The Good Girl of Chinatown – Jenevieve Chang

Ahead of her upcoming talk at Muse Canberra on Saturday 6 May, we get to know Jenevieve Chang, writer and performer.

How would you describe yourself to a stranger?

“If you’d like to get to know me better, I hope you enjoy dancing and intense conversation.”

What do you hope people get out of reading your book?

I see my book as a bit of an anti-morality tale. The social convention of judging people –especially the way we sometimes train girls from a young age to see themselves –  in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can be very limiting. Essentially, what is being asked is: can you conform to my expectations of who I think you should be? I think it’s important that people learn to separate themselves from that, and assess themselves on their own terms.

The book is also a sly love letter to difficult relationships, with people as well as cities. In life, passion often overrides pragmatism, and that thing that makes something special to you and only you – is the thing that lingers long after the rest of the world has moved on. For my grandmother, it was the desire for her mother’s approval long after she had already passed away. For me, it was falling in love with a city like Shanghai – seduced by contemporary fantasies that this glittering metropolis represented a place where East meets West, and where anything was possible. To me, this was dangerously –  and became almost fatally – attractive.

There are so many different themes in The Good Girl of Chinatown, including the recurring motif of journeys/escape – how did you decide how the narrative would unfold, to form the structure of the book?

Like many travellers after a long stint away, I experienced grand adventures, hit some tricky patches, had my heart broken and then came home. Granted, transforming into a Shanghai showgirl halfway through was a bit unique. Initially, this was the story I thought I was going to tell.

Halfway through my first draft, as I started interrogating the reasons behind why things happened the way they did, why I made some of the decisions I made – I realized the breadth of my story went beyond lived experience. The root of it could be traced back to the generations before. And the more I travelled down this path, the more a different dimension opened up.  It became a story about war, about people getting trapped in the power struggle between governments, about how the personal is political.

By the second draft, the narrative was a mess. There was a lot of time and continent leaping and a few too many characters. It was only in the third draft that I finally clarified that my story was about running away. Not only had I been running away from my family but my grandmother had been running away from the communists, and my father was running away from survivor’s guilt. And all the other characters in my story became about people who were running away – from love, from responsibility, from the global financial crisis, even from themselves. Once I established this as the dominant theme, the story began to tell itself. The multi layered narrative began to interlock as characters and events connected up around this central idea, across space and time.

Tell us a bit about the issues with Australian theatre in terms of diversity and inclusion – how would you like your story to help address these issues?

Compared to 20 years ago, it is heartening to see how far the conversation’s developed. It was one of the reasons I left Australia initially –opportunities were so few and far between and when they did come my way, I had to be someone so utterly different from my life experience (i.e. someone who didn’t speak English). Don’t get me wrong – there’s still a long way to go! But at least now the conversation has broadly moved on from why it’s important to have our stories reflect a more inclusive society, to how can we improve on what we’re already doing. That is, how we make sure that the way we address diversity is beyond mere tokenism. That we’re not just trotting out the same Western narratives with a ‘diverse’ cast. That the stories themselves are from the lived experience of those who haven’t exactly belonged to the dominant culture.  I hope my story is just one of a multiplicity of perspectives that continue to populate an ever enriching tapestry.

What can people expect from your talk at Muse?

I’ve been experimenting with what my prose would look like as a one-woman script without it being too “performancey.” It’s still a bit raw…what we like to call a ‘work-in-progress ‘ showing in theatre parlance. But I’m having great fun making it. Every opportunity to reimagine my narrative for new audiences is a fresh creative journey. I also hope people aren’t too shy to ask me some hard questions afterwards.

What’s next for you in terms of theatre/writing?

I’m directing a new play by Melissa Lee Speyer, which looks at the various pressures that can cause a familial relationship to break down; and I’ve started to think about my next book….and this time, it’ll be fiction.

You can book your ticket to hear Jenevieve talk on Saturday 6 May, at 5pm here.

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