“Here is the story of how this Australian-born Chinese Catholic school girl became, in many ways, emblematic of the changing nature of Australia.”
In the tradition of Amy Tan, Ching Chong China Girl is a hilarious and bittersweet memoir of growing up different in a very eccentric but traditional Chinese family in Tasmania.
Warning: Not to be read by convent girls not wearing their gloves.
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‘Ching Chong Chinaman’ girls taunted Helene Chung in her Catholic school playground. A fourth-generation Chinese Australian who grew up in 1950s Hobart, Helene (He-LANE) and her sister, Lehene (Lay-HEEN), not only dealt with being different from their blonde-haired, blue-eyed classmates but suffered the shame of having divorced parents. And they kept a shocking secret – their mother, Miss Henry, was a nude model, who also lived in sin with a foreign devil and drove a red MG. The family feud kept their father’s three other marriages under wraps.
Surviving the embarrassment of childhood, Helene discovered the thrill of campus theatre, fell into journalism and travelled the world. She became the first non-white reporter on Australian television and, as Beijing correspondent, the first female posted abroad by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
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Ching Chong China Girl concerns the transition from White to Multicultural Australia and airs amusing off-camera antics inside the once-chauvinist ABC. With its theme the search for identity, it canvases changes in attitude to race, religion, sex and gender. Unlike conventional agonising over a Catholic childhood, this memoir, with its racial, religious, sexual and sexist humour, agonises over the colour of the flesh and the sins of the parents’ flesh.
Ching Chong China Girl is a memoir filled with honesty, humour, love and loss. It opens in Hobart, moves to mainland Australia, travels through Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and gives insight into life that traverses cultures East and West.
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Launch of Ching Chong China Girl
by ABC Radio National’s Julie Copeland
Readings/Asialink Melbourne, Thursday 8 May 2008
(Photographs by Greg Noakes; group of seven by Helen Richardson)
Here is the story of how this Australian-born Chinese Catholic school girl became, in many ways, emblematic of the changing nature of Australia. She may have been teased at school in Tasmania … with the old ‘Ching Chong’ rhyme … but the spirit, energy and clear-sighted intelligence that eventually took her to journalism – via the theatre – and on to such iconic programs as This Day Tonight, then to become the ABC’s correspondent in Beijing, shine through in this engaging memoir. Its tone is conversational, often wry and humorous but the passages dealing with the deaths of her husband and sister are told in simple prose that accentuates the loss. Like so many memoirs, it’s a portrait of the subject’s journey through life, the bright and the bleak, and the times themselves.
This is an autobiography like no other. Here is a Tasmania few remember; here is the individual; here is the pain, strength and humour of families; here is love and isolation; here is the world we have all inherited. And in Helene Chung’s case, influenced.
The convent-educated author thanked her mother, Dorothy Henry Greener, and her father, Charles, ‘not for my birth but for their divorce, which catapulted me at 16 months into the challenging childhood which, for better or worse, made me what I am’.
Ching Chong China Girl is a lively read, and a significant reminder of one of the oldest strands of the Australian migrant story … the author’s intelligence and determination create an idiosyncratic portrait of what first- and second-generation migrants endure, and how they triumph.
It is a must read for anyone wanting to understand how the people of Chinese heritage have established themselves around the world … The story is not told as a family saga, but as a series of easy-to-read vignettes – fascinating for the insight they give into the Chinese backbone of multi-cultural Australia.
This is two books in one. It is a picaresque tale of a good St Mary’s girl who gave up wearing gloves and found it didn’t hurt and life beyond fantastic; roaming the world as journalist and foreign correspondent, and with happy optimism and Chinese luck always finding someone to give her an assignment, including in the land of her ancestors, China.
It is also a significant addition to Tasmanian family history, colouring in one of the best-known Chinese Australian families in Hobart with fact and anecdote of life, relationships, social mores and the sometimes scandalising (for mid-twentieth century Hobart society) behaviour of various of Chung’s relatives including her mother. The liveliest and most insightful account yet of how life looked from the vantage point of a Chinese Tasmanian family in the second half of the 20th century: the family life of middle-class shopkeepers (and one bohemian), and the effects of the feuding and complications of the conventions of multiple marriages by male members; and the life of Hobart and Australian society in general, of which Australian-born Chung feels entirely a part even if some others have not always allowed that she was.
Along the way, the book also offers a small history of the highly personalised and often eccentric HR culture of the ABC, for which Chung worked in many places West and East, and its long resistance to assigning women to its overseas posts and Australians of non-Caucasian physiognomy to front its TV programs.
And a love story, that ends in unexpected sorrow, but not in pessimism or despair.