I remember the first time I read Anchee Min. It was 1994, I’d just moved back to Hong Kong, and was in possession of a shiny new Hong Kong ID card that allowed me to use the public library there. I came across her memoir, Red Azalea (Pantheon, 1994), and finished it in two days.
Almost 20 years later, I still wondered about her friendship with Joan Chen that ultimately led to Min’s leaving China for the US. I was also curious about Anchee Min’s years in Chicago, my hometown. In her new memoir, The Cooked Seed (Bloomsbury, 2013), Min addresses these questions and more.
Anchee Min and Joan Chen met during the Cultural Revolution when they worked for Madame Mao’s film studio. Joan Chen catapulted to national stardom in China. As a side note, when I was a student in Hong Kong, my mainland classmates had some harsh words about Chen. They felt like she had sold out and become a star in the US, all but abandoning China. Even back then I knew that wasn’t the case, but The Cooked Seed shows why women like Chen and Min would want to come to the US in the ’80s. And that they never abandoned China, even as they chose to make the US their new home.
For Min, however, home came at a devastating cost. She writes in The Cooked Seed about her struggles to learn English so she could keep her place at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The School admitted her on the condition that she would gain fluency in English six months after she arrived in the US. If not, she’d be deported.
As a Chicago native, I’m very familiar with the areas where Min lived in the ’80s. They were crime-ridden, desolate, and no place for a single woman to live. In The Cooked Seed, Min shows how she barely got by and escaped death more than once.
She also writes about her first marriage to an idealistic Shanghai artist. The marriage is doomed years before they wed at Chicago’s City Hall, but Min gains a daughter who becomes central to the latter part of this memoir.
I enjoyed reading about her road to publication, not only with Red Azalea (quite a story, both in that memoir and surrounding its publication) but also with Becoming Madame Mao, one of my favorite novels ever.
Just like with Red Azalea, I read this one in two days, too. It was well worth the wait.