SALEM — The 1909 murder of a young, white missionary within the Chinese community in New York City exemplifies how culture responds to crime in our country. The fourth Community Conversation of the year at The House of the Seven Gables takes a deeper look at this timely issue on Wednesday, July 19, at 6 p.m.
Professor Mary Lui of Yale University will lead what promises to be a thought-provoking discussion using the “Chinatown Trunk Mystery,” as it was called, to kick off the conversation. The murder of a young woman revealed widespread concerns about interracial social and sexual mixing during the Chinese Exclusion Era in the United States. Concerns about racial and sexual danger came to the fore. Professor Lui will also discuss how the murder case provoked far-reaching concerns about efforts to limit the social and physical mobility of Chinese immigrants and white working- and middle-class women. Finally, she will look at contemporary politics of race, gender and sexuality and how they shape our responses to immigrants living in the United States.
The Community Conversation series is free and open to the public. For more information about the event, please contact Settlement Programs Manager Ana Nuncio at 978-744-0991, ext. 105, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lui’s book, “The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City,” is based on the 1909 unsolved murder of Elsie Sigel. Her body was found, not in Chinatown, but in a trunk in a Midtown Manhattan apartment close to what is now Times Square. The primary suspects were two Chinese men, both of whom disappeared at the time of the murder. Police launched an extensive manhunt but the main suspect was never found. The case remains unsolved.
A key question for Lui was why this murder — one of many in Manhattan at the time — was sensationalized not just in the United States, but around the world. It was headline news for two weeks. Further, the murder was always associated with Chinatown, even though Sigel’s body was found in Midtown Manhattan – nowhere near Chinatown. “Something odd was happening,” says Lui. “My book is about understanding the Chinese — as racial others — during that era. You can really only understand the murder mystery via the concept of Chinese exclusion.”
Chinese exclusion began in 1882. The law was renewed every ten years until 1904 when the exclusion was extended into perpetuity. Chinese laborers were prohibited from entering the country. Groups like merchants, diplomats and scholars were given exempt status, but they still experienced intense interrogation at the borders. Even members of the royal family were detained. Chinese exclusion didn’t end until World War II.
Mary Lui is Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University. Her primary research interests include Asian American history, urban history, women and gender studies and public history. “The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City” was published by Princeton University Press in 2005. In 2007 Lui was co-winner of the best book prize for history from the Association of Asian American Studies. Lui is working on a new book titled, “Making Model Minorities: Asian Americans, Race, and Citizenship in Cold War America at Home and Abroad,” that examines the history of Asian American and U.S. cultural diplomacy in Asia in the early years of the Cold War.
About The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association
The mission of The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association is to preserve The Gables’ National Historic Landmark District status and leverage its power as an icon of American culture to engage diverse audiences and provide educational opportunities for the local immigrant community. For more information visit www.7gables.org.
During 2017, visitors to The House of the Seven Gables can explore the theme of life and labor over four centuries on the historic museum campus. Special programming includes an interactive exhibition, lectures, conversations and family programming. All programs are designed to share the history of work using The House of the Seven Gables as a model for both ordinary and extraordinary jobs.
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