Susan Blumberg-Kason reviews Creating Across Cultures
Sometime during my early years of learning Mandarin, I heard the name Michelle Vosper. If memory serves me right, my Mandarin tutor back in 1990 mentioned a friend or acquaintance in Hong Kong, where I was headed at the end of that summer for a study abroad year. I never met Ms. Vosper that year or the other four I lived in Hong Kong, but it seemed serendipitous when I was introduced to her book late last year in Chicago by the English translators of Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong’s Wild Boar.
Vosper’s edited volume, Creating Across Cultures: Women in the Arts from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, features 16 women artists from Greater China, including Chong, one of Hong Kong’s most sought-after playwrights. I empathized with Chong’s struggles to fit into her new life in Hong Kong as a young girl – during my years in Hong Kong, I had befriended other women with similar backgrounds and always marveled at how they adapted to a new language, culture and climate, all without complaint. In Chong’s case, she moved from her more spacious home in Fujian to cramped living conditions in Hong Kong, learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture in the late 1970s. The other women featured in this book overcame their own struggles and became leaders in their fields, whether writing, acting, opera, dance, performance art or visual art.
At first glance, Creating Across Cultures appears like a textbook – it’s a large, heavy hardcover – and not something a layperson would pick up. But after I read the chapter on Chong, I knew at least part of the book would not read like a textbook. And as it turned out, none of it did. It’s more of an art show catalogue, and the size of the book allows for the many colorful photographs and informative sidebars.
Vosper writes in her introduction that women artists in Greater China have not been celebrated anywhere near to the extent of their male counterparts, although Hong Kong is a little more advanced in this area than China and Taiwan. The women portrayed in Creating Across Cultures have more than just the arts in common. They all received Asian Cultural Council (ACC) fellowships to travel abroad. Vosper was familiar with many of these women because she ran the ACC’s Hong Kong program for 25 years starting in the mid-1980s. Founded in 1963 by the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Fund, the fellowships promote exchanges between artists in Asia and the West. According to Vosper, the women featured in the book “all have embarked on journeys beyond their borders and cultures and genres to expand their artistic horizons; and that these women have persevered, often without traditional Chinese societies and fields of art, where they must make difficult choices and go against the grain.”
Nieh Hualing’s chapter is the first in the book, and it’s one of my favorites. Written by Vosper herself, this introductory chapter sets the tone that carries throughout the book. Born in Wuhan, Nieh fled to Taiwan in the late 1940s and became a well-known writer and literary editor in 1960s Taipei, despite repressive conditions under Chiang Kai-shek’s martial law. In the mid-1960s, she met Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, when he traveled to Asia to recruit writers for his illustrious program. She received an ACC fellowship and left her two daughters back in Taiwan with her husband while she attended Iowa. Her marriage had been in trouble before she left Taiwan and she worried about never seeing her daughters again.
Nieh successfully petitioned to bring her girls to Iowa and subsequently filed for divorce after they were safely in the US. She married Engle and in 1967 started the International Writing Program, also at the University of Iowa, which she ran for decades. Because she understood what it meant to live under repressive conditions, Nieh encouraged writers from areas like the Eastern Bloc to apply for the IWP and was the first person since Mao came into power to bring together writers from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. This conference took place in the 1970s, around the time the US broke relations with Taiwan and re-established ties with China. The Taiwanese government was not happy about Nieh’s interference in cross-strait relations.
What surprised me most wasn’t that Nieh was so successful and well-known in writing communities in the US and in Asia, or even a rebel in international relations, but that I hadn’t known she ran one of the most prestigious writing programs in the world. This seemed to be a theme with the other artists in the book. They are all prominent pioneers in their fields, so why haven’t we heard more about them? The world became familiar with Chinese film in the 1980s from male directors like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang, members of China’s “Fifth Generation” of filmmakers and first graduating class of film students after the Cultural Revolution ended. But what about the women?
In one chapter, Jennifer Feeley writes about Yang Lina, a Chinese documentary filmmaker who followed in the footsteps of Fifth Generation women, who “turned their attention to present-day urban tales, revealing a range of thematic and aesthetic concerns,” unlike the male directors who directed epic movies known for their “lush, heroic narratives.” Since the late 1990s, Yang has become one of China’s premier documentary filmmakers, but her movies are mostly banned in China unless she produces them in Hong Kong, thereby bypassing the censors.
Hong Kong’s special role in the arts is a prevailing theme. Although the territory is often labeled a cultural desert, Clare Tyrrell-Morin, the author of the chapter on Hong Kong installation artist Choi Yan Chi, writes that “the tagline is misleading, for the city has always had no shortage of artists or visionaries who have found sanctuary in the colony.” This became evident as I read about the many women featured in this book who have connections to Hong Kong, whether it’s Choi Yan Chi or Yang Lina and her production team, or Yang Meiqi, a mainland modern dance pioneer based in Guangdong Province who has received major funding from artists in Hong Kong.
I was struck by how many of these artists overcame harsh living conditions and repressive governments to become leaders in these creative fields. It was all the more remarkable because they encountered challenges unique to women professionals. Quite a few struggled to balance motherhood with their demanding careers. If they had been men, they wouldn’t have had to juggle their family and professional lives.
I saw this in academia in Hong Kong in the 1990s when men from China moved to Hong Kong for their academic careers, leaving wives and children behind. The women I knew who made the same trip didn’t have children. So the message I received then was that women couldn’t have it all. But the women in Creating Across Cultures defied that, especially when they went abroad on their ACC fellowships. Many felt a deep solidarity with the struggles other women outside of the arts have and the struggles they’ve endured in their fields, but the filmmaker Yang Lina viewsed censorship in China – not her gender – as the main obstacle to succeeding in her profession.
While I never met Vosper all those years ago, about halfway through the book I froze when I came across a familiar face in the chapter about Macanese composer Bun-ching Lam. In a photo from Lam’s opera, Wenji: Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute, I spotted my ex-husband’s new wife, an acclaimed singer who only started studying opera at the age of 19 and performed in Lam’s opera in both New York and Hong Kong. I read one paragraph over and over, putting together for the first time the timeline of when my ex-husband met his new wife.
I became a feminist in Hong Kong, where I came to realize how difficult it is for all women, no matter our backgrounds, to overcome trying situations. For me, it was a dysfunctional marriage which led to a writing career. For the women in Creating Across Cultures, it was beating the odds to change the landscape of the arts in Greater China. ∎