Vanessa Hua’s latest novel, Forbidden City (Penguin Random House, 2022), follows the rebellious teenage Mei on a journey of grand proportions at the onset of the 1960s—China’s most turbulent modern decade.
The story shifts between Mei’s past in China and her life in 1976 San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mei is a girl with enormous desires and shallow comprehension of her own complicity in China’s social disintegration and unraveling at the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Breathtaking in scope, Hua’s novel reveals Mei’s physical and emotional journey as she traverses an unfathomable distance, bearing witness to China’s political landscape of unsettling transformation and renewal.
Mei’s story feels both specific to the historic materialism of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1965 to 1976, and universal in its portrayal of adolescent naivete and desire. The exploitation of power by an aging patriarch recalls the #MeToo movement in a world where desire is a weapon, a survival tactic, and a choice for freedom. Hua’s narrative lays bare Mei’s shifting identity through a growing awareness of different forms of control. At the heart of Mei’s story are ponderous questions about freedom, and the gains and losses required to become who we want to be.
Vanessa Hua is a journalist and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She has won the Dr. Suzanne Ahn Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice coverage, the Asian American Journalists Association’s National Journalism Award, and the James Madison Freedom of Information Award. Her debut novel, A River of Stars, was a bestseller, and named one of the best books of 2019 by The Washington Post.
I was delighted to chat with Vanessa Hua via Zoom, where we talked about craft, #MeToo, her obsession with strong female voices, how she imagines her characters within the limits of history, and the bittersweet sacrifices of mothers for daughters.
The Rumpus: I love stories that have gone untold. The blending of research and invention in your novel challenges the assumptions of history. For instance, the shifting of perspective from Mao Zedong to one of the sexually exploited “confidential clerks” called into Mao’s bed chambers adds agency and subjecthood to the forgotten voices of these young women. What inspired you to write from the margins—to explore the power and gender dynamics between Mei, the teenaged narrator, and a fictional character called the Chairman?
Vanessa Hua: As the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, I’ve long been curious about this tumultuous chapter of my ancestral homeland, led by one of the world’s most fascinating leaders. For years, I’d been under the mistaken impression that all of my relatives left in the aftermath of World War II, decades before the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. Only as an adult did I learn that my extended family had suffered during the political turmoil; no one provided much detail, though. As with many who fled tragedy in search of a better life elsewhere, my elders preferred to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past—even as those hardships indelibly marked them.
I went to China twice, in 2004 and 2008. The first time, as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, I visited villages as well as factories where young women worked. I was struck by their poverty, their existence at the subsistence level, but also their sense of adventure. There has always been a young woman who wants to leave the village to see more, who dreams of a bigger life, then and now. On my second trip, I researched my novel in villages outside of Beijing and traced part of the path across China that would become my protagonist Mei’s.
When I discovered that this dance troupe existed (whose job was to dance with Party elites), I wondered what life was like for those young women during the Cultural Revolution, and how they were influenced by the politics in this period I knew so little about. When I looked for more information about the dance troupes, I couldn’t find much.
I drew upon details from The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician, by Mao’s doctor, Li Zhisui, who said, “To have been rescued by the Party was already sufficient good luck for such women. To be called to the Chairman was the greatest experience of their lives. For most Chinese, a mere glimpse of Mao standing atop Tiananmen was a coveted opportunity, the most uplifting, exciting, exhilarating experience they would know . . . Imagine, then, what it meant for a young girl to be called into Mao’s chambers to serve his pleasure!” I suspected—I knew— the relationships had to be more complicated, especially for those who he kept on as his “confidential clerks.”
I set my novel during the Cultural Revolution because I was fascinated by how one of these teenagers could have influenced the course of Mao’s decade-long campaign. What was it like for a peasant girl to get swept into the patriotism of those times and to meet a man she’d been raised to worship as a god?
I consciously chose to call Mao Zedong “the Chairman,” to make the character my own. Much has been written about him already, though no one recorded everything that happened behind closed doors, in the various relationships he established.
To understand the roots of the Cultural Revolution, I had to learn about the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s disastrous attempt to industrialize rapidly, and the famine that followed. Rather than bolster his legacy, Mao retreated. He aimed to take down opposition and tighten his hold on power again, even if that meant turning the country upside down. But all that information is like a firehose of facts; I couldn’t use all of it. My research helped me develop my characters. I also created a timeline of important events, some of which appeared in the novel. Though I strived to be historically accurate, my fidelity was to my characters. By taking a leap of empathy, I wanted to approach not only the contours, but the truth of my protagonist—a truth that was emblematic of the millions of impoverished women who have shaped China in their own ways, yet remain absent from the country’s official narrative.
Rumpus: Early in the novel, Mei’s mother draws her a bath just before she leaves home for the capital. Mei takes the beads that her mother had intended as her wedding gift because she feels entitled to them. But her mother’s parting gift to her is a pouch of medicinal herbs. Can you explain this unusual parting scene between mother and daughter?
Hua: Mei rejects the traditional life her mother has led in the village. She didn’t want to give birth to a hero; she wanted to be the hero. To Mei, the beads initially represent an inheritance but then they become a sign of her independence, taking what she wants as she leaves home. They serve as a reminder of her family and later, when her rival obtains and wears the beads, they exemplify the power those at the Lake Palaces have over her. She also leaves a bead at a grave, to honor a loved one. In the final moments of the novel, the bead signifies her survival and is the one piece of her past that she has been able to save and bring to a new land. Towards the end of the book, as Mei begins to emerge from her closed-off life, she considers the wider possibilities of life, including motherhood.
When Ma gives Mei a bath, she’s showing her affection in her actions, rather than verbally telling her daughter that she loves her and will miss her. That’s how my immigrant Chinese parents expressed their affection, by giving me the shrimp from their bowl of soup, because they knew it was my favorite, or telling me to wear a sweater, even now, so I won’t catch a cold.
Ma loves her daughter but cannot prevent Mei from leaving home. She suspects what’s to come for her daughter in the capital, or at least, the kind of dangers Mei might encounter from men. Though she cannot stop her daughter from leaving, she tries to protect her the only way she can, with the expertise she possesses in medicinal herbs.
I wanted to make Ma an herbalist. Even though she’s scorned in the village, she still possesses this knowledge and that is her power. And so that’s what she offers her daughter.
Before the Pill was created, women still desperately wanted and needed birth control. They turned to herbal remedies to regulate their menstruation and end pregnancies, across cultures. And yet it remains specialized, dark knowledge, possessed by those with the desire and need to operate outside of the norm. Some fear it or find it strange or questionable. Herbal medicine has always been considered one of the dark arts, a form of control for women to have a small amount of autonomy over their bodies. Mei sees her mother as powerless and scorned. She’s trained her daughter in these arts, but Mei’s knowledge remains incomplete at a time when she needs it most.
At the Lake Palaces, she fears getting pregnant and being sent home. She misses her mother and her mother’s knowledge, and comes to understand that her mother did what she could, given the constraints of her circumstances.
Rumpus: Mei’s preoccupation with power is fascinating. Not just teenage rebellion against authority, or a woman’s freedom to have control over her own body, but an ethical question of who has the right to power and control. Was it a conscious decision to draw Mei taking action in ways that might come across as unlikeable or shocking to readers?
Hua: Mei is a teenager living in impossible circumstances, but she’s a survivor. Even though there’s much she doesn’t know about the world, she is trying to figure out how she can get through each day and ultimately gain her freedom. If deceit is part of that along the way, then she’ll do it. She’s also seeing how the people in power around her behave. She knows enough to question it, but at the same time, she feels that she has no other choice if she wants to survive.
Seemingly powerless, at every turn Mei fights for herself, even if that sometimes means she has to resort to lying or withholding information. Otherwise, she’d be completely at the whim of others.
Rumpus: Along her journey, Mei meets strong women who seek power and survival by any method at their disposal as they struggle against the masochistic power dynamics. I’m thinking of Teacher Fan, who grooms young girls for exploitation and imprisonment, even as she lives in fear. Where did you find inspiration for your female characters?
Hua: Teacher Fan is a canny survivor, having learned how to play the politics of the Lake Palaces. And yet, she’s embedded in the same systems of power and oppression as the young women she oversees. She believes that she’s serving the revolution. But when those in power no longer have any use for her, she’s as helpless as any of the girls, and maybe even worse off, because she possesses secrets that have been silenced.
The troupe’s infighting also reflects the chaos to come in the Cultural Revolution. In the name of revolution, people instead sought revenge on their neighbors, teachers, coworkers. The struggle sessions in the troupe are much like the ones that would take place across the country.
The troupe is a place where they theoretically can break free of traditional roles. Mei becomes close friends with Busy Shan, while Midnight Chang is an instant rival. Tensions constantly shift between all three of them. Mei also longs for a mentor in Teacher Lin, who has motives of her own. It’s a microcosm for how the Cultural Revolution—for all its grand ideals—also boiled down to personalities, grudges, struggles for power. Ironically, the chaos of those times allows Mei to go on the run, giving her cover from those who would hunt her down.
Rumpus: Mei voluntarily leaves her mother and sisters in a rural village to join a dance troupe in Beijing, where she performs for Chairman Mao and his inner circle. How do Mei’s rebellion and desires lead to hard-earned lessons?
Hua: Mei is a survivor. As a teenager, she’s ambitious and idealistic, and underestimated, which she works to her advantage. Teenage girls are eternally dismissed as silly lightweights, and yet they believe they can—and sometimes they do—change the world. Think of Joan of Arc, of Greta Thunberg. I was interested in exploring that idealism in Mei, who has been raised on stories of revolutionary heroes. Once she arrives at the Lake Palaces, she encounters others who are just as convinced that they alone should serve the Chairman and thereby serve the Party and the country. The Chairman and Teacher Lin don’t stop the rivalry. Pitting the girls against each other keeps them from teaming up, from rising up against the patriarchy. By novel’s end, Mei reflects upon all that she lost, but also begins to consider future possibilities.
Rumpus: There isn’t a lot of solidarity among the girls, who backstab one another in pursuit of their ambitions. In a culture where power lies in the hands of men, what saves her?
Hua: Mei, the third and youngest daughter in her family, has a complicated relationship with her two older sisters. Three always turns into two-against-one. At the Lake Palaces, she runs into betrayal among the dance recruits.
Her “sexual rebellion” is informed by what she went through. She’s not as sheltered as, say, the teenagers in her village. Someone once asked me, “Are people in China all sexually repressed?” I said, “There’s a billion Chinese; they all came from somewhere!” People are still going to have physical desires. Teenagers all over the world are going to have fiery emotions and desires.
For years afterward, she hides her past, but by novel’s end she’s thinking of being honest to the ones she loves, with whom she might find a way forward.
Rumpus: Can you talk about your novel in light of the #MeToo movement?
Hua: While the #MeToo movement and anti-Asian hate crimes are anachronistic to Forbidden City, they nonetheless influenced my thinking about power dynamics between older men and younger women, the debilitating impact of isolation and loneliness, and the consequences of demonization and demagoguery. The past is never as distant as it seems.
Rumpus: Your novel begins just after Chairman Mao’s death, prompting Mei to tell this story to a mysterious “you.” The reason Mei is telling her story feels significant to her, and to her readers. The reveal at the end of the novel is both heartbreaking and brilliant.
Hua: I didn’t decide on the retrospective narrator and the particular audience Mei addresses in her mind, until later in the revision process, after the sale of the book. That’s something I will often ask students: Who is your narrator speaking to? Who is their imagined audience? Knowing Mei’s specific audience helped the book come together because then I understood why she needed to tell her story, and in what way.
Rumpus: Mei has a chance to start over as a waitress in 1976 San Francisco, Chinatown, but the ending is ambiguous. Are you implying that there is a cost of freedom for her becoming an American?
Hua: Mei occupies a space neither here nor there, and that’s what has enabled her to survive. Shape-shifting when the circumstances called for it. That led to her to feel unrooted, unmoored for a long time, but she’s beginning to think about the possibility of home and belonging again. Like others who survive wars or genocide at a young age, who have been to hell and back, and still have the rest of their life, she’s traumatized, but at the same time, she’s resilient. She has a second chance. I hesitate to say that Mei will definitely find happiness in the future. The American dream is a fantasy. But I wish her all the happiness.
Rumpus: In a craft lecture at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (“Writing Across Difference”), you noted that it is important for a writer to understand the context into which they’re placing their work. How did you navigate your authority and imagination as an author with the sensitivity of your novel’s subject matter, in this case the collective trauma of a generation that came of age during China’s Cultural Revolution?
Hua: One of my professors in grad school, Chris Abani, talked about the importance of not being a “native informant”—that is, don’t overexplain everything. You don’t need to write everything to suit the white gaze. This applies to Forbidden City as well. Although I was never a peasant Chinese girl, I approached writing this character with a sense of humility.
In terms of writing across difference, writing characters who are outside of your age, race, gender, orientation, and all those elements of identity, I tell students to be aware of the conversation in the communities that preceded you and will continue long after.
Rumpus: I know you grew up reading books about strong female heroines. Did you ever need, at that time, an Asian American heroine?
Hua: In 1987, Seventeen Magazine published a short story called “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan. I was so excited because it was a magazine I eagerly read and followed. It was super exciting to read a story that featured a Chinese American character set in Chinatown in Seventeen! It helped strengthen my resolve that I could write stories that belonged in the most American of magazines, too (and in college, I even received an honorable mention in their fiction contest.)
Rumpus: In a recent article about the Pixar film, Turning Red, you wrote, “I tell my creative writing students, the power of a story lies in the details, in the specifics that bring a character to life, on the page and on screen.” Can you provide examples? What details in recent Asian American films create characters who come alive in fresh and engaging ways?
Hua: I love how in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, they’re palling around, doing karaoke in San Francisco, and in the next moment, they’re in this mystical land on a quest because it’s a Marvel movie. Last night, I got to see an early showing of Everything, Everywhere All at Once (wherein Michelle Yeoh plays not only a superhero or martial arts master, but also an immigrant laundromat owner who must save the universe while struggling to pay her taxes). It has elements of the speculative and the multiverse in it. When the movie opens, she’s making breakfast for her father. It was very familiar; I also live three generations under one roof. And in Always Be My Maybe with Ali Wong, there’s a scene where the kids are running to the house. They drop their shoes at the door and then run off. They don’t make a big deal—“Look, we’re so Chinese!” The details that go unremarked are very powerful because it assumes this is the way things are. It’s not unusual. It’s just the way these people live.
Rumpus: Mei has access to a freedom, an independence, and a gender equality that her mother lacks. Were you drawing a parallel between Mei’s relationship with her mother and the gap between immigrant mothers and their assimilated Asian American daughters?
Hua: As parents, you want the best for your child, but the cost of that success sometimes tears you apart. My mom speaks English, but what of the case where an immigrant family tells their child to excel in American schools, and then they leave their mother tongue and then there’s a broken relationship forever? In that same way, Mei’s mother knows her daughter wants to go off to the city to serve her country. Perhaps they might not ever see each other again, so it’s bittersweet.
Rumpus: Is Mei an Asian American anti-heroine?
Hua: Viet Thanh Nguyen has talked about the difference between narrative plentitude and narrative scarcity—are you used to seeing people who look like you in a variety of roles, from hero to screw-up to villain and everything in between? Asian Americans, he argues, live in an economy of narrative scarcity. For many years, there weren’t many mainstream movies or books that featured Asian Americans, aside from Dragon-Lady-whore, nerd, or kung fu master.
I don’t know if Mei is an anti-hero, so much as a character I tried to make fully human: flawed, strong, and dreaming of a different life than the one handed down to her.
With my portrayal of Mei, I hope to subvert stereotypes of Chinese women as submissive or using only their feminine wiles. My protagonist is bright and resourceful, but also still so very young, learning who she wants to be. Hopefully she challenges the stereotypes about women from her background and culture.
Will that change the cultural narrative? I hope the multitude of movies and books by Asian Americans that have been coming out in recent years will help challenge those stereotypes.
Author photo by Andria Lo