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Princeton University Press
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
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In the summer of 1909, the gruesome murder of nineteen-year-old Elsie Sigel sent shock waves through New York City and the nation at large. The young woman's strangled corpse was discovered inside a trunk in the midtown Manhattan apartment of her reputed former Sunday school student and lover, a Chinese man named Leon Ling.

Through the lens of this unsolved murder, Mary Ting Yi Lui offers a fascinating snapshot of social and sexual relations between Chinese and non-Chinese populations in turn-of-the-century New York City. Sigel's murder was more than a notorious crime, Lui contends. It was a clear signal that attempts to maintain geographical and social boundaries between the city's Chinese male and white female populations had failed.

When police discovered Sigel and Leon Ling's love letters, giving rise to the theory that Leon Ling killed his lover in a fit of jealous rage, this idea became even more embedded in the public consciousness. New Yorkers condemned the work of Chinese missions and eagerly participated in the massive national and international manhunt to locate the vanished Leon Ling.

Lui explores how the narratives of racial and sexual danger that arose from the Sigel murder revealed widespread concerns about interracial social and sexual mixing during the era. She also examines how they provoked far-reaching skepticism about regulatory efforts to limit the social and physical mobility of Chinese immigrants and white working-class and middle-class women.

Through her thorough re-examination of this notorious murder, Lui reveals in unprecedented detail how contemporary politics of race, gender, and sexuality shaped public responses to the presence of Chinese immigrants during the Chinese exclusion era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691130484
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/04/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 894,970
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Mary Ting Yi Lui is Assistant Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University. She is a former curator of the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in New York City.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations     ix
Acknowledgments     xi
Introduction: "Find Miss Sigel Dead in Trunk"     1
"Terra Incognita": Mapping Chinatown's Racial and Gender Boundaries in Lower Manhattan     17
Beyond Chinatown: Policing Chinese American Male Mobility in New York City     52
Policing Urban Girls' and Women's Mobility and Desires     81
Playing the "Missionary Game"     111
Chinese American Interracial Couples and Families in New York City     143
"The Most Remarkable Get-away in Police History"     175
"Disgrace on the Whole Body of Our People"     198
Epilogue     222
Notes     227
Bibliography     277
Index     293

What People are Saying About This


Mary Ting Yi Lui creatively employs a forgotten but important crime as a narrative vehicle to show that New York's Chinatown was not a neighborhood of racial exclusion and ethnic isolation. Rather, the author convincingly argues that Chinatown's borders were not fixed or impenetrable as suggested by past journalist and scholarly studies. She offers a nuanced and accurate interpretation of the Chinese-American experience, challenging one of the most enduring racial stereotypes in American historical literature.
Timothy J. Gilfoyle, Loyola University

Henry Yu

This is a fantastic book, overflowing with groundbreaking empirical research and rich with historical detail. The author has gathered an enormous range of newspaper and archival material, as well as prints and illustrations, and her detective work is amazing in its depth. She is particularly strong in detailing the historical fascination and obsessions with interracial sexual relationships, using the murder case of Elsie Sigel to narrate white American conceptions of Chinatown and Chinese men as a threat to white women.
Henry Yu, University of California, Los Angeles

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The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ElizabethChapman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A well-researched and well-written account of the 1909 murder of Elsie Sigel in New York. Her death was a gruesome mystery, although suspicion quickly turned to her Chinese Sunday school student and supposed lover, Leon Ling.Mary Ting Yi, an assistant professor of American Studies and History at Yale, meticulously culls through the evidence to try and understand the circumstances that ended with Sigel's straggled body stuffed into trunk in a New York apartment. Yi explores turn-of-the-century conceptions of the Chinese in America and the reality of their lives -- and relationships with white women. She also explores women's experiences at a time of significant change in their societal roles. Yi's ability to engage in the reader is equal to her scholarship, making this both a great read and a great history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mary Ting Yi Lui's The Chinatown Trunk Mystery is a fasinating story of murder, sex, and the raisct fears of whites towards the Chinese. In 1909 nineteen-year-old Elise Sigel's body is discovered in the trunk in her lovers apartment. With Sigel's death the press start a relentless campaign against the Chinese in New York City.