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

Mary Ting Yi Lui

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Book Description

March 4 2007

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.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 1 edition (March 4 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691130485
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691130484
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.7 x 1.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 363 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,066,787 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

Winner of the 2005 History Award, The Association for Asian American Studies

"Lui has created a solid historical narrative through her combined use of empirical data and Chinese-language sources. . . . [Her] work deserves to be recognized as an important contribution to American history."--Krystyn Moon, American Historical Review

"This is an outstandingly well researched and elegantly executed book, rich in detail, theoretical insight, and contemporary illustration drawn from the archives, and at times great fun. . . . [I]t sets a new high standard for writing about the Asian American experience."--Gregor Benton, Ethnic and Racial Studies

"[A] magnificent social history. . . . [T]he book's graceful style, along with its vivid, engaging narratives and insightful analyses, is certain to be appreciated and enjoyed beyond the scholarly community."--Renqiu Yu, Journal of American History

"Mary Ting Yi Lui's book, The Chinatown Trunk Mystery, is the perfect blend of a thrilling mystery bestseller and a detailed cultural history."--Shilpa Davé, Journal of Asian American Studies

"Lui, in this provocative and compelling study, demonstrates how America's racial and gender formations were mapped onto the dynamic and urban landscape of New York's Chinatown. This book is highly recommended."--Karen J. Leong, The Historian

From the Inside Flap

"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

"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

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Aug. 2 2007
By Ian Gordon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Lui has written a wonderful book that uses a murder in New York to examine the complexity of race and gender in New York at the turn of the nineteenth century. Her research is first rate and the narrative she shapes is enthralling. One highlight of the book is the discussion of the ways that the Chinese community mobilized to defend itself from the attacks on Chinese, and Asians in general, that followed the discovery of the body. Her narrative is crisp and her analysis sharp.
5.0 out of 5 stars Supurb March 8 2013
By Juniper - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Read it for fun. Loved it! Not to academic to make a fun read. People who are interested in Chinatown should read it.
3.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly study Dec 15 2012
By J Posedel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a fascinating scholarly study of the life of Chinese immigrants living in New York City in the early 1900s. However, it falls short in reporting the circumstances surrounding the "trunk mystery" death. The sparse details of the murder threaded thoughout the book left me wanting to know more. The book was published in 2005. Since then, extensive on-line newspaper accounts have become available detailing the murder investigation. Read the book for its sociological insights. Don't read it expecting a thrilling murder tale.
11 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Less Than Compelling Oct. 7 2008
By Grey Wolffe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Maybe if the book had a different title or was more forthright of the contents, I would have given it four stars. But as it stands, the book is only one third about the "Mystery" and even much of that is redundant. What the book is really about is a diatribe against the way the Chinese were treated under the 'Exclusionary Act'.

Lui must have spent an enormous amount of research time going through old records and newspapers because her data is first rate. What it isn't is about the murder and the murderer. Why? Because there is little to know beyond who they were and their relationship. You can only say the same thing so many ways and so many times and then it gets dull and repetitive (uh, redundantly redundant).

The body of Elsie Sigel is found in a trunk in New York's Chinatown. The room belongs to Leon Ling, and a massive manhunt begins. He is never found, but love letters from Elsie to Leon are found. Why was she killed, don't know; who killed her, maybe Leon.

We are then subjected to a plethora of data about interracial (asian and white mostly) marriage and mixed race children in New York at the turn of the twentieth century. Down to street and apartment addresses, baptismal and marriage date (even the names of the witnesses and godparents). Very boring and nothing to do with the murder. OK, I believe you, there weren't many single Chinese woman, so unless the bride came from China with her husband, the single men married white woman. OK, I get it.

Not recommended for anyone who is looking for a mystery story, only for those looking for a polemic as to how Asians were treated scandalously in turn of the century America.

Zeb Kantrowitz

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