If Yao Ming had lived in Qing Dynasty China, perhaps his astonishing height might have landed him a role in a circus or onstage.
That was the life of Zhan Shicai, better known among Western audiences as Chang Woo Gow, whose towering stature (he reportedly stood over 8 feet tall) propelled him into such a career in the 1800s, including a stint in P.T. Barnum’s famous circus freak show that toured the US.
Born in Qing-era China in the 1840s, Chang Woo Gow made his first appearance abroad in London in 1865 at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, together Kin Foo, his onstage wife, and the dwarf Chung Mow. An article published on Nov 9, 1893 in the London Times described what Chang Woo Gow’s performances were like in that era:
Amidst a hushed room Chang would arise to the tinkles of bells and a piano playing a Polka. He slowly descended to greet his audience, and to gasps of amazement at his great height, he would gently shake hands with those nearest the front. With excitedly playing music he would “chin chin” to his audience and then, with a great flourish of gongs he would majestically regain his throne – and the exhibition would be finished.
The admission fees to this spectacle of Victorian human curiosity were up to three shillings. Chang’s employers disgracefully refused him permission to walk about town with the shameful excuse that this lowered his value as an “exhibit”. This he found untenable, and longed for a quieter life.
Indeed, as Chang Woo Gow, who went on to tour Europe, the US and Australia as “Chang the Chinese Giant”, lived an existence which the Dorset Magazine characterized as “tawdry”:
Even though Barnum paid him the handsome sum of $500-a-month to dress up in Mandarin robes or the war-mongering finery of a Mongolian warrior, Chang almost certainly wished that it didn’t have to be that way.
He was fluent in six languages, gentle, intelligent, well-mannered and quiet by nature with no natural affinity for the brash showmanship of the circus world.
Still, traveling the globe allowed Chang Woo Gow to meet Catherine Santley, who enchanted him during his visit to Australia. They married in a church in Sydney and went on to have two children, Edwin and Ernest.
The couple eventually moved to a villa they dubbed “Moyuen” in Bournemouth, England, at a time when Chang Woo Gow suffered from tuberculosis. He opened a teahouse and store selling Chinese imports there. But surely he harbored deep affection for his wife Catherine, as the report in the London times stated that in 1893 “he died of a broken heart, at the age of 52, just four months after his wife’s death.”
As summer vacation has begun, this time of enchantment, love and travel feels like the perfect time to focus on a couple whose lives truly symbolize the spirit of the season — Australian Janet DeNeefe and Balinese Ketut Suardana, the duo behind some of the most magical dining and hospitality businesses in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.
A native of Melbourne, Australia, Janet DeNeefe found herself captivated with Bali when she first traveled to the island with family in 1974, and on a return trip in 1984, fell in love once again — this time, with a particular person, as described by an article published on the Four Seasons:
She met a Balinese man named Ketut, who at the time owned a successful art gallery and was studying political science in Denpasar. Within five years, she had moved there, the pair had wed, and they had opened their first restaurant, Lilies, on Monkey Forest Road.
DeNeefe had also fallen in love with Ubud, its people and the idea of helping visitors find their own love of her adopted hometown. This passion would transform DeNeefe into a tireless mini mogul, in a town where most expats are on permanent holiday.
Janet DeNeefe and Ketut Suardana went on to open Casa Luna and the Indus Restaurant, both premier dining spots in Bali, along with the top-rated Honeymoon Guesthouse. DeNeefe also launched the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in the 2000s and, more recently, the Ubud Food Festival. Some have dubbed her the “Queen of Ubud” and even compared her fairytale life to the acclaimed memoir Eat, Pray, Love (though it’s worth noting Janet DeNeefe wrote her own memoir titled Fragrant Rice).
In an interview in the Honeycombers, DeNeefe speaks of how the love between her and Ketut has evolved over the years:
Ketut, my husband – he’s around somewhere! We survive by staying out of each other’s hair. 80 percent of stuff we agree to, the other 20 percent we definitely don’t! You’re never going to be completely in tune after all. As you get older, it’s a different sort of love; it’s a deeper, more solid sense of security – where you know that you belong. It’s about having a family and being happy together.
I can laugh my way through anything, which works in Bali because there’s a real kind of ribald, slapstick humour here. After meeting my husband, our businesses grew, our families grew, and that was that!
You can explore the creations of Janet DeNeefe and Ketut Suardana by visiting the websites for Casa Luna (which served up some of the most memorable meals I enjoyed on two trips to Bali), the Indus Restaurant, and the Honeymoon Guesthouse. To learn more about Janet DeNeefe, visit her website or pick up a copy of her memoir Fragrant Rice.
What do you think about Janet DeNeefe and Ketut Suardana?
For some, their personal relationships brought them into the cause for Indonesian independence. For others, it was politics that led them to forge these relationships. But regardless, this happened at a time when racial segregation was still enforced in Australia.
One of these women was Lotte Maramis. Her husband Anton was among the Indonesians in exile in Australia after Japanese invasion. While Lotte wasn’t initially that politically active, that changed through her relationship with Anton. She met him through social gatherings in private homes:
Lotte fell in love with Anton Maramis, a Manadonese petty officer, and married him with her family’s support, although she battled much antagonism from the broader Australian public she encountered. Many other young Australian women faced strong opposition from families and friends to the decisions they made to marry their Indonesian fiancés and return with them to their homes once Independence had been declared.
But Lotte’s relationship with Anton was one that “proved strong enough to embrace and flourish in the very different society and cultures they found in Indonesia.”
Molly moved from helping to set up the new Australia-Indonesia Society, to developing a personal relationship with Mohammed Bondan, an ex-Digulist who was active contacting the new Indonesian government. Bondan and Molly moved to Brisbane in September 1945 to set up CENKIM, the Central Committee for Indonesian Intelligence and Molly herself took on a role operating the radio to receive broadcasts from the Republican government and writing the press releases to circulate the news. She married Bondan and they began a life together which continued when she joined him in Indonesia where she remained for the rest of her life.
In fact, after moving to Indonesia with their husbands, Molly and Lotte remained involved in supporting the newly independent country. They served as interpreters and journalists, and covered some major stories (such as the first Afro-Asian conference in Bandung 1955).
Mei Quong Tart may have married a white woman (Margaret Scarlett) in the late 1800s, a time when few dared to cross racial lines in the name of love. But he’s known less for his interracial marriage and more as one of the most beloved Chinese public figures in late Victorian Sydney, Australia.
He was educated by Mrs. Simpson, who took a lively interest in his welfare during the years he remained on the field, and, on leaving, Mr. Simpson gave him a big interest in an important gold claim, which the fortunate young protege turned to the best advantage. Mr. Tart employed about two hundred Chinese and Europeans, and in the course of a few years his mining speculations made him a comparatively wealthy man.
He could sing Scotch songs with singular pathos, recite Burns’ poems with a genuine accent, play Scotch airs on the piano, and jokingly alluded to himself as being a native of Aberdeen.
People would come to think of him as a regular English gentleman.
So it’s not surprising that when he resolved to marry, he chose to marry a Western woman. “…Quong’s good sense asserted itself, for he told his mother that when he did marry, it would be a European, for a Chinese woman in Australia would be but little help for him in carrying out the good works he intended doing.”
…Quong asked Margaret’s father, George Scarlett, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Even though he was a friend of Quong’s, George refused. Quong Tart and Margaret waited until the day after her twenty-first birthday, on 30 August 1886, and married anyway. Quong was then thirty-six. The appearance of grandchildren eventually reconciled Margaret’s parents to their daughter’s marriage.
His employees were ordered to treat all alike, whether they wore silk dresses or cheap prints, for Quong Tart had long learned that the silk dress did not make the lady, nor the fine black coat the gentleman.
Mei Quong Tart also became a well known philanthropist of his time, including building schools, caring for the poor, and supporting the local arts scene. He campaigned against the scourge of opium addiction in Sydney’s Chinatown.
…a well-known labour man was speaking in public and was pouring out his vials of wrath on “the wretched Chinese,” “everyone of whom,” he said, “he would, if he had his way, drive out of the State.” “Would you do that to Quong Tart,” cried out one from the crowd. “No, certainly not,” replied the Labour orator. “If they were all as good as Tart, I would let them stay here and come here, as they would be sure to be good citizens.”
Mei Quong Tart’s prominence in Sydney and his interest in the welfare of others, including his fellow Chinese, led to his involvement in some of Australia’s tragic anti-Chinese episodes.
For example, consider the case of the Afghan, a steamer carrying a large number of Chinese immigrants bound for Sydney in 1888. While the ship was en route to Australia, anti-Chinese groups successfully lobbied the government to pass a drastic Chinese Restriction Bill that made it impossible for anyone Chinese to land. It didn’t matter if they had all the lawful paperwork – if you were Chinese, you were denied entry. (Just replace “Chinese” with “a citizen of one of seven Muslim majority countries” and it sounds an awful lot like the US immigration brouhaha after Trump abruptly enacted his Muslim Ban 1.0 in early 2017.)
[Quong Tart] says that we can form little idea of the anger that was manifested by the masses in Hong Kong and Canton upon the return of the ships with the rejected immigrants on board. Many of the unfortunate people were landed in their native country in a state of utter destitution….when they landed after their enforced trip back they formed a rather striking illustration of the manner in which Australia had come to regard the question of Chinese immigration. Their want and destitution appealed to the sympathies of their countrymen and their stories of imprisonment on board the ships in Sydney Harbour inflamed the popular anger.
Mei Quong Tart’s service to the Chinese in Australia didn’t go unnoticed by the Chinese government, who named him acting Consular official to China and later conferred the title of Mandarin upon him.
The vast majority of people (whether consciously or unconsciously) date and marry within their own race.
According to Wikipedia, 97% of married white men and women in America are married to another white person, 89% of married black men and women are married to another black person and 91% of married Asian men and women are married to another Asian person.
If you happen to be in the less than 4% (according to Wikipedia only 3.9% of married couples in the US in 2008 were interracial couples – this is a big increase from less than 1% in 1990 but still an extremely low percentage) you are almost certain to get a question or comment about your interracial relationship at some point.
Both my fiance and I are Australian. I was born in Australia to anglo parents, he was born in China to Chinese parents.
While most people I’ve encountered don’t (at least openly) say anything about us being an interracial couple, I have encountered curiosity from both westerners and Asians as well as a few rare comments that are at least misguided if not racist.
The most common question I have gotten from Asians is a surprised “but how did you meet/get together with a Chinese guy?” while I’ve had both Asians and white people ask if I am “attracted to Asians”.
The first question stems mostly from curiosity, I think. While it’s fairly common to see white men with Asian women it is far more rare to see Asian men with white women (although I am happy to see it does seem to be getting more common).
The first question is also easy to answer – we were flatmates, we didn’t get along at all at first but slowly became friends and eventually fell in love.
The second question I honestly find bizarre. Imagine you asked that of a white person who was dating another white person “so, you are attracted to white people?”
No, I am not attracted to white people, or Asians, or black people or any race.
I am attracted to the man I am with because of WHO he is not what race he is.
I am attracted to him because he is strong but also prepared to show true vulnerability with me (something I have found to be incredibly rare).
I am attracted to him because he takes responsibility (for himself, for his decisions, for his family). He doesn’t expect anything from anyone.
I am attracted to him because he has an adventurous spirit and finds ways things can be done rather than putting them in the too hard basket.
I am attracted to him because he doesn’t shy away from things that are difficult, he faces challenges as they come up.
I am attracted to him because he knows what he wants and is prepared to work hard for it.
I am attracted to him because he prioritises what’s important to him and doesn’t let other things or other people run his life.
I am attracted to him because he’s upfront, he doesn’t manipulate or play games.
I am attracted to him because he is great at solving problems, an excellent traveller and can fix things.
Most of all I am attracted to him because we get each other on a level I find hard to explain – I haven’t felt this in any other relationship (even one that lasted for years).
Also, I think he’s pretty cute and his snuggles are second to none 🙂
Chi (her real name, no exotic background, pronounced Chai, like the tea) is engaged to a man who was born in China and grew up in Argentina before immigrating to Australia. Chi writes about her experiences (mostly her struggles trying to learn Mandarin) at www.talkingofchinese.com. —–
When an intercultural relationship ends – a relationship that deeply impacted who you are – what does it mean for your identity?
Serina Huang (a fantastic writer, blogger, mother and frugalista many of us know as the Taiwanxifu) writes, “Now that I am no longer with my Taiwanese husband, I am beginning to rediscover and question who I am. Will I keep my Asian surname? Am I Asian? Am I Western?”
Do you have a story you’d like to share on Speaking of China? Have a look at the submit a post page to learn more about how to become a guest poster.
“Is he Australian?” my friend Rose asked.
I knew what she meant, but still the question surprised me. I paused for a minute, before replying, “no, actually, he’s English.”
Her eyebrows went up slightly, and she gave a slight giggle. “Oh, Serina!”
For seventeen years I had shared my life with a Taiwanese man, with whom I bore two dual-cultural children. We were introduced while I was studying Mandarin Chinese at University: he had been my language partner, and – quite unexpectedly to all concerned, myself included – morphed into my partner with whom I hoped I would spend my life.
I have spent over twenty years being immersed in Chinese (and Taiwanese) culture. This isn’t something faddish, but rather something was essential in my role as a Taiwanese xifu or daughter-in-law. Before we were married, my Taiwanese mother-in-law told me that once I became a xifu I must become Taiwanese rather than a foreigner. (She also made it clear she expected to live with us and for me to care for her in her old age.) I laughed a little about this as it seemed absurd not to live like an Australian in my own country.
But somehow, bit by bit, I changed. I became an egg: outwardly white, yet inwardly Asian yellow. I would go to work and act out my work existence, but somehow felt different and apart, unsure about how to behave in the oddly open Australian office environment. I didn’t spend my evenings and weekends the way that other people seemed to; I rarely went out for after work drinks, rarely went to the movies, hardly ever watched commercial TV.
Instead I went home to cook for a house full of Asian people – for six years we had home-stay students and invariably they were Chinese, broken up occasionally by Japanese or Korean students. I bought rice in 10kg bags (only ever high-grade Japonica rice, which I cooked in a special Ta-tung electric cooker we had imported from Taiwan). I only purchased the proper brand of naturally brewed soy sauce. I learned through trial and error to cook meals that tasted the way a Chinese mother would have made them. I still remember the night my husband nodded with appreciation because I had stir-fried a simple meal of Hokkien chicken noodles just right “That tastes like it was cooked by someone Chinese, not like a lao wai,” he said, scooping up mouthfuls of the noodles with relish in his shiny metal chopsticks.
We were always saving money to invest in properties that would help build a better future for us and for the children I eventually produced. One of my work colleagues laughed at this and told me I was ‘so boring and so Chinese.’ Unlike him, I didn’t have cool or expensive hobbies, and we rarely travelled. When we were invited to noisy dinner gatherings with Chinese friends, invariably the discussion would drift to money and investing in property. Even people who were not working had investments. We were held up as models of the successful Taiwanese immigrant life. My husband was an investment guru and financial star and held court dispensing advice for those looking to emulate our experience.
We rarely dined out and instead spent evenings sitting on the sofa watching Japanese soap-operas with Chinese subtitles. My favourite mega-series, which I have watched at least four times, is called ‘Diamond Girl’. Kind of like a Japanese version of Legally Blonde, it follows the journey of a privileged and spoiled young woman (with her endless wardrobe of brand name clothing) who worked as a secretary in law firm in an impossible quest to win back her fiancé. In the beginning of the series she studies (or rather socializes) in Sydney, and I loved seeing my own country through the eyes of a Japanese fashion princess. I so wanted to be Diamond Girl: she was cute and sassy, and I aspired to wear her bright and sexy clothes.
Later, I became madly addicted to a Taiwanese soap Inborn Pair. It is an odd title, and a better translation is Love Looking for Trouble. I lusted over the clean-cut Burberry overcoat clad actor who played the lead in the series, Chris Wang. I discovered that he spent his early years studying/working in Australia, and I used to daydream about meeting him and casually asking about his experiences Downunder. I imagined him as a younger and more romantic version of my husband. In my dreams I was transported back to an idealized vision of when we first met, before xifu responsibilities and cross-cultural misunderstandings got in the way.
Of course these were hardly tales that you could talk about in the kitchenette at work while filling up my thermos to make a cup of Taiwanese gaoshan high mountain green tea.
“You know, last night I cooked Chinese kongxincai greens with fermented beancurd, stewed fatty pork belly with star anise and hard boiled eggs, and served it over perfectly steamed rice. And then I watched Diamond Girl pretend to be a hostess in a bar in order to win back a client whom she accidentally insulted at the law firm she worked at. Oh, and her boss really likes the tea that she makes for him – you can tell because he grunted.” This wasn’t something most ‘Aussies’ could relate to.
Now that I am no longer with my Taiwanese husband, I am beginning to rediscover and question who I am. Will I keep my Asian surname? Am I Asian? Am I Western? What does the ‘West’ even mean? What bits of my ‘egg’ identity to I want to keep? Are there bits that I want to separate out, like a yolk being separated from the whites?
Above all, how to explain to New Man, whom I started dating in a strange yuan fen coincidence of destiny that only Chinese people could fully understand, that I might look like outwardly a plump middle-aged Anglo-Saxon mother, but my head and my heart operate quite differently.
Some things are easy: I tell him my favourite band is the Taiwanese rock group Mayday (aka wu yue tian), and I love singing karaoke classics by Teresa Teng and Ah-mei, and more recent songs by the lovely Della Ting and breathless Jia Jia. He nods but I know that Mando-pop will probably never appeal. At least my Taiwanese-Australian girlfriend gets it; over Easter we spend an afternoon belting out karaoke classics on my computer while my kids are with their father. She introduces me to Leehom and Kimberly; I fall in love with Leehom youtube videos and he becomes my new Asian pin-up model.
I talk about my student days in Beijing, with toilets that stank so much I could smell them from my room down the hallway. About my first frightened night in student accommodation and the drunken Kazakhstanis who kick-boxed down the door opposite mine in a quest for beer from the xiaomaibu store. Surviving that to spend a year partying and flirting with abandon. Naively backpacking through China. About living in Taiwan, about the dumplings, vegetarian buffets with fake meat and vegetables grown in the mountains, hidden hipster cafes in the back laneways and how sad I was to say goodbye to the royal blue LED-lit tiers of Taipei 101 as our chauffeured car swung past it in the light winter rain. I joke about travelling back to Taiwan with my mother-in-law on my honeymoon, and (having left her in Taipei) reminisce about clutching my new husband on a scooter while we travelled along the fiercely beautiful coastal region near Taitung. I tell New Man that Taiwan is a clean, green city in Asia, that the subways (jieyun) and High Speed Rail (gaotie) are amazing. I get excited about the emerging art scene in Taiwan, the way that ancient and modern cultures are converging to form a new identity.
He has been to Hong Kong but never really travelled through Asia; Asia to him is a night at a Thai restaurant eating laksa. (That prompted a whole explanation of Singapore’s nyonya cuisine, and regional differences in Chinese cuisines, which I think again went over his head.)
I tell him I can speak Mandarin. “You clever thing,” he says. He starts sending me sexy messages on Facebook messenger with the help of Google Translate. They make me laugh.
But it is difficult to explain that my brain doesn’t just translate from English into Mandarin, like a tap that I can turn on and off. I might not be a native speaker, but I think, I live, I dream in Chinese. I am often at my happiest prattling on in imperfect Mandarin, so happy to meet Taiwanese Mums on a playdate and to bitch light-heartedly about the frustrations of navigating the Australian dream – many are married to Australian men and experience what I did in reverse. My children’s English is littered with Chinglish phrases. “Mummy, bao bao,” my toddler pleads when he wants a cuddle. My preschooler, who seems to perpetually have his hands in his undies, refers to his genitalia as ‘xiao niaoniao’ and this seems an easier term to use when chiding him about it in public.
In the early days of dating, I had to stop myself from speaking to New Man in Chinese. “Ni xian shuo ba! – you speak first,” I have nearly said on the phone countless times. Chinese was the secret language of courtship and intimacy with my husband, a language I intuitively retreat to when thinking emotively. “Talking about love – tan lian ai’ , is how they refer to this stage of dating someone in Chinese.
I argue best in Chinese. It is only in Mandarin that I feel that I can truly express my anger, my indignation about things, especially injustices right or wrong in my marriage. When I get truly worked up, I make my point more shrilly and cruelly than in English. Perhaps it is best that I am not able to tap into this, as it would probably tear New Man’s soft vulnerability to shreds.
I explain to New Man that I feel uncomfortable when people split bills. (Thankfully that has never come up on a date.) I talk a bit about the importance of face (mianzi), and gloss over the importance of cultivating networks or guanxi. I explain about how I plan to help my kids maintain their Chinese language skills. We take our children out together to a Chinese lantern festival. He likes the lion dance and tells me it is fun but that he doesn’t like yum cha (yuk cha, he calls it).
How to explain the deep yearning within me to return to Asia, how I constantly miss living in Taiwan? How a part of me feels this quest to explore, to discover, to connect with Chinese culture as if I was born into it in a past life? That despite my Caucasian appearance, that I feel a sense of belonging and normalcy when I glance out the taxi window and read glaring neon signs in Chinese? That sometimes I feel lost and lonely just being normal in suburban Canberra? How I am a temple junkie, and pray with unadvisable regularity to Guanyin for relationships, Matsu for safe passage, Guan Gong for courage and wisdom, Cai Shen for money and Wen Chang for a promotion in my public service career? What it truly means to express gan en – appreciation – when you receive your hearts desire? How feng shui matters to my life and defines where and how I live? How my children’s Chinese names were chosen by a fortune teller, and mine has layers of meaning that takes five minutes to explain?
“But you are not even Chinese,” I tell New Man on a picnic date shortly after meeting him, as we discuss how inexplicable that it was that we should have hooked up.
With his blond hair and blue eyes, this is fairly obvious. Nor do I wish he was anything other than what he is. The attraction took me by surprise, powerful and unexpected, making me as giddy as a teenager. He is unaware how very English he is. I went to Beijing rather than do the usual pulling a beer in a pub gap year that many Aussies do and so I know nothing about England, nothing about his culture or the landscape that shaped him. To me, being with him is the new foreign, the new exotic.
And through it I am inventing my new life as a mixed-up scrambled egg, choosing how I want to flavour my omelette.
Serina Huang is a writer, blogger, mother and frugalista. She blogs about Taiwanese culture and food at www.taiwanxifu.com, and about parenting and being frugal at www.weekendparent.co. She is currently working on a book about her experiences of doing Chinese postpartum confinement (zuo yuezi).
—– Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.
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