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. 

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[CUE TRUMP VOICE] ‘It was huuuugge’: Whale watching in Sydney

Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.
Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.

I ticked off an item on my bucket list when I went whale watching a few weekends ago, and I had such a fantastic time that I thought I’d write a quick blog post about it. It was the best outdoor adventure we’ve had in Sydney so far – though Wollongong came close and I’m pumped about going to Waterfall this weekend (more blog posts coming soon!).

What an epic breach! Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.
What an epic breach! Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.

We moved to Sydney last year in late October, which is the tail end of whale watching season – meaning we missed out (FYI the whale watching season runs from May to November). I had no idea that whale watching was so affordable: I bought tickets on Groupon and it cost us $35 each (down from $80 each) for the three hours we spent at sea.

As we lined up to get on the boat at Darling Harbour, one of the staff from Go Whale Watching warned us that the sea conditions were rough that day and that we could come back another time if we weren’t up for it.

“I’m not joking – it’s really rough out there. But it’s not unsafe,” he said merrily.

With Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background. Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.
With Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background. Photo supplied by Go Whale Watching.

Sherpa and I looked at each other nervously but decided to press ahead – we’d managed to have it together enough on a Sunday morning to make it there on time and didn’t want to risk not being able to repeat that… I do wonder how many people end up in flat-out dangerous situations for really banal reasons.

I still find it amazing that whales don't upturn boats. This is getting pretty close! Photo: Go Whale Watching
I still find it amazing that whales don’t upturn boats. This is getting pretty close! Photo: Go Whale Watching

Anyway, we took a seat on the upper deck and cruised out under Sydney Harbour Bridge. We were given a safety talk, the main point of which seemed to be to hang on to something with at least one hand at all times. ‘All times,’ repeated the dismembered voice through the loudspeakers.

As soon as we left the harbour and hit the seas, the boat started rocking like a mechanical bull. It was nuts! As I held onto a pole so hard that my knuckles turned white, a passenger opposite looked at me and said, ‘This is crazy.’ I didn’t see him again after that because he went down to the ‘puke chamber’ (the indoor section), which is where most of the passengers sadly ended up. Sherpa and I were one of the few who didn’t get seasick. I don’t know why but I was so grateful.

Here's me and Sherpa holding on! It was amazing to be in the open waters of the Tasman Sea after leaving our house a little over an hour earlier.
Here’s me and Sherpa holding on! It was amazing to be in the open waters of the Tasman Sea after leaving our house a little over an hour earlier.

I was terrified of falling into the freezing Tasman Sea but I stopped being such a chicken when we saw our first whale (which was only about 30 minutes into the trip). It was so beautiful, huge and exciting that I remembered the reason why I was on the boat. I was also reassured by the female staff member who told me that her husband was steering the ship and that she wouldn’t go out to sea with anyone else (I’d been bleating about not being able to see the life jackets – she told me they were downstairs).

We also caught sight of a mother and baby that splish-splashed quite close to us for a couple of hours as they swam together side by side. I now know that humpback whales are the most fun whales – they have the best moves. Fortunately, those are the ones that you can see in Sydney.

The scenery is gorgeous too. Photo: Go Whale Watching
The scenery is gorgeous too. Photo: Go Whale Watching

Just to give an indication of how rough the seas were that day – for about an hour, no one took photos. Like, no one. Even though the photo opps were crazy amazing. We needed to hold on with both hands! In the incessant selfie culture that we live in these days, I think that speaks volumes about how much our boat was rocking and rolling. A massive wave would come towards us and everyone would titter, ‘Ooooooh’ and then squeal as we came thumping down the other side of it. I’m pretty sure that we had unusually wild weather that day and it wouldn’t normally be an issue (and voyages are cancelled if the weather is really bad). And when I got used to it and realised we weren’t going to capsize, it was a massive rush and I sort of loved it.

Frothy waters. Photo: Go Whale Watching
Frothy waters. Photo: Go Whale Watching

Go Whale Watching offers a money-back guarantee if you don’t see any whales. I was sold as soon as I read that bit of their sales pitch on Groupon. We didn’t see any whales breaching (ie flipping up in the air) near us, though I did see a couple breach further out in the distance. The thing to remember, as our captain pointed out as we passed by Taronga Zoo, is that you’re seeing animals in the wild, and animals in the wild can’t be summoned to appear or to hang around and do tricks. That may sound obvious but when you’re really hyped about seeing whales, it will prevent you muttering stuff under your breath that makes you sound like a crazy lady, i.e. ‘Dumb whales’.

You amazing creature, you. Photo: Go Whale Watching
You amazing creature, you. Photo: Go Whale Watching

My photos aren’t that spectacular (I was holding on, remember), so I asked Go Whale Watching if I could publish pics from their Facebook page of other journeys, which they have kindly allowed me to do. Don’t worry, this post isn’t sponsored – I just wanted to tell you how amazing it is to see whales in Sydney and to urge you do it before they leave us behind on their amazing 5,000 kilometre journey north.

Inside Sembawang Quarantine in Singapore

A few weeks ago I wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian about bringing our cat Butters to Australia from Myanmar via Singapore. I thought it might be helpful to post some photos of the quarantine facility in Singapore on my blog, because I was a lot more apprehensive about it until I saw for myself that are facilities are excellent (as one of my Facebook friends said when he saw a photo, ‘I’ve stayed in hotels a lot worse than that.’) However I definitely recommend requesting a room with a view for your cat, as only half the quarantine cells have them.

Sembawang Animal Quarantine Station in Singapore.
Sembawang Animal Quarantine Station in Singapore.

I accompanied Butters to Singapore and visited her daily during the stipulated visiting hours (yes, it feels a bit like prison).

20161006_180632Here’s a shot of the facilities from the outside. I expected it to look a lot more imposing – it was reassuringly more like a school building. The facilities in Melbourne (the only facilities in Australia) look like a fortress by comparison.

IMG_20161005_180329I was heartened to see so many letters from grateful pet owners sent to Sembawang Quarantine Facility. There’s a lovely staff officer called Roy, a Filipino who is a bit of a cat whisperer. The cats would come charging towards him, meowing for pats whenever he entered, and he knew all their names and personalities. He said that Butters coped well in quarantine, but sadly not all cats do and show signs of depression (ie not eating).

Sembawang Animal Quarantine - ask for a spot on the right, which has windows. The ones on the left don't have any.
Sembawang Animal Quarantine – ask for a spot on the right, which has windows. The ones on the left don’t have any.
Butters with her new 'bunk buddy.'
Butters with her new ‘bunk buddy.’

Butters wasn’t overjoyed to be surrounded by cats, but I think the interaction they can have between the glass gives at least gives them something to think about during otherwise long and boring days.

Making friends.
Making friends.

And at one point she was pretty cute while chasing a mouse with the gorgeously fluffy cat opposite her.

IMG_20161003_145033When Butters arrived in Singapore from Bangkok (we spent six weeks there for reasons too complicated to go into here, but which had nothing to do with Butters) she was taken to Changi Airport’s quarantine station and kept overnight in this tiny cage. There is only one transport service per day between the airport and Sembawang quarantine facility, which is why most pets have to spend at least 12 hours here. I think the facilities should be improved – it’s pretty traumatising for a pet to fly on a plane and then be shunted into such a small space.

Mitchville's facilities for cat boarding
Mitchville’s facilities for cat boarding

This is probably the most important part of my post: if your pet is coming to Australia, it needs to spend 30 days in quarantine, plus an extra 10 in a boarding facility or a private home (anywhere, basically) while the final blood test results are processed in Australia. My husband and I used Mitchville Relopet, and they were going to keep Butters in their “cat boarding facility” for those 10 days. I was so glad I accompanied Butters to Singapore and visited their facilities, which are just a spare room out the back of their offices without windows. The picture above is where they were going to keep Butters for 10 days (for a fee of around SGD$25). As you can see, it’s unacceptable.

A non-air conditioned room at the Pet Boarding Centre in Singapore.
A non-air conditioned room at the Pet Boarding Centre in Singapore.

Staff at Mitchville tried telling me that because Singapore is such a small country, it doesn’t have catteries with bigger spaces (?!). However I visited a couple and found a really good one called Pet Boarding Centre, and paid them, rather than Mitchville to keep Butters for 10 days before her flight to Australia. The photo above is where Butters stayed.

That's Regina of the Pet Boarding Centre, cuddling her charges. She's really lovely.
That’s Regina of the Pet Boarding Centre, cuddling her charges. She’s really lovely.

Pet Boarding Centre has air-conditioned and non-air conditioned rooms (as there were fans and a breeze, we opted for non-air conditioned, though in quarantine she had air conditioning) and Regina sent videos of her playing with Butters every day via Whats App. I don’t think I’ve ever missed Butters so much, seeing those videos, but it was so good to know she was being cared for.

The outdoor play area at Pet Boarding Centre in Singapore.
The outdoor play area at Pet Boarding Centre in Singapore.

It also has an outdoor playing facility – Regina gives each cat a run once or twice a day. At the time, the outdoor play area had about 20 cats in it – they were all owned by a woman who had been evicted from her apartment in Singapore for owning too many cats. They were staying here while she found a new apartment (a tough mission, to be sure…)

IMG_20161004_170347We tried to make Butters as comfy as we could during her 30 days in quarantine. Like guilty parents trying to appease her for what we had to put her through, we bought her a tonne of toys from one of the amazing, and sometimes zany, pet stores in Bangkok (think high fashion outfits and swimming goggles for dogs). As you can see, I lined her bed with a couple of our old t-shirts, as cats are apparently calmed by being able to smell their owners. Everything is destroyed when a cat leaves quarantine – you can’t ask for the toys to travel with your pet to the quarantine facilities in Melbourne (and no visits are allowed).

IMG_20161006_162036Here’s a picture of me and Butters smooching on the floor of her quarantine cell. You don’t need to travel with your cat to quarantine – my husband and I were just being hyper-vigilant, but I’m glad we were.

IMG_20160916_083547Above is a picture of Butters leaving Yangon airport in Myanmar in September 2016. Exporting a pet is a nerve-wracking and costly process – I do recommend hiring a pet relocation company to help you wade through the paperwork and processes, but I also recommend staying on top of things yourself. Check what you’re being charged for also.

Butters at Sydney Airport - finally!
Butters at Sydney Airport – finally!

Here’s a picture of Butters two months later, at Sydney Airport. There were times when it felt like we’d never get to this point, such was the stress of it. It wouldn’t have been a happy time for Butters and it certainly wasn’t for us either (we were so mopey without her!), but as soon as she was reunited with us she showed no signs of being affected by it. She was back to her usual playful self right away. However it’s recommended that you keep your cat inside for at least six weeks after quarantine because they’re a bit disorientated and might run away. Butters is an indoor/balcony cat anyhow, so that wasn’t an issue for us.

For tips on moving a cat in Asia (in this case, from Bangkok to Myanmar), check out my 2012 blog post. Note that countries that have rabies are a lot more relaxed in general for obvious reasons, but it’s infinitely more difficult to then move a pet from a country with rabies to places that are free of it, such as the UK, Japan, Australia and Singapore. It cost us around $7,000 to get Butters to Sydney – that’s no small fee and I do question whether it really needs to cost so much. Pet lovers would pay just about any amount they can afford to keep their cat or dog with them and there were times when I wondered whether the costs have gotten out of control. Anyway, there’s nothing to be done about it I guess and we’re just really happy to have Butters with us in our new home in Australia. I’m also grateful that quarantine in Australia has been cut from six months to 10 days.

Good luck with the pet export process. Remember that one day it will be behind you and you’ll scarcely give it a second thought once it’s over with.

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