October’s review: The Good Girl of Chinatown by Jenevieve Chang, reviewed by Jess Gately

Earlier this year I mentioned this book as part of my TBR list. Its blurb about a journey through Chang’s past peppered with themes of racism and reverse-racism intrigued me, but whilst it certainly delivered these things, this was not the book I was expecting. This was much more the story of a lost soul searching for a home than I had initially suspected.

The story begins with a hungover Chang waking up to be informed of her drunken antics the night before. Lamenting her behaviour she reflects on how she came to be a drunken burlesque dancer in Shanghai’s first (and only) burlesque club. A young Jenevieve moves from Australia to London to pursue her career in dancing and escape the hardships of her family and racism within her industry. Once in London, she meets her husband but finds herself mired in his complex family dynamics. Desperate to escape, she suggests they move to Shanghai and start a new life together there. In Shanghai things begin to crumble around her as she faces a failing marriage and anti-racism on both a professional and personal level.

Interwoven with Jenevieve’s journey is the story of her mother and grandmother. While the blurb of the book suggests that Jenevieve is following in their steps searching for a new homeland, it seems to me that it is their search for meaningful relationships and a loving family that binds the three stories together. Hence it feels that the overall journey in this story is not just about finding a physical place of belonging but an emotional one too.

Chang’s story is emotionally raw and vividly candid. I admire the openness in her approach and the frankness with which she discusses her shortcomings. From struggling to deal with the bizarre world of reverse-racism – she is called a banana: ‘yellow on the outside, white on the inside’ by her friends and struggles to find work because she does not look foreign – to her unwillingness to engage in meaningful relationships, Chang lays herself, and her family, bare for all to read.

Whilst the prose is well-written and the characters are well-rounded, the frequent switching of the narrative between Jenevieve’s story and that of her mother and grandmother can sometimes be confusing. At times it’s also unclear exactly how the snippet of her family’s story directly relates to the corresponding part of her own story. However, there is certainly something to be gained from understanding how her family’s history plays a part in her story of displacement. Much of her inability to belong, particularly in relationships, stems from a fear of being hurt, something not fully understood until later in the book as her family’s history plays out.

Likewise it would have been nice to see some further exploration of her feelings around being a burlesque dancer as it feels that she barely skimmed the surface on these possibilities. Although her role in burlesque started as something empowering for her and the women she taught, as her career progresses she begins to feel that she is nothing more than a glorified stripper. The comments made by her ‘friends’ after viewing her performance and about her ability to choreograph lead her to feel inadequate in her talent.

Despite this it was refreshing to see a female figure who was not love-sick or love-driven for the entirety of the story. This book is definitely about a woman wanting to find her professional place as well as her personal one. If anything, Chang shies away from traditional female roles when it comes to themes of love, preferring ‘friends-with-benefits’ type arrangements over serious relationships. Even when discussing the origins of her marriage she is clear to identify that love and family is not her goal, rather there was practicality (and a visa) involved in being married.

Different parts of this memoir will appeal to different readers. Children of immigrant parents may be drawn towards her search for a physical home amongst the background of strict rules and longing for a homeland that no longer exists. Artists may be drawn to her struggle to earn money but still express herself in her dance. Women may be drawn to the ideas surrounding sex and dance as a tool for empowering ourselves.

This isn’t the sort of book that you’re going to walk away from feeling light and happy. However, it is certainly the sort of read you won’t want to put down. Although the conclusion felt somewhat open-ended – I suppose I was hoping for a finale in which Jenevieve had found her home – I think in retrospect this allowed for more of the themes to take shape. The open ending to her story ensures that no matter what aspect of her life you identify with, there is still hope that it will work out in the end, and that you don’t need to know what form your happy ending will take in order to make a change to a situation that is clearly not working.

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