Writers from China's diaspora The cover of Mary Ting Yi Lui's first book is the opposite of your average university press title. More than merely politically incorrect, it is macabre, ghoulish, even frightening. The jacket shows a young westernised Chinese man and a white woman as they read together from a Bible. In the background another Chinese man with a pigtail and large teeth wields a smoking incense stick as he leans over the couple, ready to sink his talon-like fingernails into the woman. If the book's jacket doesn't catch your attention, its title will at least raise an eyebrow: The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City (Princeton University Press). 'I was going through the indexes to the New York Times looking for anything to do with Chinatown when I came upon this explosion of entries in 1909,' says Lui, an assistant professor of American studies and history at Yale University. 'It all started when the strangled corpse of a young white woman was found in a trunk in the midtown apartment of a Chinese man, Leon Ling, who had disappeared a week earlier. Later it turned out that the woman - a missionary worker and the granddaughter of a civil war general - had had an illicit romantic relationship with not only Ling but another Chinese man,' she says. 'The police, concluding that Ling murdered the woman in a jealous rage, called for a nationwide manhunt to capture Ling. The case captivated not just New York but the entire country for months.' When Lui stumbled upon the sensational murder case which the tabloids referred to then as 'The Chinatown Trunk Mystery', she was a curator at New York's Museum of the Chinese in the Americas looking for material for a permanent exhibition on the history of New York's Chinatown. She had come to the Big Apple two years earlier in 1989, just after graduating from Princeton University. 'I wanted to do something focused on the urban Chinese community,' she says. Although born in Hong Kong, Lui's parents had brought the family to New Jersey when she was seven. 'My parents are Cantonese and ran a Chinese restaurant and were working all kinds of crazy hours so I grew up in a typical Chinese restaurant family and I think of myself as typically Chinese-American,' she says. One of the themes of her book concerns the idea that 'Chinese belong only in Chinatown'. Chinatowns were, says Lui, 'an interesting historical phenomena that have somehow sucked up all the attention so that people have failed to see just how mobile - geographically, culturally and socially - the Chinese have truly been'. The violation of deeply held taboos against sexual and social relations between whites and Chinese was the chief reason for the public's fascination with the Chinatown Trunk murder, says Lui. 'Civic authorities were so disturbed by the idea of a white woman voluntarily entering into a relationship with a Chinese man that strenuous efforts were made in New York and elsewhere to prevent Caucasian women from entering Chinatown. 'Because Leon Ling was still at large, young Chinese men who wore western clothes were literally being grabbed off the streets in mob situations and marched off to prison. There was very little sympathy for them when they were found not to be Leon Ling,' Lui says. 'Writing a book is one of the last things I thought I would ever have the discipline to do. I'd always felt that was for other people, but not me and that I should stick to things that were clear-cut and technical. But after working at the museum I was exposed to historians and community activists and gradually I could see the possibility of going back to school full-time to pursue a doctorate. It would be the subject of my dissertation.' Unlike most 'typical Chinese-Americans', Lui speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin, an asset in working with New York's Chinese community. 'My parents wanted my brothers and I to keep up our Chinese, so they enrolled us in the nearest Chinese school which was one connected to Princeton University. But they taught Mandarin, not Cantonese which was what we spoke at home, so after much complaining we prevailed upon our parents to let us stop going. 'The funny thing is that when I entered Princeton as an undergraduate I had decided to take Mandarin. The same teachers who had taught me as a kid were my teachers again.' Having spent more than 10 years of her life tracking down every detail of the Chinatown Trunk Murder, does Lui have any ideas about the identity of the murderer? 'Well, the body was found in Leon Ling's apartment and he had disappeared just about the time the murder was committed, so it looks pretty incriminating.' But if there is a solution, Lui isn't quite ready to reveal it. As a historian, she is more anxious to show how the two main characters were symptomatic of how America tried to make sense of Chinese immigration and the position of 'aliens' in New York. 'For most New Yorkers, the real mystery lay in the cross-racial movements and relations that, to their surprise and horror, had occurred unnoticed in their city.'