History 301: Community was entranced with Mrs. Moy Kee

Mrs. and Mr. Moy Key, circa 1905.

By CONNIE ZEIGLER / Contributing editor

The following report quotes historic sources which may use terms considered offensive today. For accuracy these quotes were not altered.

For almost six years, between 1898 and December 1903, Fong Kee Chin Moy, Mrs. Moy Kee, was the unique representative of Chinese femininity in Indianapolis.

It is hard to imagine the challenges and loneliness of being the single representative of one’s gender and race in the city. For its part the newspapers of the day reveal that residents here treated Mrs. Moy Kee as a curiosity, with an uncomfortable (to 21st century eyes) mixture of awed reverence and sideshow gaping.

Indianapolis had a barely perceptible Chinese-born population throughout the 19th century; the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis notes only 10 Chinese in the city – all men – by 1880, and population growth was slow well into the 20th in the city. When the Moys arrived (note that Chinese family names proceed given names; in this case, Moy is the family or surname) there were still few Chinese in Indianapolis. Moy Kee was first noted in the Indianapolis City Directory in 1898, as the manager at Sang Lung & Co., a cigar shop, at 345 Massachusetts Ave.

Mrs. Moy Kee’s first mention in Indianapolis newspapers occurred the following year when the Indianapolis Journal published an article titled “Native Chinese Woman: A Female of Gentle Birth from the Celestial Empire.” The article doesn’t explain how Mrs. Moy Kee came to be in Indianapolis or tell her history, rather it describes how she was “a special attraction” of the Ellen Emerson Club.

Mrs. Moy Kee’s performance for the club was to make and pour their tea in the Chinese fashion and then play “a Chinese instrument” while her husband accompanied her with his banjo and read extracts from a Chinese paper about a celebration of the Chinese Empress Cixi’s birthday celebration. The Journal reported that “Mrs. Moy Kee claims connection with the royal family.”

Royally connected or not, Mrs. Moy Kee was a sight to behold, and the club members and Journal reporter took their time looking. The article described her elaborate “costume” with long “pantaloons of plum-colored silk, with a loose jacket of heavy lavender silk, trimmed with embroidery in royal purple.” But it was neither her costume nor her musical talent that thrilled the onlookers so much as her “tiny feet . . . encased in tiny pointed embroidered slippers with very high heels.” Her “tiny feet” would continue to obsess the local press for as long as Mrs. Moy Kee lived in the city, mentioned in every article that included her.

As for Mrs. Moy Kee’s association with Chinese royalty, who knows? English language records do not reveal when or where the couple married or much information about their lives in China. A ship’s manifest from 1909 shows that they were both born in Hong Yong Village in China, he in 1848, she in 1856.

Moy Kee later stated that he arrived in San Francisco in 1864 – when his future wife would have been only eight years old. Although anything is possible, it seems unlikely that a woman connected to royalty would marry a man whose first job in the United States was selling newspapers on the streets of San Francisco, followed by a series of other menial labor, before he worked his way upward to become manager of a cigar store in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis newspapers, and perhaps the Moy Kees, treated Mrs. Moy’s tiny, and obviously previously bound, feet as a sign of her high status, but historians long ago debunked the belief that only high-status Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet. In fact, by the mid-19th century this was a custom among the villagers and workers of China. Although it might have made them seem more attractive, girls’ feet were bound not just because the practice made them more marriageable in their society. A recent article by author Peter Preskar, published on the History of Yesterday website, states that bound feet were a way to make Chinese women subservient to their husbands, from whom they literally could not run away, and that in Chinese villages girls’ feet were bound in order to force them to sit and do the handwork and weaving that made their families’ money.

Mrs. Moy Kee’s bound feet added to her attractiveness as a fetish object in Indianapolis. Her claim to royal blood made her a symbol of high status and gentility, and these traits were especially valuable in the years after her husband opened a restaurant in the city.  

The Indianapolis Journal reported in 1902 that Moy Kee, “the one Indianapolis Chinaman of high caste and education,” had opened a tea shop and Chinese restaurant at 506 E. Washington St. Moy Kee advertised that at his “chop suey house and Oriental lunchroom” the “ladies will be well entertained by Mrs. Moy Kee.”

The restaurant became a popular spot patronize by both Chinese and native-born Indianapolis residents. Mrs. Moy Kee poured tea or sat on her “high seat” in the restaurant according to newspaper accounts. The couple, especially Mrs. Moy Kee, also continued to be “attractions” at the social activities of Indianapolis outside of the restaurant. Over the next few years, the Indianapolis Sketching Club, the Columbia Club and Shortridge High School would all feature the Moy Kees at Chinese-themed events – with articles about the events mentioning both Mrs. Moy Kee’s attire and her tiny feet.

When Prince Pu Lun, a true member of the Chinese royal family, visited Indianapolis in 1904 on his way to the St. Louis World’s Fair, he was taken straightaway to Moy Kee’s restaurant. Moy Kee, by that time, had achieved a level of status in the city, not only as a successful merchant, but also as a liaison between the Chinese community and the white community of Indianapolis. Following his visit, Prince Pu Lun bestowed the sixth rank of Chinese aristocracy on Moy Kee.

The following year, the Moy Kees decided to move back to China. Despite Moy Kee being a naturalized American citizen, according to The Indianapolis News, the decision was made “due to the urging of his wife … it is said she never became reconciled to spending all her days in America.” She had never become an American citizen.

Probably sadly, for Mrs. Moy Kee, the couple returned just two years later to the U. S., this time to Portland, Ore.. The Americanized Moy Kee said it was too quiet in China. By 1910, Mr. Moy Kee and his dutiful wife were back in Indianapolis and back to entertaining at Moy Kee’s restaurant.

It was in the restaurant where Moy Kee took his final breaths on Jan. 7, 1914, while eating his evening meal. The newspapers reported that Mrs. Moy Kee sprinkled incense on him and chanted the Chinese death song over his body. The reporter said she was trying to bring him back to life. She wanted him placed on her bed, but the police insisted that his body be taken to the morgue.

Following an Indianapolis funeral, the Los Angeles Express reported that Mrs. Moy Kee and her husband’s body were in that city on Jan. 28, 2014. She was awaiting the ship that would take her (them) home, at last and for the last time, to China.