Little known history chronicled in ‘The Chinese Lady’

Little is known about Afong Moy, who became the first Chinese woman to enter the United States.

Playwright Lloyd Suh elaborated on what is known to create “The Chinese Lady,” presented by the Magic Theatre.

The Carne brothers, who were in the trading business, brought 14-year-old Afong to New York City in 1834 to promote their effort to sell Chinese goods.

In the play, Afong (Rinabeth Apostol) is first seen seated after her translator, Atung (Will Dao), raises the gorgeous Chinese-patterned curtain surrounding a raised platform in Peale’s Museum.

Speaking to spectators who paid 25 cents (10 cents for children) to see her, Afong introduces herself. She then describes how her feet were bound starting at age 4 and demonstrates walking.

Next come the use of chopsticks for eating and an explanation of tea’s importance in Chinese culture.

She concludes her appearance by saying how much she hopes “this may lead to greater understanding and goodwill between China and America, and between all the peoples of the world.”

Subsequent scenes show her at ages 16 and 17, the latter after a visit to Washington, D.C., where she met President Andrew Jackson, whom she calls Emperor Jackson. Atung translated, but not literally.

Scene 4 finds Atung alone in front of the closed curtain as he talks about, among other things, his dream that he is Afong’s lover. When he opens the curtain, it’s 1849, she’s 29 and wearing a new, more Americanized costume.

Next, in 1864, she’s 44. She says that P.T. Barnum has taken over and will replace her with a 14-year-old. She must go, but Atung will stay.

After that, Afong expresses regret that she didn’t do more to promote harmony and delivers a tour de force monologue covering the decades of mistreatment of Chinese people in the United States.

Finally, in 2019, she’s more optimistic, saying that if people “take the time to really look at each other … we might see … something true and real and wonderful.”

This play is almost endlessly fascinating thanks to Mina Morita’s sensitive direction of the two actors, who so skillfully create their characters.

The handsome set is by Jacquelyn Scott, while Abra Berman created the costumes, with special praise for Afong’s beautiful outfits.

Adding to the production are lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and sound by Sara Huddleston.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “The Chinese Lady” will continue through Nov. 3 at the Magic Theatre, third floor, Building D, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Photos by Jennifer Reiley

About the Author

Judy RichterJudy reviews San Francisco Bay Area theater and writes feature articles about activities of the Stanford women's basketball team and Fast Break Club. A longtime Bay Area journalist, she is retired from the San Francisco Chronicle, where she was a writer and copy editor.View all posts by Judy Richter →