Becoming Madame Min
Felix Cheong speaks with Anchee Min on formation of character
By Felix Cheong
Born and raised in communist China, Anchee Min was taught to write "Long live Chairman Mao" before she was taught to write her own name. Her family lived in a rough neighbourhood in Shanghai where she joined the Red Guard, Mao's notorious youth group, in order to escape being beaten and persecuted.
At age 17, Min was among 100,000 students sent to labour camps near the East China Sea. There, using primitive tools, she and the other students built canals, worked at land expansion and constructed their own barracks. For three years, she laboured in the leech-infested fields growing cotton and rice.
Min's fate changed overnight in 1976. The ageing Mao was dying and his wife, Jiang Ching was preparing to take over China. Believing that film would be the most effective way to influence the masses, Madame Mao sent talent scouts throughout the nation looking for a "proletarian image" to star in her propaganda films.
Min was spotted while working in a cotton field. She was brought to the Shanghai Film Studio although she had never acted in her life. But in 1976, while her first film was in production, Mao died. Madame Mao fell from power - as did all associated with her. Min was denounced.
In 1984, with the help of her friend, the actress Joan Chen, she immigrated to the US. She started learning English by watching Sesame Street. Within 10 years, she had written her best-selling memoir Red Azalea, a New York Times Notable Book. She then went on to publish three novels: Katherine, Becoming Madame Mao and Wild Ginger. Her fifth book, Empress Orchid, was published in last year.
Min was in Singapore last year at the invitation of the Singapore Tourism Board. Felix Cheong met her for a chat at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
FC: How do you respond to criticisms that your book plays on “exotica” in a way that pleases the West?
AM: I love criticisms and I embrace criticisms of all kinds. It doesn’t matter how bad it can be. The critic took the time to read my book. Maybe he experienced suffering, or pleasure, but at least it’s a sincere response. So on that point, I give him credit.
Regarding what they wrote about me, it has to do with perceptions and has to do with their own experiences. For example, in China, a lot of scholars and historians didn’t like Empress Orchid. Their view is based on what they learned, what people wrote in the past. They don’t know that many of these things are not accurate. They don’t have that perspective to see things in context – that to demonise the last empress of China was to demonise China. That it was an excuse for the Opium War, to push opium to China. That was the conspiracy, but they don’t see it.
It’s the same with how I am as a writer. I am from China. And I ate from trashcans. And I got beaten up as a child. All these experiences play a key role in the formation of my character. I am who I am today because of what happened to me before.
When you say I’m writing to please the West, you’re being very honest. I will not deny I had the intention to make my book a bestseller.
I think you can be so self-righteous. It’s the domination of their literature in the world market. We want to keep our integrity, by being aloof. I respect that. But for me, I was thinking, “Honestly, what do I want America to know?”
When my daughter was one year old, I went to the park one day. There was a young boy, 10 years old, blonde. He came up to me and said, “Are you Chinese?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “You see those three teenaged boys over there? They asked me to ask you if they could fuck you.” My English [at that time] was not good enough. I was angry. I got into a situation where I lost my English. The raw feeling was: Am I not going to do anything and let my daughter grow up in this environment? The children – they’re innocent. But what made them think the way they think? In textbooks, there’s no such thing as a hero or heroine from China, or of Asian culture.
There’s no spot in the popular mass market that offers them the opportunity to learn about us beyond the face of a geisha, a skin-deep impression of the East. Something soulful, something that would make them cry. There is, in a sense, a blank page there, if it’s not being miswritten, misrepresented. All these years, it’s still Western literature dominating the market. This became a motivation for my writing.
FC: Do you see yourself as a textbook example of an immigrant made good in America?
AM: It’s up to you to judge me. I would say that I’m not very talented, but I work hard. If you want to credit me for that, then I’d be very honoured. Definitely, I’m not a talent.
I think America embraced me because I show something very human – the imperfections of the human soul. Negativity is not necessarily evil; it’s part of the beauty. Yang doesn’t exist without yin; the balance of things. But China is kind of nervous about that. It can be easily used by whoever wants to demonise China. There are a hundred years of misunderstanding – perhaps on purpose? – and fiction writers in the West take delight in portraying evil Chinese men in movies and books, and I think it’s time to change all that. It’s very political.
FC: Do Chinese actors like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat balance the negative portrayal of Chinese men?
AM: That’s what we need. But we need it further. Not just kung fu – that’s on the outside – but the strength of the Chinese soul. Through poetry, through acceptance. This is a balancing game.
FC: Speaking of actors, do you do any acting these days?
AM: No! You ask me to cry on cue? No way!
FC: But if you could get someone to play you in the movie, who would it be? Joan Chen, perhaps?
AM: To get Joan Chen to play Anchee Min would be an insult! She’s a friend but I’m nothing! Don’t even mention that; you embarrass me! No, it’s not something I think about.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 2 Jan 2005