Inside Chinatown, a risqué club attempting to establish itself as the first of its kind in Shanghai, perhaps in all of China, a vaudeville dream unfolds night after night, mesmerising audiences with showgirls in various states of undress, dancing in perfectly timed cabaret and tantalizing solo performances. Alcohol flows and music plays. But behind its glitzy front, the club is barely scraping by in a seemingly endless cycle of debt, made worse by brewing feuds between the talent, and a dysfunctional management who just can’t seem to get it together.
In her new book, The Good Girl of Chinatown, Jenevieve Chang offers her story as a leading member of the infamous burlesque dance troupe, the China Dolls of Chinatown.
Chang shares intimate – sometimes scandalous – details about the lives of performers and patrons inhabiting the club within an account of a path that led her from Australia, to London, to China, and back again. It’s an intriguing and candid insight into the life of a performer and showgirl on the move, one fraught with considerable troubles, including numerous relationship breakdowns. Alongside it is interjections of significant events in the lives of past generations of women in Chang’s family, including her paternal grandmother, mother, paternal aunt, and sister. This enthralling journey spans across continents, decades, and generations.
The book touches on topics such as family and relationships, conflict and disorder, cultural etiquette and expectations, migration, expatriatism – and its impact on gender roles and displacement, and cultural differences and indifferences between locals and migrants of the same heritage. Theoretically, these notions weave soundly into the narrative. In actuality its construction lets it down.
The depth in which the individual’s stories and their essential parts might have been broached is impacted by the structure, which constantly switches between plot points, sometimes spliced mid-chapter, or even between paragraphs. The effect is jolting.
It is worth mentioning that this is Chang’s first novel, and she does an incredible job of offering substance in description, amply building settings and characters into the mind of the reader. However, perhaps with all best intentions, the book is trying to do too much at once.
It reads as a mish-mash of memoir and biography, creative non-fiction and fiction, stories within stories, flash backs and flash forwards layered on top of each other. Readers are left to pick at the storyline, and place together the bits and pieces strewn throughout. But, in any case, it’s a book with potential, and within its scattering of segments, there are profound stories which deserve the justice of being told.
The Good Girl of Chinatown is available online and in bookstores now.