Shanghai Tango, by Jin Xing

Gender surgery that cuts to the quick of China's double standards
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The Independent Culture

It's a line straight out of Dame Edna Everage. When Jin Xing, a former colonel with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of China, spends his last few days as a man, he splurges on "a whole new, feminine wardrobe from the most glamorous boutiques Las Vegas has to offer". A few months later and Xing is undergoing one of China's first legal gender-reassignment surgeries, relishing the feel of her new breasts.

Growing up as a boy in rural Manchuria, Xing was recognised for his skill as a dancer and, after a glimpse of a Soviet production of Swan Lake, was hooked on ballet.

But when he was invited to join the prestigious PLA dancing troupe, his mother protested: "it's no career for a boy." Xing went on hunger strike and she eventually relented.

Xing enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, winning dance competitions across China, and was invited to Paris, then the US, where he was hailed as a genius. After Tiananmen Square, Xing managed to extend his stay and began to explore gay culture, moving in with his Texan boyfriend. A few more years abroad, working in Italy and Brussels, and he realised that he wasn't gay but a transsexual. Xing returned to China, underwent surgery and now runs her own dance company while raising three adopted children. Astonishingly, both parents welcomed the decision, recognising that their son had never been comfortable with a male identity.

What Xing doesn't tell you is that, while she was undergoing her reassignment, gay men in China were still being diagnosed as mentally ill and arrested on charges of "hooliganism". Neither does Xing make a connection between this oppression and his troubled relationship with the aptly named Mr Men, a famous choreographer portrayed as a gay predator leading a double life, with a wife and children. What Xing shares with Men is the cash and power to avoid government censure.

Although Xing's is an extraordinary story, the book suffers from this lack of context. Her post-op lifestyle revolves around her superstar career, where she flies first class, dresses in Lacroix and can get any man she likes. But given China's repressive attitudes towards gays and transgendered people, it must be a lonely life. The memoir reads as if Xing and her ghost-writer can't quite make up their minds about what her story means. This is an intriguing but shallow skimming of an important subject that will be left to others to explore.

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