In 1901, an already-famous book became the first American novel to be translated into Chinese. It had a man’s name in its title – Uncle Tom’s Cabin – and the translator, Lin Shu, was also male. It was written, however, by a woman: Harriet Beecher Stowe.

This unhelpful fact caused a few problems for Stowe’s Chinese biographers. After all, wasn’t it well known that, “a woman without talent is a woman of virtue”?

American writer Michelle Vosper quotes that remarkable Chinese saying in the introduction to her book, Creating Across Cultures – Women in the Arts from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan (2017). It’s a collection of stories about women who, at least in the eyes of the Asian Cultural Council (ACC), have the virtue of being talented. The ACC, which was established in New York in 1963 by John D. Rockefeller III, has awarded fellowships to all of them.

These, of course, are not the only women to be recognised by the ACC, which, over the years, has handed out about 6,000 grants to arts professionals. Vosper, who was ACC’s Hong Kong director for almost 25 years until her retirement, in 2012, had a crowded database to choose from.

Originally, she was going to include men. “But what I found is there’s a lot of information on them,” she says, in the ACC’s office in Sheung Wan, in Hong Kong’s Central & Western district, a few days before the book’s launch on March 8, International Women’s Day. “The men are already out there! The women are nowhere.”

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Her initial concerns that some high-flying women might be reluctant to be included in a book confined to their own sex were dispelled. “They don’t see it as a demotion or a smaller category, they see it as interesting – a thread holding them together.”

Having decided on gender, she moved on to number: the plan was to write 10 profiles. In the end, she had to bring in other writers and the book became a collaborative process that tells the tales of 16 women. (Despite the epigraph from the late American artist Georgia O’Keeffe – “I feel there is something unexplained about women that only a woman can explain” – three contributors to these essays are male.)

“Inexperience,” says Vosper, frankly, of her initial optimism that she could do the whole project herself. Her first interviewee was the China-born, Taiwanese-raised, Iowa-based writer Nieh Hualing, now 92 and, in 1964, the first Chinese woman to receive the Rockefeller funding. Vosper spent three months, with two trips to Iowa City, working on that single piece. “I couldn’t stop, I knew this was the depth I wanted.”

For all but one of the women’s stories, she did all the original interviews, usually in Putonghua, each taking an average of three hours. (The exception was Lam Bun-ching, the Macau-born composer.)

Although Vosper wanted China, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong to be distinct (“not one big lump of a China”), the book is divided by genre – Words, Visual, Sound and Stage, Dance – not geography.

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“Cultural identities are trans­forming and I’m not going to tell people who they are,” she says. “And I was trying to balance the different feels. The Dance section is heavy on modern dance because that’s what the Asian Cultural Council funds.”

Given that the women were selected based on their links with the ACC, Vosper – one of life’s natural enthusiasts – is at pains to avoid coming across in the book as overly loyal to the council. “Of course, we’re not calling this the best. People could say, ‘Why am I not in it?’”

In her years as ACC director, she recognised that certain issues – potential loss of face, concern about an under­lying American government agenda, political wariness – held back worthwhile artists from seeking any sort of fellowship with it. (The ACC and the Asia Society, also founded by John D. Rockefeller III – in 1956 – have both had to contend with a lurking suspicion in Asia that they’re run by spies.)

“I understand the awkwardness of the fact that the artists were all connected to the ACC and therefore the pool excluded some stellar women very worthy of presenting,” she says, in a subsequent e-mail. “However [...] the women all agreed to be part of a project which would present their personal lives to the public, which put them in a vulnerable position, and some did not even know the writers. It was because of their trust of the ACC that they agreed to participate [...] Not because of me.”

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Still, if you need a human conduit connecting diverse lives and talents, the warmly communicative Vosper would seem to be an ideal choice. As Josephine Wai Chi-fei, the ACC’s current director, who’s sitting in on the interview, remarks: “In the office, we say Michelle can talk to a wall.” In Vosper’s New Jersey high school, she was the student voted “most individual”. She was, she says, a “dreamy, non-political person” who went to study in France, sang and played guitar in Normandy cafés and stayed with a French family called the Parfaits. Parfait is French for perfect; the family, being Maoist, believed that China – in the throes of the Cultural Revolution – was perfection and America, mired in Vietnam and other murky corners, most emphatically was not.

“They said, ‘Do you know what’s happening in your country?’ Even the women’s movement – I didn’t feel I’d been wronged! It was selfish oblivion.”

She dropped out of college and went through a deliberate phase of poverty. She applied in vain for a scholarship to look after reindeer in Norway. Eventually, she returned to the United States for a sister’s wedding. There, an aunt who worked in the US Foreign Service suggested she study Putonghua because, as it turned out, in 1970s America that was an easier option for a scholarship than caribou.

Vosper’s immediate love of the language – “It was like singing all the time” – took her to Taiwan, then to China. In 1979, the year of “normalisation” in relations between the US and China, she was hired by the Shandong-born, American-educated composer Chou Wen-chung to run the Centre for US-China Arts Exchange, which he’d founded at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. After four years of arranging China trips for such luminaries as Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller, Vosper moved to Hong Kong with her husband, Leslie Lo Nai-kwai (later the founding dean of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Education).

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In other words, she did what the 16 women did: she left home. The book’s pages are nicely seasoned with observations by everyone from Voltaire (“All the arts are brothers” – or possibly sisters ) to Emma Watson (“If you stand for equality, then you’re a feminist”), who, unfortunately, was obliged to spend the run-up to International Women’s Day justifying her Vanity Fair photo shoot from a feminist perspective. But the most ACC-relevant, and recognisably Chinese, quotation is the one from the Colombian – male – poet Fernando Arbeláez: “A fish did not know what water was. On asking, the wisest fish answered: If you want to know what water is, get out of the water.”

Talking to these women who’ve leapt from – and usually back into – their native streams was, Vosper says, “very mystical”; mentally they returned to places they hadn’t been to in a long time and deep memories were resurrected. There’s a sense, during the interview, that the same process has been happening to her, via the book.

After her retirement, she returned to New Jersey with Lo and their two sons, Pierce and William. They live on “a sort of gentleman’s farm”, which had been in her family. (The impetus to return was heightened by the theft of 10 black walnut trees: “It’s somewhere I really love and I felt I had to step up to the plate”.) This is where she’s spent the past four years creating her shared project.

“I have one regret,” she remarks, unprompted. “That I didn’t dedicate the book to my mother. She always said I never finish anything.” And later, being a generous commu­nicator, she sends an e-mail wondering, among other things, whether her mother was part of the “unconscious inspiration for the focus of this book”. She is, she promises, going to think more about it.

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Naturally, there’s an unseen cast of mothers, husbands and offspring in the book but, as in the best histories, it’s the combination of personal vignettes and un­expect­ed detail that provides relevance. As all the women were born between 1925 and 1979, they’re tracing the volatile arc of China’s artistic – and political – recent past.

Nieh, for example, travelled down the Yangtze alone, aged 14, during the Sino-Japanese war; hid herself within her own house, writing, for two years in the 1960s during Taiwan’s “White Terror”; moved to Iowa (without her two daughters, they came later) in 1964; was lambasted by Taiwan for translating, with her American husband, Paul Engle, Mao Zedong’s poems into English; and received Taiwanese hate mail for months when, in 1979, she began inviting mainland Chinese writers (some of whom had suffered terribly in prison) to the International Writing Programme she and Engle had set up in 1967.

When the influential arts writer (and eventual curator) Liao Wen began her career in mid-1980s Beijing, the very idea of “curating” an exhibition was unthinkable. Everyone showed their work in groups, no one spoke of “contemporary art” and there was no gender division. It was only when a British curator asked her about feminist art in the early ’90s that she began to research the idea of equality and realised that China’s women’s movement, such as it was, was intended to serve not women but the revolution. In 1999, she spent four months in the US, courtesy of the ACC, interviewed prominent feminist artists such as Judy Chicago and Yoko Ono, then wrote a book titled No More Nice Girls (2002). It was banned by Beijing.

If you don’t contribute to the place that nurtured you, what are you? You pay back – not in money terms, you give back. But that spirit is lost in this generation
Jaffa Lam

Often there, literally, hasn’t been the language. When Choi Yan-chi opened Hong Kong’s first installation exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, in 1985, for example, the gallery and the media – never having dealt with the concept before – had to decide on a suitable Chinese word for “installation”. They went with zhuangzhi yishu (zhuangzhi means “to install” an appliance, yishi means “art”).

In 1986, the dancer Yang Meiqi spent a six-week residency at the American Dance Festival, funded by the ACC, where she was inspired to begin a modern-dance training programme at the Guangdong Dance Academy. One of the American choreo­graphers who came to Guangzhou to assist asked the dancers to create a movement based on something auto­bio­graphical; the interpreter said there was no word in Chinese for “personal”. Yang persisted. In 1992, when she formed the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, she received govern­ment funding on two conditions: no nakedness and no challenges to the principles of socialism. It was other Chinese dancers who objected: they accused the company of being “Western sellouts”.

Westerners, too, have had their prejudices. In 1976 Chicago, Choi – already financially independent and strong-minded – ended up avoiding American feminists altogether. “I felt that they just kind of looked at me as an oppressed minority woman from Asia!” she says in Creating Across Cultures. But by the time Pisui Ciyo, an indigenous singer and dancer from Taiwan, went to New York, in 2002, her stories of tribal hardship shrank alongside those of other beleaguered US minorities, especially Native Americans. (This seems to have been a relief. In the book she’s quoted as saying, “I could finally let go of all that aboriginal baggage and just be an artist.”)

To some artists, the West has been as dogmatic as Chinese bureaucracy; Beijing installation artist Yin Xiuzhen tended, like many Chinese artists, to tweak her exhibition work until the last moment. She discovered that American organisers don’t like such changes; and in Germany, she was told to stop.

Yin is probably most famous for her Portable Cities series – recognisable skylines created out of old scraps of fabric and packed into suitcases that combine the domestic and the global. When she started travelling, she’d watch the suitcases circling airport carousels and think how each one was like “a tiny, shrunken home”.

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That simultaneous inside/outside view is something that comes up frequently in the book, as if straddling both interior and exterior worlds is a speciality of female artists.

What’s also noticeable is the shift in attitude by – and towards – younger women artists. These days, Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong Mui-ngam (born 1976) isn’t usually referred to as a “female” playwright. She’s a “strong, contemporary voice”. The identity she’s interested in writing about isn’t gender-specific: it’s that of an uncertain post-colonial city.

And for women such as Chinese film director Yang Lina (born 1972), whose first movie was called Old Men (1999), and Hong Kong installation artist Jaffa Lam Laam (born 1973), who created a photographic display called “Rickshaw”, featuring rickshaw drivers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, art is about community engagement for all.

Lam’s latest project is part of a government-sponsored exhibition called “Hi! Houses”. Her interactive work, using a house to focus on Hakka migration – another inside/outside view of the world – can be found in the Sam Tung Uk Museum, in Tsuen Wan, until June 30.

“I’m thinking of a whole generation, about what’s been lost in a city,” she says, sitting cross-legged next to a flowing fountain at the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, in Admiralty. Lam is one of the fish who left the water for five months, when the ACC funded her 2007 trip to the US, and came back. “My family is so poor, I’m really grateful to the ACC. If you don’t contribute to the place that nurtured you, what are you? You pay back – not in money terms, you give back. But that spirit is lost in this generation.”

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Nearby, some of the women featured in the book are rehearsing for a performance that will take place at the Hong Kong launch the following evening. (A US launch will take place in June. For Vosper, the book’s ideal reader is an English-speaker who’s interested in the regional arts scene but doesn’t have much background or accessibility.) The non-Hong Kong residents are staying at the Helena May, in Central.

My mother did not really understand my work at all. I think she hoped that I was actually an undercover spy or something
Michelle Vosper

“I knew they would love it,” says Vosper later. “Artists appreciate places with character and it was so much fun, running from room to room and leaving notes.”

Among them is Ciyo, the singer and dancer born into Taiwan’s Atayal tribe. She, too, talks not about gender but generations. “I learned the songs from my very old grandmother and grandfather. The elders gave me this gift and I should share it. But for the young generation the culture has changed. For them the ritual song is to show off themselves. They don’t understand the meaning.”

When she sings a sudden song of tribal migration in an Asia Society passageway – cut into the Hong Kong hillside, a relic of the colonial days when it was an explosives magazine – it’s a moment of such sudden haunting power that everyone falls silent and at least one listener feels the hair rise on the back of her neck. The voice sounds neither male nor female, young or old, but timelessly human, beyond boundaries.

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“My mother did not really understand my work at all,” Vosper writes in an e-mail afterwards. “I think she hoped that I was actually an undercover spy or something much more exciting and dangerous. So it never really occurred to me to dedicate the book to her.

“Then I realised something else. We have two sons but my mother was always pushing me to have a daughter [...] this book feels like a daughter, if not a houseful of daughters. If it’s reprinted, I will dedicate it to my mother because now I understand what she was getting at.”

Creating Across Cultures – Women in the Arts from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan (HK$490) is available through Swindon, Hong Kong University Press or creatingacrosscultures.com.