Yellow Woman, 1

Portrait of a Chinese woman with daguerreotype, ca. 1850. Daguerreotype
Courtesy the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

This piece first appeared in the JHI Blog’s June Reading Recommendations roundup. The first part of the text is more or less the same, but I’ve added a short coda.


The Fourth of July is just around the bend. Between 2020 and 2021, it has been a long and exhausting journey. I’ve spent a good chunk of that time thinking about America and what it means to be American, what it means to be part of American society. These questions took on an intensely personal valence this past winter, when anti-Asian violence surged in New York City and around the country. Around the world, even (which brings up the question of who gets to be included in the circle of humanity). For a while, every walk down the street was tense. I walked with one hand on the dog’s leash and the other on my phone. In January, we moved downtown, close to Chinatown, and I went from being a minority (my old neighborhood, the Upper East Side, was over 80 percent white) to being part of a thriving Asian community. Only, this winter, it was a community under siege. As the attacks continued, I couldn’t shake the thought, This, again.

Not much happened to me. A few epithets, here and there, and one time, I heard an older man yell, “You people are always sneaking around!” I looked around to see who he might be addressing, and realized that “you people” was meant for me. Another time, a man stared at me for an uncomfortably long time on the subway, and when I got to my stop, I sprinted out of the car without looking back. Just in case.

It feels uncomfortable to be seen–dangerous, even–and it feels uncomfortable not to be seen. I want to be seen as a friend, a neighbor, a member of the community, an American. I want to be seen with love, held in a warm regard. I want to be seen as a person, a human, a dog lover, a writer… I do not want to be seen like this. Or like this. But, then, how should I be seen? What image do I want to project? Do I have a choice over how I am seen?

In her essay for Aperture, “Why We Must See Asian Americans in US History,” Stephanie H. Tung describes a daguerreotype of an anonymous Chinese woman. Tung writes, “We do not know who she is. We do not know her name. It is not often that an Asian woman—an immigrant, a worker, perhaps a mother—is pictured, or even rendered visible, especially in nineteenth-century America. What makes this image extraordinary is that it’s most likely from 1850s California: it tells the story of Chinese immigrants who came to America during the California Gold Rush (1848–65).” Curiously, the anonymous woman in this daguerreotype is cradling another daguerreotype, a portrait of another seated subject.

“The only other daguerreotypes of Chinese women I have encountered,” Tung notes, “are the photographs of Miss Pwan Ye-Koo and Lum-Akum, part of P.T. Barnum’s “Living Chinese Family,” at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Made by Lorenzo G. Chase between 1844 and 1856, they were discovered over a century later in the same attic trunk as the Zealy daguerreotypes of enslaved people of African descent. The images were presumably part of the same Louis Agassiz project that used photography to support pseudo-scientific theories of race.” 

Barnum billed Pwan Ye-Koo as a “true Chinese lady,” and the “the first Chinese lady that had yet visited Christendom.” In her article, “Daguerreotypes and Humbugs: Pwan-Ye-Koo, Racial Science, and the Circulation of Ethnographic Images around 1850,” Michelle Smilley notes that whether onstage or in Chase’s images, Pwan Ye-Koo was always visible, but never truly seen as herself: “In 1850, Pwan-Ye-Koo stood ambiguously between the categories of ethnographic specimen and celebrity, traveling among the spheres of pseudoscience and spectacle, as Barnum staged her body as one component among the inorganic trappings of Orientalism, clothed as she was in silk and gold. Curiously, as in the images of Lum-Akum and Soo-Chune, Pwan-Ye-Koo’s ornamental coverings probably also partially defeated the purposes of Agassiz’s archive of racial difference, just as the ornamentations of commercial Orientalism physically obscure many of the morphological features of her skull and body. Where Agassiz sought to use the double daguerreotype view as a means to more exhaustively catalogue a subject’s appearance, Pwan-Ye-Koo’s doubling only adds to the hall of mirrors effects of her traveling performances. In Pwan-Ye-Koo’s case, the pictorial evidence ultimately proves as fragile as the daguerreotype, a type of object that was frequently cracked and destroyed in the mail. In her multiple Daguerreian images, this young woman is made to bridge the shores of Canton and the port of New York. As her body sits wrapped in the costume drama demanded by Barnum’s racialized spectacle, it resists Agassiz’s archival impulse via the very trappings of commercial Orientalism that led her to [Chase’s] studio in the first place.”

Regardless of my desires, I will always be regarded by others as an Asian woman, or, more uncomfortably, a yellow woman. A phrase that I, like Anne Anlin Cheng, have long shied away from saying out loud. As Cheng said, in an interview with Shivani Radhakrishnan, “The phrase yellow woman is one I have not been able to say for many, many years. It’s an ugly phrase. But then I thought why is the term painful, and why is it not in use? We speak of Black women, white women, Brown women, but not yellow women. Why not?” 

Maybe what I need to do is follow Cheng’s lead. In the same interview, she notes that it was precisely her discomfort with this concept of the yellow woman that led her to sit with it and write Ornamentalism. Or, as she put it, “These moments, when my mind shrinks in pain from something, are when I think I need to take a closer look.” 


What does it mean to take a closer look?

Maybe what I need to do is get out my camera and take a good long look at myself. 

Maybe what I need to do is simultaneously allow myself to see and be seen, allow myself to direct and consume the performance.

In college, when I was studying photography, I became enamored with Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. Would this be a project like that? Or would it be stranger, more personal, less beholden to convention?

When I was learning how to think as a photographer, I was also coming to know lyric poetry as a tradition. The lyric poet, I learned, treads a fine line between inventing a private language that connects with the reader in a way that is startling and fresh, and inventing a private language that remains cloistered and hermetic, so private that it remains accessible only to the writer, a walled garden inaccessible to others.

The outward visual expression of the “I” shares certain similarities with lyric poetry. I want you to see me as I want to be seen, but to bridge that gap between us, I default to conventions of presentation. And then there are the things that I can’t avoid–that I whether I write in free verse or in rhyme, I write in English, for example, or the fact that no matter how I style myself, I am still styling the form of a yellow woman.

So here I am, a yellow woman. How do I want you to see me? How do I make you see what I want you to see? How many ways are there to inhabit this body of a yellow woman?

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