Lui, Mary Ting Yi 1967-

views updated

Lui, Mary Ting Yi 1967-


Born 1967.


Office—Department of History, Yale University, P.O. Box 208324, New Haven, CT 06520-8324. E-mail—[email protected].


Historian, educator, and writer. Yale University, New Haven, CT, associate professor of American studies and history.


The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2005.


Mary Ting Yi Lui is a historian whose research interests include Asian American history, urban history, women and gender studies, and public history. She is also the author of The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City. In her book, the author turns to an unsolved murder case from 1909 to examine race, gender, and inter-racial sexual relations in the cultural, social, and spatial formation of New York City's Chinatown from 1870 to 1920. Nineteen-year-old Elsie Sigel was gruesomely murdered in New York City in the summer of 1909. Her body was found in the apartment of Leon Ling, a Chinese man who was Sigel's former Sunday school student and lover. Sigel had been strangled. "Historians by and large enjoy a good mystery, and this one does not disappoint," wrote Karen J. Leong in the Historian.

Through Sigel's unsolved murder, the author provides a look at the social and sexual relations between Chinese and non-Chinese in New York City at the turn of the century. In her introduction, the author writes: "The coverage of the Sigel murder investigation remained in the front pages of New York City newspapers for at least a week after its initial reporting, and follow-up stories continued intermittently for several months." The author goes on to note that the investigation made headlines nationwide. The author continues: "To make sense of the murder, journalists also focused their attention on Protestant missionary activities and the city's Chinese immigrant population, presenting portraits of individuals and Chinatown daily life."

Lui relates that Sigel's murder took on a broader persona than just a notorious crime. Within a social context, the social subtext was clearly that racial boundaries had been crossed and that attempts to maintain these boundaries, both geographically and socially, between white females and Chinese males was under assault. As expected, Ling, who went missing, was the primary suspect and the object of a massive national and international manhunt.

The author focuses primarily on how the narratives of racial and sexual danger rose from the murder case, revealing a society highly concerned about social and sexual mixing. The author also further examines the public responses to Chinese immigrants during this era of Chinese exclusion. For example, she writes about the concern over the failure of regulatory efforts to limit the social and even physical mobility of both Chinese immigrants and white working-class and middle-class women.

"By 1909 newspaper articles and stories about the activities of the ‘heathen Chinese’ were not unknown in New York and other parts of the country," the author writes in her introduction. "A glance through some of the city's major newspapers—New York Herald, New York Times, World, New York Tribune—and popular magazines reveals that period's sensationalistic reporting of Chinatown life as defined by sordid underground vice activities or exotic cultural peculiarities."

The author begins with an overview of the Sigel murder case in her introduction and then maps Chinatown's racial and gender boundaries. She investigates the policing of male mobility as well as girls' and women's mobility. In addition, the author writes of American interracial couples and families in New York City and of the ultimate failure of authorities to track down the suspected murderer, Ling.

"There is certainly a mystery here that commands our attention," the author notes in the introduction, "but it is not about revealing the murderer's identity or establishing a motive." The author writes later in the introduction about the media coverage: "The historical mystery, the mystery warranting our attention and this book, has at its core the public's obsession with the details of the ensuing murder investigation. In particular, readers needed to understand Sigel's motivation for befriending Chinese men such as the murder suspect, and more importantly, the place of Chinese immigrants in New York City and the nation at large. These questions ultimately mattered more to readers than proving the murder's identity and motive."

In her book, the author also discusses Chinese Americans' efforts at challenging racism. She reveals how Chinese American political and social organization took place around the globe in an effort to battle derogatory stereotyping of Chinese Americans.

The Chinatown Trunk Mystery received many favorable reviews. "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," wrote Petula Iu in the Journal of Social History. Noting the "fascinating and complex portrait she draws of Chinese and other ethnic groups in early twentieth century New York City," May-Lee Chai, writing in Asian Affairs: An American Review wrote: "What is perhaps most stunning about Lui's scholarship is the portrait of the diverse, highly miscegenated city that New York once was."



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


American Historical Review, April, 2006, Krystyn Moon, review of The Chinatown Trunk Mystery, p. 495.

Asian Affairs: An American Review, spring, 2006, May-Lee Chai, review of The Chinatown Trunk Mystery, p. 60.

Historian, summer, 2006, Karen J. Leong, review of The Chinatown Trunk Mystery, p. 350.

Journal of American History, March, 2006, Renqiu Yu, review of The Chinatown Trunk Mystery, p. 1462.

Journal of Social History, fall, 2006, Petula Iu, review of The Chinatown Trunk Mystery.

Rethinking History, June, 2006, Charlie Samuya Veric, review of The Chinatown Trunk Mystery, p. 310.

Reviews in American History, December, 2005, Stephen Robertson, "Don't Box Me In," review of The Chinatown Trunk Mystery, p. 539.


Yale University History Department Web site, (April 26, 2008), faculty profile of author.