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Jenevieve Chang: The Good Girl of Chinatown

Jenevieve Chang has always been searching for a place to call home. She arrived in Australia as a four-year-old, her parents had left Taiwan to give their children a new start, her grandparents before them had fled mainland China to escape the communist regime.

She grew up, a "good girl" in the suburbs of Sydney, hiding secrets about her home life, three generations in the same house. A childhood that was at times violent and full of deceit, at other times full of love and a sense of history that both burdened her and gave her purpose.

She moved to London in 2002, studying dance at the prestigious Laban conservatoire and soon found herself drawn to burlesque, where "we could be anyone we wanted, as long as we had the confidence to pull it off". She was always searching for her identity.

A few years later she landed in Shanghai, feeling "completely at home in a place that perhaps should always have been my home".

"I think we all get seduced by the idea of running away somewhere exotic and finding ourselves," Chang says, talking about her book The Good Girl of Chinatown, a memoir of three generations of family, and her own personal journey.

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"There was this process of self-discovery, but not in the sense of other places giving me what I needed, it was about recognising that nothing outside of me was going to give me that."

She says her need to "feel whole" was reflected in her relationships, in her constant travel.

"It was about running away from the pain of my childhood, trying to put as much geographical distance as possible between my father and I in the hope that I would maybe forget where I actually came from.

"But I realised at the same time I must have wanted to understand where I came from as well."

Chang is a natural storyteller. She weaves the history of three generations into a seamless tale. It's one of love and fear, tenderness and violence, of pleasure and denial. From stories about pink bunk beds in their first Sydney home, to tales of sexual escapades in China.

"Growing up with my grandparents and my parents, my grandparents represented an idealised version of who I could be because they were very loving but they came from a culture that I didn't really understand whereas my parents were not really loving at all and were constantly using my cultural background against me," she says.

"It seems even though I was running away from the bad parts, I also think I recognised that I needed to find some sort of understanding and get close to the good parts to find some sort of healing."

She saysd that is what took her back to China, but the China she found made her confront the ugly parts more.

"You can't separate the good parts of your past from the painful parts, I think that's what I found, the more I tried to run away from it, the more I tied myself in knots, because you can never really run away from yourself."

Chang returned to Australia in 2014. Working as an actor and writer, she has performed in several plays, including Monkey Baa Theatre's The Peasant Prince, the award-winning stage adaptation of Mao's Last Dancer.

It took her five years to write this book; she struggled with being true to herself, she admits.

"I remember reading through my first couple of drafts and one of the things I berated myself over was how I felt like I was lying and trying to hide from myself," she says.

"I knew that I wasn't ready to share it with the world until I worked through a lot of my fears and anxieties and unconscious walls that I put up.

"There is nothing quite like writing that paints a picture of where you're at for you and allows you to recognise that there is still a degree of ducking from the truth."

The Good Girl of Chinatown, by Jenevieve Chang. Penguin. $32.99.

The book will be launched on May 4 at Better Read than Dead, 265 King St, Newton, from 6pm. Free but RSVP via www.betterreadevents.com

In Canberra she will be at the Asia Bookroom, Lawry Place, Macquarie on May 6 from 2pm-4pm. Entry by gold coin donation to the Australian Childhood Foundation. RSVP to Books@AsiaBookroom.com or 62515191.

She will also host a special Saturday evening, cabaret-style author talk – with a storytelling performance inspired by excerpts from the book – at Muse, Canberra, from 5pm-6pm on May 6.

Jenevieve Chang is a guest at Sydney Writers' Festival, May 22-28 (swf.org.au).

On June 14 she will be appearing at Eltham Library, Melbourne, from 6.30pm. $35 entry includes a copy of the book.

On June 15 there will be a free event at Geelong Library, from 6.30pm. Free.