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The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City.

The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City. By Mary Ting Yi Lui (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. xiii plus 298 pp.).

Using an array of sources ranging from newspapers and tourist guidebooks to films, organizational reports, census data, court records, and illustrations, Mary Ting Yi Lui presents a fascinating deconstruction of the significance of the sensational murder mystery of nineteen-year-old Elsie Sigel against the backdrop of the broader history of the formation, development, and evolution of New York's Chinatown.

On June 18, 1909, the body of Sigel was found with a rope around her neck in a trunk in Leon Ling's apartment above a Chinese restaurant in New York City. Ling had been missing for close to a week before concern (not to mention the emanation of a discernibly foul odor from the room) prompted Ling's cousin, the proprietor of the restaurant, to call the police. To the surprise of Ling's cousin and the police officer, in the middle of the room was a large trunk inside of which was the body of a young woman. As police searched the crime scene, they found numerous love letters addressed to Ling from various American women. Once the body was identified, the police ascertained that the dead woman was responsible for thirty-five of the letters. Almost immediately, various press accounts emerged in the attempt to provide some explanation as to how it was that a respectable young woman of the middle class became romantically involved with a Chinese immigrant. Revelations about the romance between Sigel and Ling had shocked the public because of its inter-racial nature; even more scandalous was that the relationship had been a voluntary one. Contemporary popular representations had made the existence of inter-racial relationships more palatable by casting most of these white women to be either immigrant and/or poor, lured into these deviant relationships because of their opium addiction or their enslavement to material desires. That a young woman of Sigel's standing--middle class, respectable, the granddaughter of a socially prominent New Yorker--was involved in an inter-racial romance disrupted these predominant perceptions and contributed to the sensationalism of the case.

The public's intense fascination with the crime--as evidenced by front-page coverage in the daily press and in the mounting of an international manhunt--raises questions as to what it was about the case that resonated with the reading public. The press seemed less concerned with finding out the truth about what had happened than with framing the crime within a set of conventions that reaffirmed popular views on race, class, gender and sexuality. For Lui, what is significant is the process and motivation behind the drive to transform the Sigel murder into a morality tale highlighting the tensions and dangers of urban life, female mobility in the city, the role and efficacy of female missionary work, and the presence of Chinese immigrants.

Lui argues that the coverage of the case drew such negative public attention to existing inter-racial relationships and the permeability of social and spatial boundaries that the result was further restrictions on Chinese American mobility. Popular narratives had already constructed the image of Chinatown as full of hidden dangers replete with prostitution, gambling and opium dens; in the immediate aftermath of the murder, the police and anti-vice crusaders increased their efforts at rooting out these vices by targeting all white women inside, and scrutinizing all Chinese men outside, the borders of Chinatown. For both white women and Chinese men, the effect was further regulation of their behaviors and increased restrictions on their mobility. For white women, this came at a time of ongoing debates over the viability of domestic Chinese mission work, questions over women's roles in that effort, and Progressive-era reformers' attempts to define women and children as a distinct social class in need of special legal protection. The press's unsubstantiated identification of Sigel as a missionary worker served to help restrict white women's increasing presence in the public sphere and contributed to the challenges against female missionaries' claims to professional status. For Chinese men, the legal and extra-legal forms of policing, (in the forms of the exclusion laws as well as the heightened vigilance of the movement of all Chinese men during the manhunt for Ling,) contributed to the retreat into the safer space of a clearly demarcated ethnic community where their presence needed no explanation.

Rather than viewing Chinatown as the product of the innate desires of the Chinese immigrants to be with their fellow countrymen or as the by-product of exclusion laws, Lui challenges and complicates the existing historical narrative by broadening the scope of her investigation. Arguing against the conceptualization of Chinatowns as insular bachelor societies, Lui posits that the making of ethnically-homogeneous community was the result of active efforts by the police, social reformers, and journalists to map out the boundaries of a space that they could more effectively contain for the purposes of regulating the behaviors of Chinese immigrants as well as protecting white womanhood.

Given the intense interest in the crime at the time of its occurrence, it is surprising that the case has since been so thoroughly forgotten by public memory. Unfortunately, Lui's explanation for that forgetting is unsatisfying, as was her lack of discussion of the Sigel family's response to the murder. Despite these critiques, The Chinatown Trunk Mystery has so much to offer its readers that these few shortcomings should not dissuade anyone from reading the work. Lui offers a nuanced and complex analysis of the multiple racial, class, gender, and sexual factors that shaped the formation of New York's Chinatown in a compelling narrative that will be of interest to scholars looking at the intersections of urban development, gender roles, race relations, and socio-cultural formation in early twentieth-century New York.

Petula Iu

University of California, Los Angeles
COPYRIGHT 2006 Journal of Social History
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Author:Iu, Petula
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
Words:970
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