Memoir about burlesque dancing in Shanghai
Content warning: racism, drug use, family violence
Three years ago I went to an event at Muse Bookstore where I saw this author speak about her new memoir. Even though it was a great talk and I was interested enough to buy a copy of the book for the author to sign, for one reason or another, this book has waited very patiently on my bookshelf since then for its turn. This year I have been making a bit more of an effort to get through my to-read shelves, and it was high time I read this book.
“The Good Girl of Chinatown” by Jenevieve Chang is a memoir about her experiences as a burlesque dancer in Shanghai, China in the late 2000s. After moving to the UK from Sydney to study dance, Jenevieve marries a man of Nigerian heritage called Femi. Although she envies his close-knit family, living with three generations under the one roof eventually becomes too much, and the couple jump at a job opportunity for Femi as a yoga teacher in Shanghai. Despite her family being from China, Jenevieve struggles to find a place in the performing arts scene in a city looking for Western faces. She mixes instead with an eclectic mix of “expats“. Her marriage slowly unravelling, when an opportunity comes up to star as a showgirl in a vaudeville, Jenevieve jumps at the chance. Cecil’s dreams of a club called Chinatown are intoxicating, and it’s easy to overlook some of the issues with payment, venues and transparency in the beginning. However, when things begin to really fall apart, Jenevieve is forced to face up to who she is beneath the costumes and performance and the traumas that ripple through generations of her family.
As I have mentioned many times on this blog, memoir is a genre that I often struggle with. However, this was an excellent memoir. Chang is a natural storyteller blending hard truths and entertainment on every page. The structure of this book was very effective using three key perspectives: Chang in the first person, Jenevieve as a child in the third person and fictionalised accounts of family history. I think it is a really courageous thing to write about your family, and although Chang provides plenty of empathy and cultural and historical context, she does not shy away from writing about the impact of corporal punishment on her family. One of the most powerful parts of this book, after having learned as a reader about Chang’s grandparents being exiled to Taiwan after the fall of Kuomintang in 1949 and Chang’s own estrangement from her parents, was her connection with family who still live in China.
However, Chang’s experience as a burlesque dancer and “Chinatown Girl” was also riveting reading. Cecil is the classic charming con artist, winning supporters over with his plans for Chinatown as the next great thing while quickly succumbing to greed and siphoning invested money instead of paying staff and contractors. Despite little to no pay, the performers are whisked along on a journey of late nights, flowing champagne and many creative differences. There was a particularly striking part of the book where many of the performers are taking an experimental drug that just seems to be available all the time, and it is strongly suggested that whoever is providing it is using the performers as guinea pigs. A big turning point in the book is Chang’s realisation that the Chinatown concept is a nostalgic colonial fiction that bares no resemblance to her family’s experience of 20th century China.
This is a captivating memoir and a testimony to Chang’s flexibility as an artist. In a time where the possibility of Australians travelling to and living in Shanghai in the near future is extremely low, and anti-Asian racism is on the rise, this is an important book as well as a great read.