12 October 2009

Ching Chong China Girl

by Helene Chung

ABC Books. Australian, Adult Non-Fiction, Biographical. Paperback RRP $ 32.95

Guest reviewer - Anastasia Gonis

Helene Chung’s life is filled with many firsts. She was the first non-white reporter on Australian television, and the first woman to be posted abroad by the ABC, a job she got into by accident and which gave her the opportunity to travel the world. The reader accompanies Helene through the rich and intelligent narrative to the countries she visited in recollections and with the use of diary entries and letters. The famous people she came into contact with for her commentaries and interviews include Sir Edmund Hillary, and Princess Anne at Buckingham Palace. She has also included a moving testimony of the early, heartbreaking loss of her husband to cancer.

Helene’s mother, the colourful Dorothy Henry, was Miss China, 1942. She divorced her husband when Helene was just a toddler and her sister Lehane a little older, and lived a bohemian life as a single mother. This proved a pathway to an interesting but not always friendly position in life for her. She worked as a nude model and moved in cultivated circles beside the men she met and others that passed through her life – artists and other eccentric and famous contacts which also opened new worlds for the girls; intellectual worlds, of art exhibitions, books, theatre and music.

None of Dorothy’s choices seemed to have had a negative effect on her children. Helene was a well-adjusted child; a tomboy who grew up free and uninhibited by her gender. Lehane was embraced by everyone because of her gentle and loving nature.

Helene Chung confesses that this book was ‘conceived purely as a memoir of (my) childhood and experience of being an Australian Chinese’ but ended up incorporating so much more. It exposes the clash of cultures, the difficulties the family faced without the support of a father and her interesting family tree. She uses a rich history of the times as background, moving between her Chinese and Australian life, which includes her own family’s story from the 1880s to now, and the many secrets held hidden or unknown for years.

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