This 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.