‘My God, I’m Japanese and I didn’t know it,’”[13] despite her clearly white status. The seductive undertones of the cute perfume bottle combined with the dehumanization of Japanese women as props to sell Stefani’s products are just one example of the ongoing commodification, sexualization, and ornamentalization of Asian women under the guise of an innocent, cute appreciation for Asian culture. Perhaps the study of early Asian women’s presence from a cute perspective offers increased awareness of historical perceptions that linger in the modern era. 

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Anne Anlin Cheng, “Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman,” Critical Inquiry 44, no. 3 (Spring 2018): 429. 

[2] Alison R. Drucker, “The Influence of Western Women on the Anti-Footbinding Movement 1840-1911,” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 8, no. 3 (1981): 179. 

[3] Drucker, “The Influence of Western Women,” 179. 

[4] Nancy Davis, The Chinese Lady: Afong Moy in Early America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 41. 

[5] Davis, The Chinese Lady, 41. 

[6] Cheng, “Ornamentalism,” 416. 

[7] This term is often considered to be outdated, pejorative, and offensive.

[8] Lori Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple,” in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 194. 

[9] Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics,” 194. 

[10] Davis, The Chinese Lady, 4.

[11] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 830.

[12] Erica Kanesaka Kalnay, “Yellow Peril, Oriental Plaything: Asian Exclusion and the 1927 U.S.-Japan Doll Exchange,” Journal of Asian American Studies 23, no. 1 (2020): 109.

[13] Jesa Marie Calaor, “Gwen Stafani: ‘I Said, My God, I’m Japanese,’” Allure, January 10, 2023,