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‘Astonishing Little Toes’: Maegan Houang Reimagines the Story of the First Recognized Chinese language Lady within the U.S.


When Maegan Houang first realized of Afong Moy’s story, “it felt like I used to be studying the origin story for a way Asian American ladies are handled … and seen in our society,” Houang informed Ms.

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

Almost two centuries in the past, Afong Moy turned the primary documented Chinese language lady to reach within the U.S. Introduced by American retailers for the needs of promoting their Chinese language import enterprise, she was exhibited throughout the U.S., for white audiences to marvel at her language, garments and “little toes.”

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

In her brief movie Astonishing Little Toes, which premiered on Nowness Asia final month, Houang endeavors to unsettle viewers by highlighting these parallels—retelling Afong Moy’s story with an emphasis on her personal perspective, whereas not shying away from the violent nature of her remedy. 

Houang sat down with Ms. to speak about why Afong Moy’s story issues, and the position of historic fiction in revealing the darkish truths of humanity. 


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

Maegan Houang: I examine Afong Moy in The Making of Asian America by Erica Lee. I believe she’s talked about in only one line or two, however as quickly as I learn it, I felt this very unusual affinity along with her. It felt like I used to be studying the origin story for a way Asian American ladies are handled in our society, or seen in our society.

Asian American ladies are seen as commodities, and hyper-sexualized objects for consumption—that’s basically what she was. And as quickly as I learn that, I simply had this deep longing. I want I’d grown up realizing extra about her and realizing extra about her historical past. I simply suppose we don’t be taught something about Asian American historical past.

That has lots to do with our schooling system, but it surely additionally has lots to do with the truth that most of our Asian dad and mom are immigrants, and so they themselves don’t know Asian American historical past. And so with out realizing the historical past, we lack a whole lot of context for a way we’re handled and our existence inside this nation.

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

Maegan Houang

Houang: I actually do suppose if I had realized, rising up, that individuals have been predisposed, resulting from many elements, to view me in such an objectifying approach, I might have had a a lot simpler time with the way in which I used to be handled and seen as a younger lady. And I might have understood that the remedy was not due to something I did personally, however from a protracted historical past of systemic stereotyping and abuse. I actually needed to make this movie as a result of I want I had had it once I was youthful. 

Haug: I used to be within the position of Atung, the person who’s performing as a translator between Afong Moy and the white retailers—he’s being manipulated by these energy programs, however then turns round and is inflicting violence on Afong Moy as properly. Is his character primarily based on an actual particular person?

Houang: In actual life, she did journey with a translator. His character is only a actually tragic determine—he does attempt to push again towards the opposite males to not do it, however he additionally has no alternative, as a result of they make use of him, and there in all probability aren’t many different jobs for him to get. And on the finish of the day, he’s simply attempting to outlive.

I believe a whole lot of occasions, it’s simpler to produce other individuals do your personal soiled give you the results you want—that’s what he additionally represents, to me. Possibly it is a little bit of a leap for some individuals, however all of us in the US wish to have a very fancy pc like a MacBook, and but it requires underpaid labor in a foreign country for us to have it. It requires different individuals doing what we would like, creating merchandise that we so badly need—and we are able to afford to maintain them out of sight, out of thoughts. There’s simply hundreds of thousands of examples like that.

Haug: A part of the movie’s crux is that this second the place Atung forcibly removes her shoe after the boys ask to see her foot. What knowledgeable the selection to truly have him take her shoe off, and present her foot on digicam?

Houang: To me, most individuals watching the film truly additionally wish to see her foot—I believe that’s a very human intuition and need, I believe we’re all actually voyeuristic. That’s what movie is like: we watch horrific issues unfold on movie on a regular basis, and we would like it. I’m not passing that as a price judgment. I believe that’s identical to the way in which issues are, it’s high quality.

I simply wrote a narrative that mirrored to me the way in which by which id is utilized in a commodity, to ensure that different individuals to generate income—and likewise that these individuals who simply wish to generate income truly are typically fairly banal.

Maegan Houang

Houang: I needed the movie to play with the truth that I do consider individuals watching the film wish to see her foot, however that attending to see your foot truly actually makes you are feeling like shit, and makes you are feeling horrible, as a result of it’s terrible the way in which you get to see it. Nevertheless it’s additionally a bit little bit of what you need—as a result of we’re all extra complicit within the system than we wish to actually consider or admit to ourselves. It doesn’t all the time really feel good to get what you need. 

I additionally consider that it’s so vital for us as individuals to be continuously conscious and cognizant of the hurt and ache we are able to inflict upon different individuals. The second you suppose that you simply’re past that, the second you suppose you’re not able to doing that, is whenever you inflict probably the most hurt.

Haug: What’s the story behind the group of white males, who she is actually being bought to? Are they primarily based on actual historic figures?

Houang: Captain Obear was an actual one who was partially answerable for bringing Afong Moy when she was between 14 and 18 to the US. The opposite three males are type of an amalgamation of my creativeness of traders who’re attempting to determine in the event that they wish to, like, put cash into this present to assist promote items.

(Courtesy Maegan Houang)

Houang: Astonishing Little Toes is fiction—I simply wrote a narrative that mirrored to me the way in which by which id is utilized in a commodity, to ensure that different individuals to generate income—and likewise that these individuals who simply wish to generate income truly are typically fairly banal. Their pursuits are fairly easy and human, which is to have a greater life for themselves and their household. And that doesn’t make what they’re doing proper, however I believe that we additionally should keep away from cartoonish depictions of evil as properly.

I’m attempting to place within the themes and concepts of at present, and interweave it into this fictitious narrative. One of the best historic fiction is a mirrored image of our modern society. 

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

Houang: On an interpersonal stage, it performs out in the way in which by which Asian American ladies or femmes will be handled in society at present by a whole lot of totally different individuals, and the way they’re seen. After which I additionally suppose the way in which by which we, as individuals in the US, prioritize our personal consolation and private monetary acquire over the discomfort of different individuals, each inside our nation and out of doors our nation, can be related. That’s what the historical past of imperialism is—going to different locations to loot and steal sources in your personal acquire. I believe in late stage capitalism, it’s all the time gonna be taking part in out, in several methods. 

And it’s not simply us, it’s not simply the US. It’s the way in which by which our world operates, the place we see different nations who’re coming to rise behind us using the identical precise ways, finally, of utilizing individuals’s need to earn more money, to have higher properties, to personal higher issues, in an effort to maintain funding the system at different individuals’s expense. We’re not distinctive, and we’re not uniquely evil as a rustic both—that’s actually vital to recollect. As a result of even when the US falls, there’ll simply be one other copycat of us afterward.

Haug: Are there some other tales that you simply wish to inform—both historic tales, or extra modern tales that you simply wish to reinterpret? 

Houang: I’ve an thought to make Astonishing Little Toes right into a function movie, but it surely’s not in all probability the way in which somebody would count on. I don’t wish to make a biopic about her life, as a result of it’s actually tragic, and I don’t actually see how making a biopic would inform us of her existence correctly. I do have an thought to make a movie that cuts between like her life and a up to date lady’s life, to essentially draw the parallels between what she confronted, and the way that impacts us at present. 

I like worldbuilding, and I like going to a unique place. Historic fiction actually permits for that. The issues that resonate most with me have a tendency to not be issues that occur proper now in our lives—I virtually really feel a distance from our current actuality, I believe, partly as a result of I dwell it. I usually discover that tales which are fantasy or style or historic fiction, I can virtually entry these with extra emotion. I believe I’ll all the time be serious about issues like that, that permit for extra allegorical storytelling—that’s extra what I discover attention-grabbing as a filmmaker.

Up subsequent:

U.S. democracy is at a harmful inflection level—from the demise of abortion rights, to a scarcity of pay fairness and parental go away, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and assaults on trans well being. Left unchecked, these crises will result in wider gaps in political participation and illustration. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Modification, and centering the tales of these most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we’re redoubling our dedication for the following 50 years. In flip, we’d like your assist, Help Ms. at present with a donation—any quantity that’s significant to you. For as little as $5 every month, you’ll obtain the print journal together with our e-newsletters, motion alerts, and invites to Ms. Studios occasions and podcasts. We’re grateful in your loyalty and ferocity.



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