If you look at it logically, any family history has the power to fascinate, although most of them just as logically fall apart in the middle. How often do you find domestic nonfiction worth saving your heart for? Pang-Mei Natasha Chang started out with all the right ingredients for an intriguing story of human resilience and turned them into something much better than the sum of their parts. “Bound Feet and Western Dress” is a factually eye-opening account of one woman’s progress across much of the world and most of the twentieth century. Its emotional resonance travels even farther than that.
Now 31, Pang-Mei Natasha Chang (her first name is from an ancestral poem; her middle from her mother’s love of Tolstoy) was a Chinese studies major at Harvard when her great aunt’s name popped up in a textbook. That great aunt, Chang Yu-i — who had been, among other things, a bank president — was born into an illustrious Shanghai family in 1900 and died in 1988. Her fate took its first unusual turn when she was three. One of her brothers was so moved by her screams when her feet were being bound that he persuaded Yu-i’s mother to let the little girl go. “Sheng jing bing. Crazy, my amah said about Mama’s decision,” Chang Yu-i recalled during one of her hundreds of interviews with the author. Translation: Who would marry a girl like that?
That someone did was not a de facto blessing. Chang Yu-i got funneled into a very fast part of the stream of progress, and found that though she was too modern for most of China, she wasn’t modern enough for Hsu Chi-Mo, her soon-to-be-famous poet husband. Pregnant for the second time, she followed him all the way to Oxford, where he ditched her for one of a series of racier candidates. At 22, she made history as the first Chinese wife to have a Western-style divorce.
In the ensuing struggle simply to keep going, Yu-i had to learn, in her words, to stand on her own two feet. And that’s how Pang-Mei Chang found her: in an apartment in New York, oceans away from her past and ready, shyly at first, to talk. That this lady’s been afforded such a splendid forum for her life story might have pleased her. It’s certainly more than an ordinary pleasure for us.