Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Good Girl of Chinatown, by Jenevieve Chang

imagesThis memoir by first-time author Jenevieve Chang describes her escapades in Shanghai as a member of China’s first burlesque troupe during the late noughties. At its heart is a poignant attempt by a young woman to reconcile the complex layers of culture and identity across different moments in time and place.

Chang was born in Taiwan and her family lived briefly in Alaska and Utah before settling in Sydney. Her upbringing revolved around her being a ‘good girl:’ her parents considered excellence non-negotiable. When Chang came fourth in a Little Miss Chinatown beauty pageant, her father hit her – four times – with a cane. Chang started binge-eating in defiance of her mother criticising her puppy fat: she responded by foisting laxatives on her daughter. The tug of war over Chang’s body continued for many years and she vividly recounts the violent arguments she had with her father, who insisted that his role as the family patriarch included the right to physically abuse her.

Chang is eager to escape the toxic relationship and successfully auditions for a place at the prestigious Laban conservatoire in London. Her attraction to the world of dance stemmed from its ability to turn her body into a ‘pliant vehicle.’ She writes, ‘I wanted my body to become strong. I wanted my body to become both my armour and my expression. I wanted to lose myself in the excruciating and honest pain of a dancer’s life.’

In London she discovers burlesque, and with it, a newfound sense of liberty: ‘Being naughty was good – it gave the audience what they wanted. And for me, it came with a welcome sense of freedom.’ However Chang often spins out of control when she’s in the driver’s seat. The book opens with her waking up naked and alone, covered in her own vomit. She’s horrified when a beau cheerfully recounts their public promiscuity. She dabbles in drugs but manages to stave off an actual addiction.

Having watched her parents’ marriage ‘play out like a prison drama,’ Chang’s expectations for her own marriage are fairly dismal. She proposes to the yoga teacher she’d been dating to continue living in the UK and thwarts his attempts to make it a long-term commitment. When she invites her parents to the wedding, her mother flat-out refuses because her husband is black. ‘I mean, have you thought about what your children will look like?’ she spits into the receiver. Chang is disappointed, though not entirely surprised. When she was 13, her father had told her: ‘If you ever date a black man I will shoot you. Then shoot myself.’

Her parents behave with such appalling callousness that it’s difficult to summon up the energy to learn their backstory or that of her grandparents, and doing so doesn’t redeem them (nor does it attempt to). Learning a second cast of names and configuring their significance to Chang is onerous and there is an unavoidable element of conjecture involved. Chang’s writing is lovely, but becomes awkward when she describes herself as a new-born baby in the third person. A more economical recollection of her family’s backstory would have benefitted the book, which is interesting enough when dealing with Chang’s narrative.

The chapters recounting her years in London are entertaining, if sometimes difficult to fathom. Chang becomes the ninth member of her husband’s overcrowded home, which includes his coddling mother and his sister, whose children bear the brunt of her alcohol-fuelled tirades. Her 35-year-old husband caps his working week at 10 hours and the rest of the household income comes from welfare. Chang’s relationship with her in-laws quickly becomes hostile: it’s that and a mouse infestation that tips her over the edge. She convinces her husband to forge a new life with her in China.

Chang’s descriptions of the megacity of Shanghai are evocatively drawn: ‘From the edge of my balcony, Shanghai spirals out like a serpent, coiling its way out to the Bund around a choking, madly pumping heart.’ Its humid summer air, she writes, ‘clings like a needy lover.’ She’s unaware that expats regard Shanghai as the ‘city where marriages go to die.’ Instead, Chang arrives full of excited optimism and immerses herself in the glamorous expat lifestyle. One night, a Frenchman in a bar calls her a ‘banana.’ The crude metaphor is used to describe expats of Chinese descent (‘yellow on the outside and white on the inside,’ her friend explains.) After enduring a ‘lifetime of identity issues,’ Chang is depressed to be ‘reduced to a variety of fruit.’ Therein follows a spate of unpleasant encounters that include an apartment eviction and a nightclub owner who refuses to pay her because she doesn’t look like a foreigner.

‘I was being rejected by “my people” for no better reason than the way I looked, which was just like them. It made me think that no matter how good I was, how agreeably I behaved, it didn’t matter here. That whichever way I went about it, I would face pain and rejection.’

Meanwhile her husband, by virtue of his ‘exoticness’ commanded an inflated salary, having been ‘catapulted straight to the top of [China’s] emerging health industry’ as an ‘emblem of imported wellness.’ She realises sadly that her husband ‘had succeeded in being embraced by the Chinese community in a way that I hadn’t.’ But to her credit, Chang doesn’t simply roll over. With admirable chutzpah, she leads the six-piece burlesque group and relishes the once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunities it brings (such as entertaining a blushing Jackie Chan). The Chinatown Girls don’t have it easy in Communist China, but it’s a heck of a ride Chang takes the reader on.

The Good Girl of Chinatown is out now through Penguin Random House. 

Food fiesta at TinTin

Published in Mizzima on 27 August 2015

TinTin's elotes
TinTin’s elotes

The newly opened TinTin is self styled as a home-made Mexican street food and tequila bar and there’s no doubt that it serves up great Mexican grub in hipster-happy surrounds.

As to be expected from a 57 Below venture – the investment company that brought Yangonites the delights of Union Bar, two Parami Pizza branches and Gekko (the latter of which TinTin is most similar to architecturally) – the décor is top notch. Industrial styled light bulbs suspended from colourful rods give off a warm glow, while the ‘pipeline’ lights keep it cozy upstairs. The view of the glass panelled kitchen below is softened by sheets of metal armoury and the rustic wooden tables and the cheerily coloured seats and cushions achieve a relaxed sense of style. Place mats are made of sheets of brown paper with the odd stamp sporting the restaurant’s name. Perhaps needless to say, the only music lyrics you’ll hear will be in Spanish and the tempo upbeat.

Street food in Mexico is called antojitos (literally “little cravings”) because it is comprised of foods that are typically not eaten during the main meal of the day – corn is one such example. Mexico is widely regarded as having the most extensive variety of street food in Latin America – if not the world. UNESCO respects the cuisine enough to have labelled it an intangible cultural heritage of mankind. Having sampled other Mexican offerings in Yangon – some of which are stranger than others – I’d say that TinTin most definitely takes the cake for authenticity. Full credit to TinTin’s Chef Jorge Bernal, who hails from Mexico City , along with what must surely be his tightly run ship.

I ordered the burrito compadre (US$9), which comprises chorizo chicken, rice, pico de gallo (better known as salsa) and comes with a spoonful of deliciously spicy chipotle mayo. It was filling enough in itself – particularly for lunch, though I didn’t see any reason to stop there. The elotes (a.k.a. corn on the cob) was served with sour cream, two chunks of lime and sprinkled with cilantro (a.k.a. coriander). The mess it leaves on fingers and between the teeth doesn’t make it an ideal date dish – though it’s nothing a quick trip to the bathroom can’t fix. I was seated upstairs and headed to what I thought was the toilet. I saw a ‘staff only’ sign and a set of stairs leading to what looked like a back room, so I backed off and headed down the other set of stairs leading to the entrance. I felt a bit silly when I was then told by one of the smartly dressed staff that the first stairs I’d seen do in fact lead to the toilet (this is a rather long way of saying that a toilet sign would be useful). The stairs to the toilets are steep and the lighting dim – I wouldn’t recommend taking them on after a few tequilas.

TinTin's downstairs dining area
TinTin’s downstairs dining area

And speaking of tequilas – there’s no shortage of ‘em at TinTin. There’s even a coffee flavoured variety for $8, while the costliest (and no doubt loveliest) is the seven-year-old Fuentesca at a whopping $19 a shot. There’s also a host of mezcals on offer, which a Google search defined as a spirit made from the heart of the cactus-like agave plant (and is not be confused with the psychoactive, mescaline producing peyote). Cocktails range from $5 to $8 and include an intriguing ‘beer on the rocks’ with a michelada mix, lime juice, chili and salt.

The use of Spanish throughout TinTin’s menu is a little intimidating if you don’t speak an iota of the language. Substituting a bit more English would better whet a less cultured appetite such as my own, as my ignorance meant I had to automatically exclude ordering several items.

Top marks for presentation - the burrito compadre
Top marks for presentation – the burrito compadre

Friends had warned me that TinTin is pricey. Even the guacamole costs US$5 – and on top of everything ordered is a 10 percent service charge and a 5 percent government charge. Lord knows how expensive it is to run a restaurant in Yangon, but being charged US$7 for a bottle of water and US$4 for a cob of corn that costs K250 (for two!) at the supermarket – even with the delicious condiments on top – didn’t feel like the best value in town. And that says something, as this town isn’t known for being good value.

A word of warning: TinTin is small and popular. Do not, as I did, turn up on a Saturday night without a booking, as you’ll likely be turned away or asked to return for the second sitting at 8pm. I’m certainly glad I didn’t give up after my first attempt to have a bite of Mexican in Yangon a la TinTin style.

Tin Tin Bogalazay is located on 116-188 Bogalazay Street (middle block) in Bohtataung Township, Yangon

Phone: (01) 245 904

Visit Tin Tin’s Facebook page for more information

Kitsch kitchen serves up Indonesian treats

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 9 June 2015

Toba's extra colourful interior
Toba’s extra colourful interior

Toba Restaurant and Café in Yangon’s trendy Yaw Min Gyi area is celebrating its first anniversary this month, which is no small feat considering how fickle and fraught the city’s bar and restaurant scene has become of late. Toba remains one of just two Indonesian restaurants in town and one of the very few 24 hour establishments – at least on weekends. Since June 1, its opening hours from Sunday to Thursday have been cut back to 7am until 1am, which is still by no means a short shift. Unfortunately, there still seems to be a few bumps in the road in terms of Toba’s service standards, but the food and value for money compensate well enough.

For those uninitiated with Indonesian cuisine (and I must confess I am no expert), Toba’s almost implausibly extensive menu includes helpful descriptions and a photo of every dish. Do note that whilst beer doesn’t appear on the menu, it’s available all the same (staff will collect it from the shop next door without any additional charge). There’s a bit of poetic licence going on in terms of describing many dishes as ‘Indonesian-Western style’ when they’re clearly anything but. The ‘chicken macaroni soup’ comes to mind – but I won’t go on because it’s a bit of a quibble.

The shortcomings of the nasi goreng were less easy to gloss over. As one of Indonesia’s national dishes, I was surprised to learn that the mutton variety (K3,400) was unavailable. So I opted for the sapi (beef) instead, which I took home as a parcel for my husband. My sampling of it later that day proved disappointing – it looked and tasted a lot more like a bland and greasy Chinese fried rice, without any kick whatsoever.

Delectable oxtail soup
Delectable oxtail soup

I started off my meal with the sop buntut, which is a “submerged oxtail in a traditional recipe soup, covered in pot and boiled with slow fire for three hours.” It came with a wedge of lime and a fiery green chilli paste and cost K4,100. It was a heartily flavoured soup and the delectably tender chunks of meat slid off the bone. The soup was accompanied by gado gado, which is a much loved mix of crunchy greens and peanut sauce and decorated with deep fried krupuk (a close equivalent of prawn crackers), which at Toba, sports neon trimmings.

Whilst Toba has an attractive upstairs seating area featuring traditional wooden seating and a laid back Balinese décor, the downstairs section is less inspiring. The walls are adorned with gaudy murals of volcanoes and other Indonesian landscapes and the seating is a little cramped and cafeteria-like, though there’s a booth at the back that’s more spacious and suitable for groups of up to a dozen.

The staff were friendly and attentive and the dishes appeared with impressive speed – nothing took longer than 15 minutes. However things went downhill when I went upstairs and stumbled upon a waiter relieving himself in Toba’s sole lavatory with the door wide open. After finishing off he simply waved me in with a grin, which I guess was preferable to a flurry of awkward apologies.

Prices are another of Toba’s strengths. They’re very reasonable, especially considering that the portions are generous. Three mains and a jasmine tea came to just K10,017 and this included a five percent government tax of K400. I assumed the 17 kyat would be written off so I was startled when the waitress asked me to cough up the exact amount. Whilst 20 kyat notes still exist as a denomination, I only encounter them once in a blue moon: in fact I keep one at home as a souvenir.

Hearty Indonesian fare
Hearty Indonesian fare

When I said I was befuddled as to how I could pay such an impractical sum, the waitress launched into an explanation about the government’s new tax schemes. Midway, she caught sight of the 50 kyat note peeking out of my wallet and asked me to give it to her. I was perturbed on principle and began to protest. At that moment, a waiter sprang up from behind and whacked a 50 kyat tax sticker onto my bill. When they understood that I remained unconvinced and opposed, the waitress agreed to give me a “discount” on my bill – a term she repeated with grating effect. It wasn’t until much later that I realised I’d been too flustered to ask for my anniversary promo discount of 10 percent and the free dessert the male waiter had promised me when I first sat down to dine.

TOBA Restaurant-Café is located on 15 Nawaday Street, Dagon Township
For more information, visit Toba’s Facebook page: