Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang reviews Susan Blumberg-Kason’s GOOD CHINESE WIFE
This is a compelling but heart breaking and courageous memoir about Jewish American, Susan Blumberg-Kason, finding romance with a man from Hubei in the People’s Republic of China, and the story of how this passionate love turned into a nightmare. I cannot help admiring the author for writing and sharing so frankly and openly such deeply personal and emotional issues.
A post graduate student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the 1990s, shy mid-westerner Susan, met tall, dark, handsome divorcee, Cai, who was a doctoral student at the University and had a daughter by his previous marriage. For her it was love at first sight. Her passion was overwhelming. She ignored the difficulties as they struggled to communicate in his limited English and her newly acquired Mandarin, and hurriedly got to know each other through language exchanges and ballroom dancing. Cai’s love and commitment came across as confused from the start. He had no intention of living in America, and as a citizen of the PRC he had no residence rights in Hong Kong either. Susan, for her part, knew from experience that she could not live in mainland China which, in those days, was foreigner unfriendly in all sorts of ways. For Cai, dating someone was equivalent to a declaration of intent to marry. Instead of sensing danger Susan was bowled over by what was a highly romantic idea to her.
Blinded by her own passion, Susan married Cai. But even before the marriage celebrations were completed problems emerge. On their wedding night Cai insisted on watching a porn movie. Before long, Susan realised that he had a homosexual relationship with a Japanese professor, and enjoyed peep shows and frequenting prostitutes. His response to her disquiet was to bully and degrade his new wife. Frightened, worried, distressed, even infected by her husband with a sexually transmitted disease that threatened her long term fertility, Susan did not talk to her family and friends and struggled to make the marriage work.
Things did not get better after their son was born and the couple moved to America.
“I had just assumed Cai would see the United States through my eyes. But now I realized that way of thinking was both naïve and mistaken. Of course he would view America through his own eyes, just as I saw China through mine, not his.”
As their marriage fell apart, one cannot but sense that Susan was romanticizing not just Cai, the man she fell in love with, but the idea of China and Chinese culture that she was so passionate about. Cai was the personification of her romantic ideals. She not only married a handsome man but what she wanted to believe in of the China of her imagination.
This book is at the same time memoir, travelogue and historical document. It not only tells of a bright, intelligent young woman whose trust, love and optimism were so cruelly betrayed, but also beautifully evokes the gritty hardship of life in 1990s China, and the gulf between the mainland and Hong Kong, and China and the USA. But Susan was not just in love with Cai and China. She was also seduced by cosmopolitan Hong Kong during the 1990s boom, and the final flurry of the British Empire; the neon lights, glitzy skyscrapers, Wanchai bars and parties, the islands, sunshine and swimming pools, and a city that promised endless possibilities to young educated expats.
The story is poignant not just because it tells of Susan’s coming of age, but also that of Hong Kong; the city that she fell in love with, and fell in love in, has had to face up to brutal realities since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 and the handover in 1997. It is fair to say that the Hong Kong she describes in Good Chinese Wife is no more. Powerfully touching and brutally frank this book, along with Jan Wong’s Red China Blues which tells of a Canadian American seeking to find herself in Maoist China, should be compulsory reading for all foreigners spending time in China.
Read more about Susan Blumberg-Kason’s THE GOOD CHINESE WIFE (Sourcebooks 2014)
Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a British novelist and author of THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA
“Epic, tender, brutal; a story of little people are mercy of forces greater than themselves, the betrayal of ideals, the slow, agonising loss of the old China, and the search for a China that has yet to be found.