Tag Archives: Identity

Closer Look: Xiaolu Guo

“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.

Author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo | image from guardian

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese filmmaker and author based in London. We met at Beijing’s Literary Festival in 2015, where we discussed writing techniques (she always writes by hand before word-processing, which is part of her editing process) and she borrowed my black biro to autograph copies of her books. She signed a copy of her debut book in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize, for me. I wanted to buy a copy of her latest novel, I Am China (published by Random House in 2014), but the bookstore’s order of had not made it through Chinese customs due to the controversial content of the book. Guo advised me to read it as an e-book, saying she didn’t think I’d be able to acquire a hardcopy in Beijing soon.

Below is an extract from Xiaolu Guo’s latest book, Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, which was published by Chatto & Windus on 26 January, 2017. This extract was originally published by the Guardian.

Some years later, after I had published a number of books in Britain, I managed to finish a novel that I had been labouring on for years. Publication was due in a few months’ time, but I began to worry that it would bring me trouble when I next tried to go back to China, since the story concerned the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the nature of totalitarianism. What if I was denied entry because of this book? I decided to make preparations before it came out. So, since I had been living in the UK for nearly 10 years, I applied for a British passport.

I spent some months gathering the necessary documents for my naturalisation. After a drawn-out struggle with immigration forms and lawyers, I managed to obtain my passport. Now, I thought to myself, if there was any trouble with my books and films, I would feel a certain security in being a national of a western country. Now I could go back to visit my sick father and see my family.

A week later, I applied for a Chinese visa with my British passport. After waiting at the visa application office in London for about half an hour, I found myself looking at the visa officer through a glass barrier. The woman wore horn-rimmed glasses and had her hair cut short, military-style. She looked like a resurrected Madame Mao. She took my British passport and scanned me up and down. Her face was stern, the muscles around her mouth stiff, just like all the other Communist officials, seemingly trained to keep their faces this way.

“Do you have a Chinese passport?” She stared at me with a cold, calm intensity, clutching my British passport.

I took out my Chinese passport and handed it to her through the narrow window.

She flipped through its pages. The way she handled it gave me a sudden stomach ache. I sensed something bad was coming.

“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” she remarked in her even-toned, slightly jarring voice.

“Illegal?” I repeated. My surprise was totally genuine. It had never occurred to me that having two passports was against Chinese law.

The woman glanced at me from the corner of her eye. I couldn’t help but feel the judgment she had formed of me: a criminal! No, worse than that, I was a Chinese criminal who had muddied her own Chinese citizenship with that of a small, foreign state. And to top it all, I was ignorant of the laws of my own country.

She then flipped through my visa application, which was attached to my British passport, and announced: “Since this is the first time you are using your western passport, we will only issue you a two-week visa for China.”

“What?” I was speechless. I had applied for a six-month family visit visa. Before I could even argue, I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.

I stared, without comprehension, at this once-trusted document. The enormity of what had just happened slowly began to register. Although I was totally ignorant of most Chinese laws, I knew this for certain: when an embassy official cuts your passport, you are no longer a Chinese citizen. I stared back at Madame Mao with growing anger.

“How could you do that?” I stammered, like an idiot who knew nothing of how the world worked.

“This is the law. You have chosen the British passport. You can’t keep the Chinese one.” Case closed. She folded my visa application into my British passport and handed them to another officer, who took it, and all the other waiting passports, to a back room for further processing. She returned her tense face toward me, but she was no longer looking at me. I was already invisible.

Read on

‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain, Xiaolu Guo for the Guardian

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Interview: Part 3)

Closer Look: Jin Xing


I was born in China. It is in China I must be reborn as a woman.

Jin Xing was the first transgender person to undergo sex reassignment surgery in China with government approval, and the first whose sex change was officially recognized by the Chinese government.

As a boy, Jin had an affinity for dancing and soon became a ballet dancer. At nine, Jin began performing in a prestigious troupe that was part of the People’s Liberation Army – ballet has long been considered a valuable propaganda tool – and serving as a soldier. By the age of 17 Jin was the number one male dancer in China, and had risen through the ranks to become a sergeant.

At the age of 19, she started set off to start from scratch as a dancer in New York. Jin, a major celebrity in China, was nobody in New York in the nineties. But that didn’t stop her. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Jose Limon. News of her successes in New York reached Beijing, and she was promoted to colonel even though she was not serving. Her career took her to Rome, where she learned Italian, and she toured Europe before deciding that sex reassignment was the right thing for her.

Jin Xing training as a PLA solder, age 9 | image from hollywoodreporter

When I was six years old, I thought I should be a woman. I myself knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong or what was mistaken.


Jin Xing in New York in the 1990s | image from hollywoodreporter

During her years in New York, Jin began to explore gender and sexuality. She considered the possibility she was homosexual. But at that time, homosexuality was still illegal in China, and considered a mental disorder. Similarly, very few Chinese people had undergone any kind of sex reassignment and none had been recognised by the state. This was a new idea to Jin, but America had opened her eyes to new things:

I discovered words — transsexual, transgender. I said, ‘OK, I belong to that small island.’ Then I started researching.

Jin underwent three surgeries in 1995, aged 28. She emerged from the last surgery, which lasted 16 hours, to tell her father: “Your son has become your daughter.” In reply, he told Jin: “Twenty years ago, I looked at you and wondered, I have a son but he looks like a girl. So 28 years later, you’ve found yourself. Congratulations.”

Since her sex change, Jin has started a dance company in Shanghai, adopted three children, married, and begun presenting her own hugely popular television talk show, The Jin Xing Show, on the basis which she had gained the nickname “Poison Tongue”. She’s often billed as the Chinese Oprah. But she is so much more than that.

With her celebrity status, Jin Xing has brought attention to LGBTQ+ issues and the difficulties faced by the LGBTQ+ community, who struggle against social stigma and legal discrimination. She is loved as a beacon of hope by young people across China.

I don’t want to change the world… I just want to be myself.

Read on

Meet the Oprah of China, Who Happens to Be Transgender, THR

Jin Xing: China’s sex-change pioneer, CNN

Behind the Spotlights of Transgender China, Whats On Weibo

LGBTQ+ in China: a quick introduction

In China, the LGBTQ+ community face severe discrimination. Many LGBTQ+ people’s families and communities refuse to accept their sexuality or gender identity, and therefore find themselves in compromising situations like ‘fake’ marriages to fulfil their filial duty. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until 2001, and some private Chinese clinics still offer ‘electroshock’ gay conversion therapy.

Thankfully, there are many people speaking and acting out against such discrimination. In Beijing, the LGBTQ+ community are a strong driving force behind the feminist movement. We’re incredibly privileged to know women like Iron, who runs Beijing’s LGBT Centre, and Li Maizi who spoke in London last week. There are feminists across the country speaking out about everything from Trump to censorship, and campaigning non-stop when the two coincide.

Kick-start your understanding of China’s LGBTQ+ community with this informative video from Out China:


So, here’s to our LGBTQ+ friends in China and worldwide. May this be the beginning of a long alliance.

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Developing her own Fashion Brand in Burma (Interview: part 2)

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.

Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.

My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can wear very vibrant colours. I think for men there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, and very colourful.


Handmade clothing on the racks at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How do your fashion choices reflect who you are as a woman? 

At DFID, I quite enjoy representing my country in a foreign organization. I work in a UK aid department trying to end extreme poverty, where we deal with many different organisations and partners. Whenever we go to Naypyitaw (the capital) dealing with the government agencies, or parliament, or the election commission, then I like to wear Burmese traditional dress. That feels somehow more acceptable and proper.

For the office I wear casual western style dresses and I make all my clothes myself. I am quite petite, so I like wearing soft colours because it makes me feel like I have a little bit more volume. I tend to avoid black or any dark colours, which make me feel tinier. During the daytime, I prefer cream or white colours, which are better for our weather. And it has to be locally made cotton. The sunlight is really strong here.

For daily wear, still I like the traditional cotton, but in a freer, looser style, not flared though. I think flared dresses make you look younger, and with Asian genes you already look younger than you are. At thirty-five, I don’t want to look younger anymore.

I think I am a bit more professional, I want to wear more professional style dresses. Maybe when I was younger I would be open to wearing quite short styles. Whereas now, it has a lot to do with age as well, my taste is quite different from in my twenties.

How does wearing traditional dress change the way you feel?

Oh, it makes you feel a lot more proper. And, how do you say it, a bit more timid – is that the word? You behave more like a proper traditional lady. Whereas if I wear a more Western style, then I feel a bit more free. It definitely changes your mood and your professional feeling.

My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can actually wear those very vibrant colours, you know. I think for men, there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, very colourful.

Everything is handmade by Pyone and her staff of three at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

What’s the best thing to have happened to you in the past year?

Personally, in the past year, it was my decision to go ahead launching this business. I kind of thought that because of my full time job, and having to run this shop, I thought I might lose my balance. But actually it turns out that I really love this job and because it is my passion, I really never get tired. It’s now been four months, so ask me in another one or two years! For now, though, I really love it and I don’t get tired of it.

We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. When internationals wore my dresses, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. So some Burmese women who have seen the dresses come to have something made too.

How did you discover the gap in the market for your designs?

There are quite a few designers already doing the same thing, but in a sense they were too creative. Some people are doing haute couture shows in big cities like Bangkok, so they tend to make big gowns and showy things. But I design for daily life. It’s all about more casual and semi-casual garments, so people really like to wear them.

At the beginning I made everything for myself. I wore things to work, people started to notice and want them too. Seeing people react to the dresses I made was my market research.

I want to imagine that the business is not personal to me. Yes, I made it in such a way that people come to the shop thinking, “oh, I want to have one of Pyone’s dresses”, but I really want to change that. I want the business to be able to run even without me. So I want to build the brand beyond me, so that it goes on without me.

What challenges do you face when you’re designing for a specific person?

Traditionally in dressmaking, you do the design first and then look for fabrics, but we’re doing it the other way around. Because we’re more about using traditional fabrics, we start with fabrics and turn them into a wearable design.

Depending on the type of fabrics and patterns, we often have to negotiate on the design. For example, with strong colours we may have to tone it down a bit, or if the customer really likes a colour, but it doesn’t suit her, I may have to convince her that an alternative might be better. So we come to a compromise, then we measure and then make the dress.

Local handmade jewellery displayed at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. It is actually true that if employers let their employees do what they are really passionate about, then they bring that energy to the day job. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now.

How does the tourist industry affect your business?

The majority of people who like my style are internationals. When internationals wear them, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. So I have now a few Burmese people who have seen the dresses and they come to have something made.

I think with tourists it is different. They want things quick, and they’ll usually just come one time. But there have been a few occasions when foreign tourists came in and then recommended us to a friend who was coming in, but that’s just one scenario.

We do have customers coming back constantly and recommending one person, then another person. We don’t do active marketing. Our marketing strategy now is all word of mouth. So, we had a few customers, friends of friends, family members, and the customer base is gradually building.

Did DFID have any doubts about you taking on this opportunity?

Some people actually warned me, like, “maybe you should not mention it explicitly”. But they do know that I am the founder and lead designer here. I decided to be frank and open about what I do and what I like doing. So I’m not a profit maximising person, you know, this is not to make a big profit or anything like that. I’m not doing this for money, I can actually survive without this income. So for me, this is about what I really want to do, a passion, and a hobby in a job. So there were a few people who, although they had good intentions, warned me not to tell anyone, not to tell the boss, but I did. And it is going really well so far.

I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. So, I think when I read tips for entrepreneurs and things like that, I kind of thought, it might not be true. But it is actually true that if employers let people do what they are really passionate about, outside of the job, then that really makes them feel happy. And you bring that energy to the day job, which is really good. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now. That’s really great.

Is the organisation supportive of you?

Yes, very encouraging. Specifically at DFID, they really want the local staff to succeed in what they do. They look beyond their service in DFID, so if someone is really keen to become a politician, they will help them to build that capacity. It’s a really helpful way of capacity building. In the end, DFID, as an agency, will have to leave the country, and then the skill set that they give to local staff and local people, will remain in the country.

What are your wildest dreams for the coming few years?

My wildest dream is the most peaceful thing I can imagine. I always wanted to have a little compound. Well, not little, just enough for me to have a green and flower-filled garden, and an ecological wooden house and just be there. It would either be in Hsi-Paw (Shan state), Kalaw (Shan state), Putao (Kachin state), or Dawei (Tanintharyi region).


Read on

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1)

Protesting on International Women’s Day? History is on Your Side

International Women’s Day began as a day of women’s protest in Europe and the United States. Celebrating this socialist holiday largely died out in the US, while communists in China have been commemorating Women’s Day annually since 1922. The tables have turned this year. Women in the US are striking today, while working women in China are enjoying a half-day off work.

A highly politicised holiday this year in the US, with vast support drummed up organisers of the Women’s March on 20th January, women are demonstrating to raise awareness about economic inequality, reproductive rights, civil liberties and ending violence.

Meanwhile in China, thousands of women are taking the half-day to focus on themselves, hanging out with girlfriends and spending their money online or in major shopping malls advertising huge women’s day discounts.

There’s no question that this vast disparity stems from women’s feelings of political and economic safety on the one (Eastern) hand, and women’s desperation at the current political and economic situation on the other side of the Pacific.

While women are commemorating International Women’s Day in their own ways, it might help to remember that the history is on the side of those protesting today.

Kulturgeschichte / Frauenbewegung / Deutschland / Propaganda
German poster for a women’s suffrage demonstration on 8th March 1914 | image from: German History Docs

First observed in the US on February 28th, 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, and the right to vote. The Socialist Party of America organised a strike on the same day in 1909. Similar demonstrations marked the last Sunday of February for the following five years.

European women were also staging demonstrations throughout this same period, calling for the right to vote, economic equality and civil liberties. A consensus was reached, and International Women’s Day became truly international on March 8th 1914.

In London that day, during a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage, Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square.

The women’s march in Petrograd on 8th March 1917 sparked the Russian Revolution, which lasted for 8 days. Women in St. Petersburg went on strike for “Bread and Peace” that day, demanding the end of World War I. Women’s Day was officially adopted as a holiday by Soviet Russia that year, and later made a non-working day. As a result, celebrations took place on March 8th in socialist communities and communist countries worldwide for fifty years.

Women’s Day was celebrated by communists in China from 1922. After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the state council proclaimed that March 8 would be an official holiday with women in China given a half-day off.

In 1975 the United Nations recognised the importance of March 8th and announced today as International Women’s Day, to be celebrated the world over.

100,000 Iranian women gathered to protest the headscarf on 8th March 1979 | image from: NYTimes

People are taking stock, today, of how gender equality stands in a variety of arenas, from political power, to earning parity, to family leave. We’ve come a long way since the women of Europe and the US began protesting in the early 1900s, because those women changed things. Let’s hope those protesting today can harness that power and show the world what International Women’s Day is really about.


Read on

‘What is it with China and Women?’ Zhendegender

‘A Brief But Fascinating History of International Women’s Day’, Fortune

”A Day Without a Woman’ strike aims to raise awareness’, Aljazeera

‘Hard Times for feminists in China’, supchina

Header image from Hudson Institute