Book review: Bend, Not Break by Ping Fu with MeiMei Fox

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 3:58pm

Bend, Not Break
by Ping Fu, with MeiMei Fox
Portfolio Penguin

Ping Fu has two lives. Although they are interleaved in this memoir, Bend, Not Break is really two books in familiar genres: the Cultural Revolution narrative, and the immigrant success story.

Ping Fu was eight years old when she was inexplicably seized from her adoptive family in Shanghai by Red Guards and sent to Nanjing, to live in squalid conditions in a bare room, and single-handedly bring up her baby sister. Half-starved and brutalised, deprived of education, she attended regular Bitterness Sessions where she was made to eat dirt, literally. Bullied and humiliated, she was gang-raped at 10. Her tormentors explained that this was because she was a black element, the daughter of a privileged family, guilty by blood.

Many such horror stories have been published: this is a late addition to the genre. The horror is real, but is there anything more to be learned from such memories? Ping Fu makes some attempt to show that the lessons of her childhood suffering bore fruit in her later career, but these lessons are mostly framed as Chinese moral bromides and the truisms of motivational literature. The fact is, she was tough. Some had the strength to survive, many did not. All were damaged.

At 25, she managed to leave China, for postgraduate studies at the University of New Mexico. Mao Zedong was dead, strings could be pulled again. Still, she reached Albuquerque with three words of English and no money at all - the classic immigrant success story begins here.

Gifted, hardworking and lucky, she got into computer studies, became a software designer, and moved to the coast. It was the 1990s, and she was caught in a second revolution, the boom. She started her own company, Geomagic, specialising in 3-D imaging and printing. The book tells the company's story, as it became international, and weathered the bursting of the bubble and the global collapse of credit. Today, its fastest-growing region is China.

Though the book moves back and forth between them, Ping Fu's American story is a good deal paler than her Chinese one. The tribulations and triumphs of the boardroom don't seem as dramatic and extreme as the suffering and survival of a small girl in that bare room in Nanjing. But the Chinese-American CEO of a global software company is the same person as the child who slept on newspapers one sweaty Nanjing night, and woke up with a photograph of Mao imprinted on her back.

The job of the memoir, just like the software program that enables the creation of a 3-D model onscreen, is to thread the dots together to produce a single image.