‘Astonishing Little Feet’: Maegan Houang Reimagines the Story of the First Known Chinese Woman in the U.S.

When Maegan Houang first learned of Afong Moy’s story, “it felt like I was reading the origin story for how Asian American women are treated … and seen in our society,” Houang told Ms.

Celia Au as Afong Moy in Astonishing Little Feet. (Courtesy Maegan Houang)

Nearly two centuries ago, Afong Moy became the first documented Chinese woman to arrive in the U.S. Brought by American merchants for the purposes of advertising their Chinese import business, she was exhibited across the U.S., for white audiences to marvel at her language, clothes and “little feet.”

When director Maegan Houang first encountered Afong Moy’s story, she was struck by the parallels between Moy’s treatment, and the current treatment of Asian American women. “Asian American women are seen as commodities, and hyper-sexualized objects for consumption—that’s essentially what she was,” she told Ms.

In her short film Astonishing Little Feet, which premiered on Nowness Asia last month, Houang endeavors to unsettle viewers by highlighting these parallels—retelling Afong Moy’s story with an emphasis on her own perspective, while not shying away from the violent nature of her treatment. 

Houang sat down with Ms. to talk about why Afong Moy’s story matters, and the role of historical fiction in revealing the dark truths of humanity. 

Oliver Haug: What drew you to Afong Moy’s story, and made you want to retell her narrative?

Maegan Houang: I read about Afong Moy in The Making of Asian America by Erica Lee. I think she’s mentioned in just one line or two, but as soon as I read it, I felt this very strange affinity with her. It felt like I was reading the origin story for how Asian American women are treated in our society, or seen in our society.

Asian American women are seen as commodities, and hyper-sexualized objects for consumption—that’s essentially what she was. And as soon as I read that, I just had this deep longing. I wish I’d grown up knowing more about her and knowing more about her history. I just think we don’t learn anything about Asian American history.

That has a lot to do with our education system, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that most of our Asian parents are immigrants, and they themselves don’t know Asian American history. And so without knowing the history, we lack a lot of context for how we’re treated and our existence within this country.

Asian American women are seen as commodities, and hyper-sexualized objects for consumption—that’s essentially what she was.

Maegan Houang

Houang: I really do think if I had learned, growing up, that people were predisposed, due to many factors, to view me in such an objectifying way, I would have had a much easier time with the way I was treated and viewed as a young woman. And I would have understood that the treatment was not because of anything I did personally, but from a long history of systemic stereotyping and abuse. I really wanted to make this film because I wish I had had it when I was younger. 

Haug: I was interested in the role of Atung, the man who’s acting as a translator between Afong Moy and the white merchants—he’s being manipulated by these power systems, but then turns around and is inflicting violence on Afong Moy as well. Is his character based on a real person?

Houang: In real life, she did travel with a translator. His character is just a really tragic figure—he does try to push back against the other men to not do it, but he also has no choice, because they employ him, and there probably aren’t many other jobs for him to get. And at the end of the day, he’s just trying to survive.

I think a lot of times, it’s easier to have other people do your own dirty work for you—that’s what he also represents, to me. Maybe this is a bit of a leap for some people, but all of us in the United States want to have a really fancy computer like a MacBook, and yet it requires underpaid labor in another country for us to have it. It requires other people doing what we want, creating products that we so badly desire—and we can afford to keep them out of sight, out of mind. There’s just millions of examples like that.

Haug: Part of the film’s crux is this moment where Atung forcibly removes her shoe after the men ask to see her foot. What informed the choice to actually have him take her shoe off, and show her foot on camera?

Houang: To me, most people watching the movie actually also want to see her foot—I think that’s a really human instinct and desire, I think we’re all really voyeuristic. That’s what film is like: we watch horrific things unfold on film all the time, and we want it. I’m not passing that as a value judgment. I think that’s just like the way things are, it’s fine.

I just wrote a story that reflected to me the way in which identity is used in a commodity, in order for other people to make money—and also that those people who just want to make money actually tend to be quite banal.

Maegan Houang

Houang: I wanted the film to play with the fact that I do believe people watching the movie want to see her foot, but that getting to see your foot actually really makes you feel like shit, and makes you feel terrible, because it’s awful the way you get to see it. But it’s also a little bit of what you want—because we’re all more complicit in the system than we want to really believe or admit to ourselves. It doesn’t always feel good to get what you want. 

I also believe that it’s so important for us as people to be constantly aware and cognizant of the harm and pain we can inflict upon other people. The moment you think that you’re beyond that, the moment you think you’re not capable of doing that, is when you inflict the most harm.

Haug: What’s the story behind the group of white men, who she is essentially being sold to? Are they based on real historical figures?

Houang: Captain Obear was a real person who was partially responsible for bringing Afong Moy when she was between 14 and 18 to the United States. The other three men are kind of an amalgamation of my imagination of investors who are trying to decide if they want to, like, put money into this show to help sell goods.

(Courtesy Maegan Houang)

Houang: Astonishing Little Feet is fiction—I just wrote a story that reflected to me the way in which identity is used in a commodity, in order for other people to make money—and also that those people who just want to make money actually tend to be quite banal. Their interests are quite simple and human, which is to have a better life for themselves and their family. And that doesn’t make what they’re doing right, but I think that we also have to avoid cartoonish depictions of evil as well.

I’m trying to put in the themes and ideas of today, and interweave it into this fictitious narrative. The best historical fiction is a reflection of our contemporary society. 

Haug: What do you see as today’s parallels to Afong Moy’s narrative?

Houang: On an interpersonal level, it plays out in the way in which Asian American women or femmes can be treated in society today by a lot of different people, and how they’re seen. And then I also think the way in which we, as people in the United States, prioritize our own comfort and personal financial gain over the discomfort of other people, both within our country and outside our country, is also relevant. That’s what the history of imperialism is—going to other places to loot and steal resources for your own gain. I think in late stage capitalism, it’s always gonna be playing out, in different ways. 

And it’s not just us, it’s not just the United States. It’s the way in which our world operates, where we see other countries who are coming to rise behind us employing the same exact tactics, ultimately, of using people’s desire to make more money, to have better homes, to own better things, in order to keep funding the system at other people’s expense. We’re not unique, and we’re not uniquely evil as a country either—that’s really important to remember. Because even if the United States falls, there’ll just be another copycat of us afterward.

Haug: Are there any other stories that you want to tell—either historical stories, or more contemporary stories that you want to reinterpret? 

Houang: I have an idea to make Astonishing Little Feet into a feature film, but it’s not probably the way someone would expect. I don’t want to make a biopic about her life, because it’s really tragic, and I don’t really see how making a biopic would inform us of her existence properly. I do have an idea to make a film that cuts between like her life and a contemporary woman’s life, to really draw the parallels between what she faced, and how that impacts us today. 

I love worldbuilding, and I love going to a different place. Historical fiction really allows for that. The things that resonate most with me tend not to be things that happen right now in our lives—I almost feel a distance from our present reality, I think, in part because I live it. I often find that stories that are fantasy or genre or historical fiction, I can almost access those with more emotion. I think I’ll always be interested in things like that, that allow for more allegorical storytelling—that’s more what I find interesting as a filmmaker.

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Oliver Haug is a social media editor and podcast producer with Ms. magazine. They are also a freelance journalist, focusing on LGBTQ+ issues and sexual politics. Their writing has previously appeared in Bitch Magazine, VICE, them.us, the New York Times' newsletter "The Edit," and elsewhere. You can read more of their work at oliverhaug.contently.com, and follow them on Twitter @cohaug.