Minibibliomania: a saga of miniature books

Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasury

Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasury

Bromer, Anne C and Julian I. Edison. Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasures. New York: Abrams Books, 2007. Print. First Edition. 215 pages. 9½ * 10½. 260 illustrations.

From tiny cuneiform tablets created around 2,000 B.C. to Empress Shotoku’s diminutive scrolls to a silicon chip featuring more than 180,000 words from the Bible, miniature books have intrigued people since written history began. Anne C. Bromer, an internationally respected antiquarian in Boston, and Julian I. Edison, an ardent bibliophile and a miniature-book collector, celebrate the art and history of miniature books in their debut collaboration—Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasures.

Eleanor Farjeon. The Seventh Princess and The Goldfish. Hyattsville, Maryland: Rebecca Press, 1993.

Eleanor Farjeon. The Seventh Princess and The Goldfish. Hyattsville, Maryland: Rebecca Press, 1993.

Miniature Books is a catalogue of the miniature book published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York, featuring books from the earliest Babylonian clay tablets to modern creations, organized in chapters by major collecting areas: illuminated manuscripts, book arts, religion, almanacs, micro-miniatures, children’s books, politics and propaganda, books on life’s pleasures and objets d’art. The miniature books described are drawn from Edison’s private collection of over 15,000 books, one of the finest collections of miniature books in private hands. The authors tell the stories of miniature books to appeal to both amateurs and rare-book collectors, aiming at explaining “why they are fascinating, odd, amusing, and important and why [collectors] have been entranced by the subject for dozens of years.”[i]

This lavishly illustrated and gilt-edged volume contains 260 full-color photographic reproductions of books pictured in actual size. The illustrations consistently appear in proximity to the text discussing the works shown so that the text flows nicely, allowing any reader a glimpse into this very specific area of book production and collecting.[ii] No wonder Publishers Weekly praises the book as “a feast for the eye.” [iii] Indeed, the photographer, Steve Adams, is famous for taking photos of delicate food and wine. Therefore, to label Miniature Books as a sumptuously illustrated history of the miniature book will never be an overstatement.

Bromer and Edison begin their minibibliomania with reinvigorating the definition of the miniature book. While most bibliophiles call it a book with a maximum of three inches in height, Bromer and Edison define it as a “one-hand’s book,” a definition that implies a certain sensual pleasure. They then proceed to delineate the reasons why people make miniature books. The authors seduce us with stories in which the tiny almanac is made as “ornaments of gaiety and beauty,” while a miniature library is used to “entice children to learn” or as a travelling companion. Young printing apprentices since the 15th century have also produced miniature books to hone their skills and techniques in order to “avoid sloppiness when working with larger books.”

Miniature Books used for political propaganda.

Miniature Books used for political propaganda.

However, a professional bibliophile might find this definition not inclusive or expansive enough to cover their approach to researching the history of miniature books. They assertively call the miniature book an “intimate object,” adopting the Anglo-American approach which focuses on the content and textual analysis of a book. We do not know whom a sixteenth-century French almanac belonged to, but we know that it has “delicately tooled leafy sprays…gilded onto sumptuous morocco leathers.” Meanwhile, they go beyond their definition and carefully study the great stories and fascinating people behind the making of miniature books, adopting the French Annales’ approach which focuses on the historical, political, religious, artistic, literary and social functions of a book. Because of their diligence, we now understand why miniature Hebrew books are essential to the Jewish heritage because their portability and inconspicuousness protected Jews from persecutions. We also understand why miniature Soviet books are effective tools of political propaganda because they were a means of communicating pride in the Soviet social and political systems to the people. In this sense, the authors’ definition of the miniature book limits their own scope of discussion, making the sensuality and physicality of the miniature book override its functions.

Despite this limitation, Miniature Books is still considered as the most authoritative book telling a popularized account of the books no taller than three inches, based on the fact that The Oxford Companion to the Book uses it as the main scholarly reference in its entry on miniature books.[iv] The authors establish their authority from their professional experience in the field of the miniature book. Graduated from Simmons College with a Library Science degree, Bromer became a member of Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America in 1974. Besides Miniature Books, she also authored the other two renowned works on this topic.[v] Her co-author, Edison, has been the editor of Miniature Books News for more than 40 years and thus built his reputation as the reliable and authoritative voice among his counterparts. Most importantly, their reference to their predecessors’ scholarly landmarks in the field, Louis Bondy’s book[vi] on the history of miniature books and Percy Edwin Spielmann’s comprehensive catalogue[vii] of miniature books, makes this volume an unprecedented one in both depth and scope.

Sixteen French almanacs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in leather covers, whose engraved contents include verses or songs with a calendar. These tiny books were given at the New Year to favored patrons of Parisian chocolate shops.

Sixteen French almanacs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in leather covers, whose engraved contents include verses or songs with a calendar. These tiny books were given at the New Year to favored patrons of Parisian chocolate shops.

One fatal feature of this book, however, is its failure to explain to us why we get fascinated with the gathering of miniature books and their significance in history as well as in today’s bibliophilic world, which the authors have promised to address in the introduction. Bromer and Edison introduce “the smallest surviving renaissance manuscript” and “the first miniature bibliography in typographical literature” to us without explicitly explaining the value of their acquisition. Similarly, the authors do not unveil the price of miniature books or the identity of miniature-book collectors. Without this piece of information, we would not know the status of miniature books in the book-collection world.

In addition, the authors seem to be too engrossed in the sensuality of the miniature book to overlook the expectations of their target readers. Oftentimes, bibliophilic jargons are handled tenderly for amateurs. The authors explain most unfamiliar terms such as incunabula and marbling except for a few cases where they lose consistency. For instance, when Bromer and Edison proclaim that “the illuminated letters with minute scroll work are reminiscent of the treatment of initials in Renaissance manuscripts,” they instinctually assume that all of us understand what the treatment of initials during Renaissance was. In the same vein, rare-book expertise might find that there are too many instances where the authors write sweeping statements without any justification. Why is Verbum sempiternum the most important title in the world of miniature books? Why is the first use of photography in a miniature book, Galleria Dantesca Microscopica, revolutionary? Why little people like little books? The overwhelming subjectivity found here, on the one hand, demonstrates the authors’ fervor with the miniature book, but on the other hand, blinds our objective judgment and prevents us from learning the history of the miniature book in an open-minded way.

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Towards the end of this volume, the authors ask us a rhetorical question: what is a book? While scholars are discussing the status of the artist book in the bibliophilic world fervently and relentlessly, what about the miniature book? In fact, Bromer and Edison have their answer. “So long as the human race values books, there will be miniature books for historians and collectors to appreciate.” Bromer and Edison think that the miniature book represents mankind’s evolution in creativity and intelligence. They celebrate this human endeavor of making miniature books, which brings about technological advances such as “Didot’s polyamatype mold” and “Claes” glue-less binding technique” along the way.

“Have we reached the absolute limit?” Of course not. Continue reading


A Review: Fever of Animals

Miles Allinson

272pp. Scribe Publications. Paper, $29.99. 


“I had to give myself a crash-course in novel writing.” Although the Australian bookseller and artist, Miles Allinson, admitted that he had never thought writing a novel could be so complicated, his debut novel Fever of Animals (272 pages) proves himself not a novice in novel writing at all. It won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in May 2014, and will be published by Australia’s Scribe Publications in August, 2015, and in the U.K. in April 2016.

Fever of Animals tells a story of an Australian man, Miles, who contemplates his life through two journeys he has taken: one in which his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Alice, fell apart, and the other in which he searches for a Romanian surrealist painter, Emil Bafdescu, who mysteriously disappeared into the Hoia-Baciu Forest in 1967. Andrew Croome, author of Midnight Express and Document Z, praised this novel as “heartfelt, darkly comic, and nothing short of extraordinary,” while Emily Bitto, author of The Strays, raves about Allinson’s masterful and delicate treatment of time and memory in the novel’s sincere and meditative linked episodes. The novel is intellectual, and yet so intimate that I feel like having in-depth conversations with someone unassuming, humorous, and sharp-witted.

The narrator, Miles, is writing the manuscript we are reading, telling us how he aspired to be a surrealist artist but failed, how he accidentally found a Bafdescu’s painting in a random restaurant in Melbourne, and how he became interested in Bafdescu’s life, because the painting magically dispersed some particular kind of invisible sensation that Miles had longed for to appear in his own paintings. Miles soon found out, from Mircea Szaba’s biography of Emil Bafdescu, that though he was a fervent surrealist painter close with other Parisian surrealists in the 40s including Gherasim Luca, an extreme anarchist and revolutionist, Bafdescu abandoned his affirmation of faith and irrational juxtaposition of images completely, cut off his friendship with Luca, turned to a more realistic artistic style for a few years, and soon disappeared into the forest.

Miles could not comprehend Bafdescu’s sudden rejection of surrealism, or his failure to master surrealism. “I’m interested in what happens after surrealism, once the dream is dead.” Miles sees an astonishing parallel between him and Bafdescu, and by understanding Bafdescu, he hopes to better cope with his own failure being a surrealist artist. Therefore, Miles travels to town K in Romania to unravel Bafdescu’s secret life, but finds himself constantly haunted by his grief, disappointment, and loneliness after breaking up with his ex-girlfriend Alice, a difficult, brutal and intimidatingly sexual young lady, during the trip they took to Venice. Allinson skilfully reveals Miles’ emotional passiveness and psychological vulnerability through his portrayal of environment. Miles lives in “a small, dusty cottage,” feeling “overwhelmingly stressed and tight.” When he feels dark and anxious, the town also becomes sad, bleak, and relentlessly flat. Under Allinson’s nuanced treatment of the setting of this novel, the weather has got into Miles’ psychological specificity, and the line between his internal self and external self becomes blur and indistinctive. Miles’ hopelessness, however, is not carried over to his journey looking for Bafdescu; instead, his desperation and his hatred towards himself have been converted to his passion and curiosity, so that he can better reckon his own failure.

From many of Miles’ intellectual guesses and deductive reasoning on why Bafdescu rejected surrealism, Allinson demonstrates his vast knowledge of Parisian and Romanian surrealist movement in the beginning of the 20th century. He discusses the impact of fascists on Romanian surrealism—“a permanent state of invisibility, a permanent exile”; he conjectures Bafdescu’s submission to widespread communism and its artistic realism—a way of redemption to his “inflicted irrevocable humiliation” and of “punishment for the old dream”; while he sees the later development of mannerism and artistic complacency within the surrealist movement as a threat, he does not eradicate the possibility of Bafdescu, his idol, turning to these hostile movements.

Allinson’s writing demonstrates psychological acuity and an intuitive feel for the telling detail. In one story when Miles attends a panel discussion of Luca’s work by eminent Romanian scholars, hoping to unravel more clues about Bafdescu’s life.

“…where I feel far too visible. I am afraid that someone will ask me something in Romanian and expose me (why would someone just stand here and listen to something they do not understand a single word of?)…I walk around and sit on the floor, close to the front, hidden from everyone else…but from here, at least, I can examine the photograph of Luca in more detail.”

Allinson not only poignantly captures Miles’ unsettling feeling at a place where he experiences both language and landscape barriers and detects an undercurrent of his self-amusement, but also skilfully introduces a smooth transition from his psychological uneasiness to his calm scrutinization of Luca’s photo, which resonates with his emotional specificity. Moreover, Allinson uses repetitive imagery to get his point across, choosing to review Miles’ motives looking for Bafdescu’s secrets over and over again—when Miles introduces himself to a woman he met after the panel discussion, when he writes an email to Emil Bafdescu’s son, Luca Bafdescu, and when he daydreams about his reunion with Alice—since many of the contents in this book are very densely comprehensible and intellectually challenging. He does not shy away from such contrivances, making every detail in his novel explicit and help us stay focused understanding the essential truth that Allinson hopes to reveal.

Which leads us to ask the most important question: what does Allinson try to achieve out of writing this novel? Fever of Animals is full of high-flown sentiments and serendipitous connections of characters, places, and memories which somehow distillate the essence of this novel: human’s exploration of freedom. Like many other Parisian and Romanian surrealists, Gherasim Luca wanted a surrealist, and somewhat anarchist revolution to free people from false rationality, and restrictive customs and structures. However, from Miles’ discovery, Bafdescu might have found that such revolution would create endless entropy which “grinds everything down and sometimes only violence or cruelty or injustice” could empower humans to resist it, just like Miles’ unpredictable relationship with Alice had to be ended in a violent way: “I was forced to strike out and destroy something.” Allinson favors symbolism; the analogy of the frame of a painting to the estrangement of human minds, the infinite justice of humans eating and being eaten by animals in nature, and Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism all become Allinson’s devices proclaiming the essence of human freedom. This thoughtful discussion is bookended by Miles’ grasp of the invisible sensation that appears in Bafdescu’s painting in that Melbourne restaurant, in his “fever of exhaustion and the company of a strange dog.” Eventually we do not know whether Miles have found the answer to Bafdescu’s disappearance, and this becomes no longer important when Miles finally is able to escape from his imprisonment of past relationship, reckon with his failure being an artist, and to feel the depictive, abstract, and psychological senses of himself. Freedom is to be treasured above all else, and this might reflect Allinsons’ ultimate mastery of surrealism.

Fever of Animals is a beautifully written meditation on all aspects of life. I wish Miles’ personal relationship with his family members, particularly his dad, could be given more attention and Alice’s hysteria could be further explained, but these small shortfalls should not discredit what Allinson has achieved in this novel. Like what Bitto says, Allison “is a writer destined for a cult following.”

Who is Emil Bafdescu?

This aroused my curiosity even before I started reading the manuscript. Interestingly, all artists mentioned in this novel are real except for Emil Bafdescu and his biographer Mircea Szaba. I became really interested in whom Bafdescu was based on when Allinson was planning the novel. From my research based on the limited information found on internet, I highly suspect Bafdescu is based on Victor Brauner, a Romanian surrealist painter of the time period in this novel. Almost all his timelines and experiences coincide with Bafdescu’s. What affirms my belief are two following interesting facts:

  • In 1968, a military technician named Emil Barnea captured a saucer flying over the Hoia-Baciu Forest. Maybe Emil Bafdescu’s first name is borrowed from this technician.
  • Brauner held two exhibitions in Paris, named Mr. K’s Power of Concentration and The Strange Case of Mr. K, which might be the reason that the narrator, Miles, lives in a town called town K.

A Review: The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History

Thum, Rian

The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History

Harvard University Press, 2014

336 pages. ISBN: 978-0-674598553

A Secret History


“Xinjiang,” the area of Central Asia in China where many Uyghurs (Turkic Muslims) reside, always causes tensions between the Chinese government and its native dwellers. In the eyes of the Chinese government, Xinjiang is essentially one of the five autonomous regions, embodying China’s territorial completeness and nationalist solidarity. This geographic name, however, represents a watershed point in Uyghur’s psyche en route to Chinese conquest and colonization. Not only do they contest the official Chinese rhetoric of its legitimate rule over Xinjiang because of a shared history, Uyghurs also find this geographic name alienating, merely a symbol of illegitimate, cruel outsider domination.

The Sacred Route of Uyghur History anchors its entrance to this polemics over this geographic name, taking a ground-breaking, but overlooked reading of Uyghur history, in the course of the 20th century. It explores the region as the pre-modern, indeterminate oasis of Altishahr, the Uyghur for “six cities,” and searches for a Uyghur identity within the popular Uyghur historical practice of internal pilgrimage and the textual culture of Uyghur manuscripts without trapping into the post-colonial notion of an imagined community enclosed in the nation-state system. The interplay of the texts and the places allows Uyghurs not only to study their past, but also to express their past. Sacred Route challenges placing a nation’s identity in a binary power struggle. This regional Uyghur identity is neither a reaction to the Chinese government’s subjugation nor a simple artefact of resistance, but a reflection of a unique culture system, in which the popular masses, actively and consciously, engage with their common past.

Therefore, Sacred Route is also a cornerstone in the history of the study of history. Uyghurs, in Thum’s narratives, are the creators of their history and not merely the recipients of the delineated history based on scholarly written texts. This is a history shaped by mass participation, rather than elitist didactics; a history transmitted in sacred place rather than social institutions; and a history transcended the gap between written and oral modes of historical practice. Thum thus draws the reader’s attention not only to the content of his narratives of Uyghur history, but also how this history is transmitted, registered and assimilated into the Uyghur identity.

To tell his story, Thum opens his narrative with the chapter “The Historical Canon,” introducing tazkirah (an Arabic term for ‘memory’), the manifestation of textual negotiation of popular local history, to the reader. Thum discovers that Uyghurs had a rooted tradition of “our history” where the individual past infused into a collective body of history that was shared by everyone in the community and transmitted through Altishahr manuscripts. From a local desire for Islamic heroic depictions in the 18th century to an accommodation of foreign historical literature in the 19th and the 20th centuries, Uyghurs transformed the history of foreign societies and integrated it into their own indigeneity.

Thum explains two different mechanisms of the transmission and integration of this potpourri of histories. The first one relied on oral performances and public readings at local shrines, and words of mouths re-telling various narratives, that symbolized a profound connection between historical tales, literatures and physical places. The second one turned this form of unwritten text into written words in manuscript form, tazkirah. Such intersections of manuscript technology with socially and geographically embedded performances, usually at the shrines, lied at the heart of Uyghur notions of the past which also included “originally intentional and undisguised inventions” of tales and heroic depictions. Thum chooses an adventurous path broadening history’s traditional definition, taking various elements of tazkirah into consideration, such as proses and poetries, pilgrimage manuals, monographs, and encyclopaedias. At the same time, Thum argues that oral performances could not divorce from these tazkirahs—reading texts aloud from manuscripts at the shrines completed a solitary experience of Uyghur history. These tazkirahs, embedded with paramount social values, thus became grounded in the hands of a wide community, and transcended into an important form of cultural capital.

What is impressive with Thum’s research is that he sees manuscripts as not only a medium of contents, but also physical objects for textual negotiation of the past, created and transmitted in culturally specific ways. Such a manuscript tradition mobilized people’s literal, visual, oral and aural senses. On the one hand, the author of the tazkirah possessed control over the written text. On the other hand, this written text, conveyed by a reciter and disseminated to a broader community, also involved people’s participation in creating historical meanings within the texts, giving them a shared authority over the text. Literate readers could record their own experiences in the margins, whereas non-literate people could re-shape the meaning of the text through hearing and re-telling. As a result, the history embodied in these tazkirahs was more dynamic and accessible, consisting of not standardized lineage of one’s past, but an evolving and progressive identity. Tazkirahs became an important site of textual negotiation of Uyghur past and solidarity. Thum also juxtaposes the accessibility, adaptability, and flexibility of collective manuscript traditions to the exclusivity, rigidity, and stability of authorship in the post-printing era, criticizing a monopolization of people’s history in the hands of scholarly elites.

Thum’s narrative of Uyghur history, however, does not end with the written tazkirah. He sees the physicality of places symbiotic with the aforementioned site of textual negotiation, incorporating Uyghur internal pilgrimage to different local shrines of Altishahr into this collective history. Not only did these shrines, saints’ tombs, provide Uyghur pilgrims with a “physical and geographical link to the past,” they also rendered the narrative of their history some legitimacy and sacred authenticity. Thum argues that these shrines became no longer static, merely being venerated by pilgrims, who, however, activated the historical potential of the shrine which hitherto gave the reciprocity of sacredness to them.

In the meantime, such internal pilgrimage brought the convergence of tazkirahs from different parts of Altishahr and disseminated the information across geographic and social boundaries, resembling the Uyghur tradition of “our history,” which linked each pilgrim’s personal life history to the history of the saint, where a sense of the past could be shared across people, and inter-oasis groups of all backgrounds. Thum, thus, indicates that this transcendence of place shifted the focus of history in Altishahr from the places to the saints, circumventing the barrier of localized education along lines of class and profession, and formulating a system of shared identity bounded by the “network of the tazkirah, pilgrim and shrines, the original aspect of the tales, the record and display of participation in the historical tradition.”

Thum then proposes that while veneration at local shrines reinforced regional oasis identities within different group, this internal mobility by networks of pilgrimage and collections of tazkirah anthologies also promoted the imagination of Uyghurs in other oases sharing the same past, creating an alternative form of imagined community that was “more complex and self-conscious than ethnicity but less homogenous than the nation.” This system of networks therefore supported a type of imagined community peculiar to Altishahr’s own geographical, historiographical, and political contexts, where chronology and genealogy were replaced by geography and shared memory of saints as the foundation of Altishahri knowledge.

Unlike many historians who approach Uyghurs in Xinjiang from the perspective of a bipolar power struggle, in which Uyghurs have been severely oppressed, lack of political representation, economic power, and cultural solidarity, Thum proposes that the Uyghur reaction to the Chinese regime was only a contest to the official rhetoric of nationalism which had impeded Uyghur tazkirah-shrine tradition and regional oasis identity. Such an outcry escalated when the Chinese regime started to suppress the tazkirah-shrine tradition. The government banned internal pilgrimages and religious practices, converted mosques and shrines into secular administrative buildings, and confiscated manuscripts in 60s and 70s, peaking during Cultural Revolution.

This decline in popular Uyghur historical practices was accompanied with the arrival of printing technology in the region, fixating history between the lines of the written text, such as the newspaper. Nationalist history, instead of regional popular history, was discussed, which again became monopolized by central elites, leaving mass participation out of the picture. The Altishahr history rewritten by the state was no longer an embodiment of Uyghur identity, but entangled with the matter of politics and used to underpin the legitimacy of the regime—the oases disappeared as a frame for the organization of history in the face of nationalism.

What is the future of this tazkirah-shrine tradition? Can Uyghurs restore their regional oasis identity through the connection of their history to the place? These are hard questions to answer. Instead of using the familiar notion of imagined community and nationalism, Rian Thum brings readers back to the older ways of knowing and belonging. He predicts a downcast in Uyghur textual traditions in the face of the state’s monopolizing and archiving of Uyghur manuscripts. He criticizes the detriments of modern printing and preservation culture to the unique author-reader relationship in Altishahr. He is also disappointed with the present one-dimensional study of the past based on the same set of texts written by previous historians.

The Sacred Routes, nevertheless, is a narrative of people’s history. Nile Green, director of the UCLA Program on Central Asia, calls this book a “humanist project,” which shows us an overlooked and secret history of a people and “expands our sense of how humans can and do interact with the past.”


LA Review of the books:

We Are Third Culture Kids: living at the moment — A Reading Response

‘Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds,’ by David C. Pollock, and Van Ruth E. Reken

By YVIE YAO      March 16, 2015

The book starts with Erika’s story as such:

As the Boeing 747 sped down the runway, Erika sat inside with seat belt secure, her chin propped against a clenched fist, staring out the window until the final sights of her beloved Singapore disappeared from view.

How can it hurt this much to leave a country that isn’t even mine? Erika closed her eyes and settled back in the seat, too numb to cry the tears that begged to be shed. Will I ever come back?

For nearly half of her twenty-three years, she had thought of Singapore as home. Now she knew it wasn’t–and America hadn’t felt like home since she was eight years old.

Isn’t there anywhere in the world I belong? she wondered. 

Thus, my story begins…


I am

a confusion of cultures.

Uniquely me.

I think this is good

because I can


the traveller, sojourner, foreigner,

the homesickness

that comes.

I think this is also bad

because I cannot

be understood

by the person who has sown and grown in one place.

They know not

the real meaning of homesickness

that hits me

now and then.

Sometimes I despair of

understanding them.

I am

an island

and a United Nations.

Who can recognise either in me

but God?

—“Uniquely Me” by Alex Graham James

This poem by Alex, an Australian national who grew up in India, touches the soft spot in my heart whenever I read it. It compels me to confront my paradoxical identity—connected to every culture and yet displaced by every culture—which I have been trying to avoid facing, which I still have not found a way to reconcile.


I go to Northampton Brewery with Serene on every Friday night, and last Friday was no exception. Upon opening the door, the warm ambience and the hot hair immediately intoxicated me and made me forget the frigidness outside. Both Serene and I are poised and somewhat introverted in public. We do not talk much about our personal lives, or our confusion unless a little spice is added—two cups of cocktails, a cacophony of people’s chattering, and a few men’s fanatic cheering for their beloved football teams.

I ordered a cup of Ruby Red Martini. In a spicy pink colour, the bitter-bite Ruby Red Vodka lost its sharpness with lemon-flavoured Bacardi Limon Rum and a mixture of fresh grapefruit and raspberry juice. Serene ordered a cup of Fresh Punch, something unusual appearing in her drink menu—she likes drinks with an acerbity of taste. She did not even know the taste of a potpourri of Bacardi and Kraken Rum, Falernum, Grenadine, Rocks and different fresh fruit juices. The waiter tried to flatter us by affirming our choices, but he would never find out our muddled and puzzling attitudes towards these two ordinary cups of cocktails, that embodied all of our ambivalent identities and life experiences.

Yes. We are Third Culture Kids (TCK), bred by cross-cultural transitions and high mobility in today’s globalized world. David Pollock first coined the term TCK as a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.

I was born in Qingdao, China, where everybody is forthright and candid. Then, I decided to leave my hometown and embark on a new journey to Singapore at the age of fourteen. Although three-quarters of the entire Singapore population are ethnic Chinese, I still felt an explosive sense of cultural shock. I understood that opportunities only came with personal efforts, but not parental help or kinship ties. I realized that good academic grade was not the only criterion for one’s personal mores and values. I recognized that China was not the middle kingdom of the world and I needed to be more modest and open-minded. I thought that my experiences in Singapore had fully prepared me to be a mature and undaunted world citizen, but this was only my naïve illusion. When I came to the U.S. at the age of twenty, I was confronted by a new reality—how to socialize with people with completely opposite cultural backgrounds, how to network with professionals and alumni, and how to integrate into a society that is diverse but xenophobic at the same time.

As for Serene, she left her footprints in more places than mine. She spent the first nine years of her childhood in Wuhan, China, and another nine years in Guangzhou, China, when her dad changed his job. That was the turn of the 21st century, when Hong Kong was just released by the British back to the mainland, when Hong Kong dramas became the new fanatics among the youth, and when Cantonese became a new status symbol for unconventional young people—like those stiliagis of the Soviet Union in the 40s and the 50s. Serene also jumped onto this bandwagon of Hong Kong enthusiasm and went to Hong Kong for her university.  She always thought that Hong Kong would become her final destination, but her exchange experience in Harvard made Hong Kong forever an erstwhile friend and an obsolete dream—she wanted to study and stay in this land across from the Pacific.

I met her here in Northampton, a small but delicate town in West Massachusetts. I still remember that I saw her for the first time when we were both at the Health Center waiting for a health check. Whenever I recalled the situation that day, I thought our relationship defied the eternally true theory of “like charges repel each other.” We were both interested in the other person’s past experiences, those entangled with a cycle of moving, adapting, assimilating and leaving. We both admired the other persons’ courage, maturity and optimism for the future. Once we asked each other our plans after graduation, but soon realized that the answer to this question could never be predictable.


During those Friday nights in Northampton Brewery, our conversations always ended with the same topic—a sense of fear that we both do not know how to overcome, a fear to be asked where we are from, which culture we identify ourselves with, and where we belong to.

“I hate self-introduction.” I grumbled and sipped my Ruby Red Martini. Serene nodded and listened to my grumbling. “Those people who have stayed in the same place could never understand our complexities. How shall I answer where I am from? I do not even know where I am from. I also want to be like my friends who can easily give a one-word answer to this question, but I cannot.” With the effect of the alcohol, I finally burst into tears. Indeed, I am one of the protagonists described in Alex’s poem, a confusion of cultures and identities. It is still difficult for me to just accept it as a fact, but an unresolved identity crisis. Serene padded on my right shoulder. I knew that she understood me.

She sipped her Fresh Punch and started her narration.  She told me that the concepts of identity and a sense of belonging are really fluid to her. She did not lament her displacement because she believed that all of her multicultural experiences and international friends had already become a part of her identity. She belonged to where she lived at the moment, and she identified with whom she created connections to forthwith.  She said that without a fixed identity, her future opportunities notwithstanding became less limited.  However, her heart has always been thwarted by hardship in maintaining long-term friendships. She lamented that her friendships always ended abruptly with her unexpected move to a new place. Although she treated friendship seriously and made efforts maintaining it, her will was eventually defeated by time and distance. She stopped talking for a minute and put her attention onto her cup with half-filled Fresh Punch. Suddenly, she looked at me and confessed to me, “Yvie, you know actually I am just afraid of facing the reality that when I talk to my old friends, I sound like a foreigner and they have no idea what I am talking about.”

The hot air froze. We quickly changed topics.


Whenever people talk about TCKs, they express their jealousy. They are envious of our expanded worldview and our multicultural experiences. Serene told me a story, once.  In the past three years, she lived with thirteen different people for a long period of time when she moved to a new place. When she travelled to a new place, she not only observed first-hand many geographical differences around the world, but also learned how her roommates viewed life from different philosophical and political perspectives. Take an example of relationship and marriage. She told me that her understanding had been refreshed whenever she had a conversation with one of her roommates. Her homosexual roommates in San Francisco introduced to her a new model of marriage and prompted her to reflect the conventional meaning of love and desire. Her current roommate from West Africa taught her that sometimes responsibility was more important than love in a relationship. Her roommate said that, “Maybe I will not fall in love with anyone, but I will get married, establish my own family, and take care of my husband and children with my commitment and good wishes.” Serene admitted that she would never have such awareness that there could be more than one way to look at the same thing if she never travelled to new cultures, and met new people.

Yes, we might have a unique three-dimensional view of the world, imbibe cultural differences from real encounters with people, and experience the world in a tangible way that is impossible to do by reading books, seeing movies, or watching nightly newscasts alone. Meanwhile, we also writhe with value dissonances that occur in our cross-cultural experience. Such a dilemma has bothered me and put me in grieving discomfort since I came to the U.S. where its cultures and values are bipolar to those ones I grew up with. Shall I be an independent woman with a solid career and a bright future at the expense of my husband and children? Shall I take up the double burden of modern women? Shall I support government’s censorship and interference with private market and human rights? What is the difference between Chinese guanxi and American networking? Which value is right? Which is wrong? Or is there even a right or wrong?

I became even more frustrated when I had to deal with more complex topics such as politics and patriotism. Should I commend America’s effort in supporting Tibet’s independence when this is detrimental to my home country China? Should I turn a blind eye to Chinese government’s violation of human rights when it opposes democratic values and universal human rights that my host country America endorses? Should I only make Chinese friends in a closed circle or should I make American friends in college? Such confused loyalties I have make me apprehensive and distressed because no matter which position I take makes me seem unpatriotic and arrogant to my fellow citizens and my friends in my host country.

Yes, we might look confident, poised and open-minded living with cross-cultural enrichment. We adopt a sense of ownership and interest in cultures other than just that of our passport country. We read newspapers daily, visit every hook and cranny of the host country, and treasure every opportunity talking and knowing new people. Just look at my personal experience. When I lived in Singapore, I enjoyed aspects of Singapore culture others might not appreciate. I was proud of my local accent “Singlish,” my knowledge of Singapore history, and the number of sites I visited in Singapore, some of which even local Singaporeans were unfamiliar with. Even now when I already left Singapore and came to the U.S., I still follow Singapore’s local news agency Straits Times, share its Prime Minister’s Facebook status, and  make commentaries on its recent policy changes socially, economically and politically. My Singaporean friend Amanda always teased me that I behaved more like a Singaporean than her. Indeed, we devote all our energy and time to integrating into the local culture and becoming a part of it.

Nevertheless, while we know all sorts of fascinating things about other countries, we know very little about our own.  Agony, the only term I can relate to. I have never been through entrance exams to high school and university in China, which are almost common to every Chinese’s experience. I have never experienced high school sweethearts’ romantic stories. I have had little knowledge in lives in a communal dormitory. I am always slow in Chinese pop culture and well-known celebrities. And I have lost almost all my childhood Chinese friends. Although I spent my childhood in China and I am an ethnic Chinese, my formative years abroad in other countries ironically inculcated a sense of ignorance of my home culture. Where is home to me? Am I still a Chinese?

Yes, we might be independent thinkers, effective communicators and visionary intelligentsia. We are prone to cultural shock and at the same time adapting to cultural shock. We are sensitive to people’s cultural backgrounds and show our respect to their individuality and value systems. We refrain from categorizing people into different groups and assigning stereotypes to them.  We become stronger and more confident confronting challenges and taking risks. We reap all the benefits of being TCKs, being self-reliant, self-independent, determined, culturally tolerant and less judgmental…

However, we are also suffered from detriments of being TCKs. I heard many times from my American friends, and my internship supervisors that, “Yvie, you are a bright individual and I am sure you will find a job after you graduate from college. You don’t have to worry about it right now.” I am certain, too, but they never know my hardship in finding a sponsorship, my limited sources for networking and my limited choices for a job in America as a foreigner. Nor can they fully comprehend my reluctance going back home for a career, not only because I have alienated myself from my home culture and lost my Chinese working proficiency, but also because I do not want to live under my parents’ umbrella for the entire life.

My boyfriend is also a TCK, regarding every new place as his home, every new culture as his new identity. Once, I asked him how he felt being a TCK. He said, “People like us could never stand on the acme of any society and become leaders. Leadership in the modern sense is built based on Woodrow Wilson’s grand blueprint, where vision and people-skill are quintessential cornerstones. Although we have seen so much through our cross-cultural experiences, we lack the ability to be deeply rooted in one culture, of gaining communal support, and of bridging the society through our personal connections.” I could feel his sorrow and helplessness. We, TCKs, can never become arbitrators.


In between worlds,

In between cultures,

In between languages,

In between moves,

In between homes.

Living in between.

Never fully belonging,

Just used to blending…

Like a chameleon.

Never one of them,

Always the ‘other’.

Living in between.

We are many things abroad:

Immigrant, expat, foreigner.

And many things at home:

Hidden immigrant, repat, foreigner.

How do you reconcile

Living in between?

—“Living In Between” from Musings of a Third Cultural Kid

We live in between, but do not think in between. I want to share our stories, the TCKs’ stories, with everyone. If you are not a TCK, I hope you will understand our dilemmas, our psychological struggles, and our unspoken poignancy. If you are also a TCK, I am proud of your courage, your confidence, and your willingness to understand others and passion for embracing the world. In this boundless crowd and vast anonymous population, our connection of being TCKs makes our relationship more precious and cherished. I do not know how long I can maintain my relationship with Serene and where we will be in future, but I am more than contented and fulfilled that we have found each other at the moment.


By David C. Pollock, and Van Ruth E. Reken

360 pp. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. $19.95.

Ten Must-read Books for TCKs

1. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

2. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama

3. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

4. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

5. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

6. The Persepolis: The Story of Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

7. The Odyssey by Homer

8. Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

9. Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar

10. What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers

Something Absent–A Book Review

‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,’ by Francine Prose

By YVIE YAO      January 24, 2015

Francine Prose’s engrossing and thrilling novel ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’ is set in 1930s Paris. Its central character Lou Villars is crafted based on the Hungarian-born French photographer Brassai’s photograph ‘Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932’ in which the woman with short hair and a tuxedo is a professional athlete named Violette Morris. Prose’s male photographer character, Gabor Tsenyi, is modelled on Brassai.

Throughout the entire novel, Prose daringly leaves the main character Lou’s voice absent and tells the story of Lou through voices of other supporting characters, sometimes contradictory. Readers could be immersed in Lou’s biography The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars by Nathalie Dunois, Lou’s photographer Gabor Tsenyi’s personal correspondence with his parents and Gabor’s American writer friend Lionel Maine’s books on the Chameleon Club. Prose also introduces to readers Gabor’s girlfriend Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi’s unpublished memoirs, Gabor’s sponsor, a baroness’s autobiography and the club’s owner Yvonne’s personal stories.

When readers assume the novel centers on Lou Villars, the woman in a man’s tuxedo in Gabor Tsenyi’s photograph ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’ and her devil-like characteristics, Prose actually focuses more on every nook and cranny of the Chameleon Club. All characters in this novel meet and form intricate relationships in the club. Readers could easily comprehend how they meet, but may not detect why their fates are bonded and intertwined so closely. While the Chameleon Club is the birthplace for everyone’s fabulous journey in Paris, it also magnifies everyone’s weaknesses and creates a grand funeral for everyone’s success. The 1930s Paris is tantalizing, but unfortunately, merely an ephemeral dream.

Since Lou was born, she constantly has to struggle with duality and cannot find a balance point within such duality. She was sent away by her parents when she was little and her hatred easily made home a synonym of alienation. Her youngster life with nuns and vices at the same time confused her vision of God and piety. Her real independent adulthood really starts with her performance for lesbian clientele in the Chameleon Club where she finds joy and pleasure. Yet, the betrayal from her first lover Arlette again buries her wish seeking for an identity for herself. When Lou becomes an auto racer and represents France on the world stage, she struggles with dualism of the sexes and cannot live with the masculine and feminine splitting realities. Since childhood, she thinks breasts are disgusting and demonstrates psychically strong admixtures of the other sex. While she starts to find salvation in auto racing and experiences surges in adrenaline, her dream is destroyed by the crime of cross-dressing, a cruel separation of humanity into male and female halves, leaving intermediaries like her no air to breathe. Then, she starts to rebel and overturns the fixated doctrines and guiding principles of sex that have crossed over into the flesh and blood of every person. She submits herself to fascism and completely loses her sense of belonging to her nation. Undoubtedly, the Chameleon Club opens a threshold for her new identity, but it also builds a tomb for her integrity. Francine Prose deliberately isolates readers from Lou’s voice in the novel, creating a sense of adrift aloofness in herself. Who is Lou? Prose leaves a mystery for readers.

Lou is not the only one of her species. The Chameleon Club is the crossroad for people like Lou to find consolation. Gabor is bestowed with artistic talents, walking his ladder up to the high echelon, yet deprived of basic human touch and sympathy. Lionel is genuine and ambitious, but is never willing to submit himself to the stark reality. The baroness has everything including wealth, beauty and power, nevertheless handicapped in her naked ability to express true emotions. Suzanne is the perfect and ideal woman that one can ask for, except for the fact that she drowns herself in the pursuit of love—willing to suffer and sacrifice her dignity for her lover’s inspiration of art. Yvonne is a smart and calculative woman, but feeds herself on the filth of money instead of patriotism and loyalty. Even for Chanac, he has a unique sense of righteousness, but defeated by his greed and ambition.

‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’ is a vivid and powerful miniature of the era. Prose starts her novel with Gabor Tsenyi’s letter instead of Lou’s biography, setting the tone for the entire novel. “Last night I visited a club in Montparnasse where the men dress as women and the women as men.” Despite its subtleness, Prose also explores sexology and cross-dressing in her novel, which dedicates multiple references to transvestites. While Prose’s details show her respect to the real political situations in France and Germany in 1930s regarding transvestites, she tactfully shows her support and approval for transvestites through her deftly crafted plots and her delicate use of language. Prose glorifies Gabor’s ambition in photographing transvestites in his personal letters with his parents and reveals her natural appreciation for the charm of Lou.

“From a distance, an ignorant stranger might mistake Mademoiselle Lou for a stocky, muscular fellow in a white blazer and flannel trousers. But on closer inspection, one sees the full red lips and dark curls that give this confident young woman’s face the saucy sparkle of feminine beauty.”

While the problem with intermediaries has already been discussed for more than a century and while these intermediaries still cannot find a sense of belonging and security in this country, Francine Prose’s novel on a group of sexually ambiguous lovers who have lost themselves in the Chameleon Club gives us an ominous reminder how destructive and devil-like one can be without identity.


By Francine Prose

436 pp. Harper. $26.99.


Mirschfeld, Magnus. Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross Dress, translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash. Buffalo, New York: Promethueus Books, 1991.

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All About Bodies–A Book Review

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary, translated by Philip Boehm. New York: Henry Holt and Company/Picador, 2003 (1953). 261pp.

By YVIE YAO      December 21, 2014

In 1945, as the heart of Berlin was penetrated by the Red Army, Berlin women were penetrated by Russian men. A Woman in Berlin recounts the collective experience of mass rape shared by all women in Berlin. The rape was indiscriminate, commonplace and destructive. However, is the book all about women’s collective memory of mass rape?

The German word Befreiung (liberation) was used when Berlin surrendered on May 8, 1945, symbolizing German people’s liberation from six years of war and their breakaway from twenty four years of radical National Socialist rule under the Nazis. Women were said to be the largest beneficiaries, unchained from the Nazis’ patriarchal oppression. This view, however, was an optimistic understatement, simplifying the gendered nature of Befreiung and overlooking the complexity of various forces restraining women’s rights and freedom.

Women’s bodies were targeted and inscribed with patriarchal misogyny during Befreiung. Berlin women became victims of Russian soldiers’ revenge and their bodies became an embodiment of the German nation. The narrator’s experience was typical among voluminous rape records that were found detailed police and medical reports in Soviet archives, with an estimation of 110,000 women raped by Soviet soldiers and many more than once. Raping was not only an act of violence against women’s bodies, but an emblem of defeat of the German nation. Resentment and hatred fueled Russian soldiers’ revenge:

One of the two men being reprimanded voices his objection, his face twisted in anger: “What do you mean? What did the Germans do to our women?” He is screaming. “They took my sister and…” and so on. (p.53)

German women’s bodies were the price to pay for German soldiers’ sexual crimes committed on Russian soil and their suffering became the humiliation of the German nation. The narrator directs the blame to National Socialism that makes women’s bodies subject to violent abuse, “We’re nothing but body, dirt. We unload our rage on Adolf.”

In her narration, clothing literally becomes the disguise of women’s sexualized bodies when young women try to make themselves appear old and dirty in the hope of repelling lust. Later, these soldiers cannot suppress their urge of eroticism and turn to indiscriminate mass rape, which situates every woman as a victim of this collective experience. She calls this a “communal sense of humanity” and remarks that all women should overcome this mass rape collectively by “speaking about it and airing their pain.”

German women’s pain, however, are not comforted. When German soldiers come back from war, they see their women not as victims, but “a bunch of shameless bitches” who profane their honor and deride their masculinity. In the writing of German history, Zusammenbruch (collapse) appears more often than Befreiung because German men think that their women’s abashing sexual misconduct effeminate the aggressive masculine image of the Third Reich. Men silenced and tabooized the discussion of rape among women. Mostly, they sought to punish their women to the point of divorcing them or killing them in order to preserve their own honor.

In this battle of masculinity, German men were not alone. French men also punished their women for their “horizontal collaboration” with German men. Men publicly humiliated women by shaving their hair parading them, naked. These Shorn Women’s bodies became the scapegoats of men’s re-masculinization and the property of men. Women’s transgressed codes of feminine behavior must be punished in their bodies by men. In this regard, women’s bodies were restrained for the vain sake of maintaining their men’s ego and superior masculinity.

The narrator, however, defies the notion of superior masculinity in her diary. In her narration, Berlin women are the ones who hide their men (who are left in Berlin) and protect them from the angry enemy. Women are the ones who sexualize their bodies as an “opfer,” or a sacrifice, which guarantee their children and themselves food and shelter through their voluntary sexual submission to Soviet soldiers. In contrast, German men are “miserable and powerless,” unable to protect their women from mass rape. They are “dirty, gray-bearded and old,” unable to uphold a masculine image of the nation. What a shame! The narrator witnesses how this crumbling and crippling fatherland of Germany become effeminated and how men prove themselves to be “the weaker sex.”

In the diary, women’s bodies face double threat: one from Russian soldiers and one from German men. Meanwhile, women’s bodies also experience double burden: one from maternal duties and one from forced labor. After Befreiung, Paragraph 218, which punished abortion, was still legally binding, took away women’s freedom to decide when and under what social and personal conditions they could bear children. Women lost their reproductive rights and had to juggle their maternal duties with horrible living conditions. They were also forced into hard labor during the reconstruction of new cities. This mandatory labor was thus burdensome to women in addition to their deprivation of reproductive freedom. The narrator works without a break, does strenuous and repetitive hard labor and receives dehumanized treatment when she felt like a “rat in the rubble.” She comments that to the rest of the world women “are nothing but rubble women and trash.”

“We went on washing for an eternity. Two o’clock, three, four, five, six. We washed without a break, under constant supervision. We soaped the clothes and wrung them out and fetched water. Our feet ached; our knuckles were close to bleeding. The Russians watching us enjoyed the spectacle; the rubbed their hands in gleeful revenge, thinking they’d really gotten to us with the washing. “Ha ha ha, now you have to wash for us, serves your right!”

Women’s labor during Befreiung was alienated from their bodies and women’s bodies were external and disconnected from their will. Marxists should not find unfamiliar to this idea of estranged labor. These women’s labor was not voluntary, but coerced; their bodies did not belong to themselves, but someone else external. Readers who are familiar with Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex should also read these women’s experience with carefulness when they internalized patriarchal misogyny and lived outside authenticity with entrenched false consciousness. However, while the theme of mass rape permeates the entire book, women’s experience of alienated labor is overlooked. Berlin women’s hard labor as rubble women thrived on euphemism. In West Germany, this image became rhetoric for the creation of a brave new world and the departure from its national socialist past. Women’s bodies were thus idealized and embodied with a national dream when these women’s real sufferings as hard labor were ruthlessly neglected.

A Woman in Berlin tells a powerful voice that demands us to show our solemn condolence to women who suffered from traumatizing experience from mass rape. But, it is not all about rape. It is a piece calling for us to relook at women’s bodies: their embodiment of patriarchal misogyny, revenge and pitiless estrangement.


Askanasy, Anna H. “Women and Men in Germany.” International Alliance of Women 42 (1948): 58-59.

Duchen, Claire. “Crime and Punishment in Liberated France: The Case of les Jemmes tondues.” In When the War Was Over: Women, War, and Peace in Europe, 1940-1956, edited by Clair Duchen and Irene Bandhauer-Schoffmann, 233-250. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.

Grossmann, Atina. “Gendered Defeat: Rape, Motherhood, and Fraternization.” In Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany, 48-87. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Katz, Hanna. “Men by themselves.” International Alliance of Women 43 (1949): 184-185.

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