Tag Archives: china

The Good Girl of Chinatown

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.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Signed Books

The Three-Body Problem

I’ve been saving this book to read for ages because I knew, I just KNEW, it was going to be good. I have a soft spot for science fiction, but one thing that really bugs me about science fiction is how American it always is. For some reason, first contact with extra-terrestrials always seems to happen in America and, considering it’s a big wide world out there, I’ve always found it a bit hard to believe that only America has the technology, the wherewithal, the interest in making that first contact. So when I found out that a Chinese science fiction novel won the Hugo award, I knew that I would have to read this book.

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“The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu, translated into English by Ken Liu, is a science fiction novel that begins in China during the cultural revolution. It is the first in a series of three books called “Remembrance of Earth’s Past”. Ye Winjie, an astrophysics graduate, watches her father be beaten to death by Red Guards. After she is sent to Inner Mongolia to join a labour, an incident occurs that puts her life and future at risk. However, she is thrown a lifeline when she is given the opportunity to join a mysterious military communications centre. There’s only one catch: she will have to stay there the rest of the life. Decades later, a nanotechnology researcher called Wang Miao is asked to assist in the investigation of the deaths of several scientists. After experiencing some inexplicable disturbances in his vision, he decides to relax by playing a game he has seen others play: a virtual reality game called Three Body.

This book is the best science fiction novel I have read in a very long time. It is simply superb. If you enjoy science fiction, you’ll enjoy this – I promise you. Cixin Liu is a genius, the science in this book is fascinating, the writing is great (with plenty of helpful but unobtrusive footnotes from the translator) and I found myself whispering “Wow.” after every chapter I finished.

I’ve read quite a lot of Chinese fiction recently, and there are two themes that I almost always notice. One – the stories often centre in some way on the Cultural Revolution. Two – the writing is excellent. I think the only people who would not enjoy this book are people who are not frequent readers of the science fiction genre. Some may think that the characters aren’t interesting or developed enough, but personally I think that the author has kept the characters a little out of focus so that it’s easier for people to relate to them, and also so that the thrust of the story is front and centre.

This book was excellent. It’s up there with the top three books I’ve read this year. I can’t wait to read the rest in the series. I’ve already mailed it to the next person insisting they read it. It was unbelievably refreshing and I can’t recommend it enough.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, I confess I hadn’t heard of this book until the author came to visit Canberra and speak at the National Library of Australia. Although softly-spoken, Madeleine Thien is clearly a passionate and deeply knowledgeable person. She very kindly signed a copy of her book for me and I was very much looking forward to reading it.

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“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien is a family saga set in Mao’s China. Crossing a generation and a continent, the story is about a young Chinese-Canadian girl Marie and a mysterious girl called Ai-Ming who comes to live with Marie and her mother after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. As Marie learns more about Ai-Ming’s family, she grows to understand how they are connected and the lasting impact of the Chinese communist regime on the generations that survived.

This is one of those books where I’m really reluctant to say too much because I really don’t want to detract from the whole experience. Although it begins slowly, this book gradually unfurls into an extraordinarily beautiful novel. In fact, if you find you’re struggling with it in the beginning, I would strongly recommend that you put on the Goldberg Variations referenced so frequently to better ground yourself in the story. I also found the music better connected me to the characters, especially the beloved trio Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai.

I’ve read a number of books set around different aspects of Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution, and some excellent ones are Wolf Totem and The Four Books. This is the first one I have read that I have come away feeling like I now have a deep, nuanced and holistic understanding of the history and trauma of those tumultuous decades in China. This is also the first time I’ve seen an author pit two generations against one another in quite this way, capturing both how devastating and inspiring the power of the people can be when harnessed.

I think I might just about leave it there, except to say that this is a profound and beautifully written book that warms up to a crescendo ending that will leave you changed forever.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Signed Books