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Feminist and first-time author Choo Waihong explores the matriarchal tribe of Mosuo

Former corporate lawyer Choo Waihong now spends half the year with an ancient matriarchal tribe, inspiring the first-time author to write a book.

There isn’t a Porsche or even a car in sight. In fact, donning a sun visor, she not only walked here but was so early she’d stopped at the nearby coffee shop for a cuppa, promising the noodles stallholder to return for a plate of his prawn wonton mee after her interview. It’s been more than a decade since Choo Waihong was featured in our magazine, and we’re glad to connect again. Formerly a corporate lawyer with top law firms in Singapore and California, she embraced early retirement in 2006, putting aside 15-hour workdays to lead the enviable, if peripatetic, life of a global citizen; shuffling between homes in Singapore and Yunnan, and visiting friends and family all around the world.

In March, she released her first book — The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains — a first-person account of her experience living among one of the last matrilineal and matriarchal societies on earth, along China’s invisible mist-shrouded border with Tibet. In the few months since, the first-time author has seen her book enter its second print and foreign-language rights sold to Finland, Spain, Japan and Korea.

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“I’m so excited about that!” she says, while getting her makeup done for the photograph you see at the top. “It started on a lark, and now it’s come to this.”

More than just the success of her book, life now is an about-turn from the one she used to lead. Her former self “had a home so stylishly modern that it was featured in Prestige,” she wrote in the book’s prelude, and “for leisure, I’d zoom around in my Porsche convertible on weekend jaunts and jetted off to fashionable cities around the world.” Today, Choo Waihong spends half the year among the Mosuo, an ancient tribe that survives largely on subsistence farming.

Where once she would take it on herself to remind the old boys’ club to judge women on their merits not comeliness, or speak out against plans to reduce maternity leave for women partners at her firm (she won), Choo Waihong — a self-described feminist who served two terms as vice president of women’s advocacy group Aware — is now part of a matriarchal community where power lies in the hands of women.

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Close to the border between China and Tibet, the Mosuo countryside in Yunnan is framed by Bucolic Mountains and a lake. (Photo credit: kingdomofwomen.co.uk)

Beginning of the journey
Desiring to re-connect with her Chinese roots post-retirement, Choo Waihong took off for language lessons in Beijing before going in search of her grandfather’s village in Guangdong; the trip soon evolved into a grand tour of China. While basking in the ancient music and architecture of Lijiang, she learnt of the Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival, a day dedicated to the guardian deity of the Mosuo people, and made her way to Lugu Lake. “As a feminist, I thought ‘Wow. I’ll go check it out.’ To this day, I’ve not missed a festival.”

The goddess Gemu, she discovered, was imbued by the Mosuo with largely mortal qualities. “She likes to drink and gamble, and she likes good-looking men!” Choo reveals with a laugh.

CHOO WAIHONG
The annual Mountain Goddess Festival that Choo has helped finance for many years. (Photo credit: kingdomofwomen.co.uk)

Hungry and in search of lunch on that first visit, she struck up conversation with a young local girl Ladzu, who not only invited her home for a meal but “adopted” Choo Waihong as her godmother. “I asked her to teach me the language and I would call her ‘laoshi’ (teacher in Mandarin), but she said ‘No, I’m so much younger than you, I’ll call you ‘ganma’ (godmother),” Choo recalls. “And that began a long, close relationship. I call her my window to the Mosuo tribe. Through her, I was introduced to her family, her mother’s large family, the village and then the community.”

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On Choo’s second visit to Lugu Lake the following year, Ladzu’s uncle Zhaxi — a local entrepreneur Choo describes in her book as the “Don Juan of Don Juans” — offered to build her a house. And with that, she put down roots. “I call it my holiday home. Once you have it, you go back again and again, which is what I did.”

“My only request was that he made me a five-star bathroom,” she says. Overlooking the Moon Lake and the sacred Gemu Mountain, her two-storey cottage is traditional in architecture, but with its septic tank and flushing loo, is unlike most Mosuo homes where the call of nature is simply answered outdoors.

Choo’s cottage beside Lugu Lake. One she describes as “The spiritual home for my feminist soul”. (Photo credit: kingdomofwomen.co.uk)

As she stayed on at Lugu Lake, Choo Waihong became fascinated by the social milieu created by the Mosuo’s unique family structure: Bloodlines run from the mother so the head of every household is its matriarchal grandmother. Instead of marriage, Mosuos are free to have sexual relations with axias (lovers), but children are raised only by a woman’s family. The men may have no parental claim to their offspring, but are expected to be good brothers and uncles to children born to the female family members.

“I think on the whole, the life of the Mosuo man is uncomplicated and fun. Their first job is to do any heavy work around the house [including slaughtering of livestock] and be good uncles. And at night they may hang out, have a beer or see a girlfriend,” Choo says.

Are the men campaigning for equality, I ask. “It’s an interesting question. I know of a woman studying a matriarchal tribe in northeast India, and she says the men there have started a movement for equal rights. But that hasn’t arrived at Lugu Lake. They’re quite happy. I think the issue for some of them is how they can preserve their way of life as things are becoming diluted by the Han culture brought in by tourism.”

Birth of the book
While a few more adventurous friends have visited her at Lugu Lake, “most Singaporeans are not interested in visiting because they think it’ll be such hardship,” she admits. One who did visit in her third year at Lugu Lake — London-based litigator Yvonne Jefferies — suggested she write a book on her experiences. So she did.

“I never started out thinking I would write a book. I was just having fun, watching and appreciating. Then I took another four-and-a-half years for the book to cook.”

Getting The Kingdom of Women published was itself a “magical story”, she says. Not having nor wanting a literary agent, yet desiring to publish in England (as it was “more prestigious and not so parochial”) she flew to London, researched a few independent houses she thought would find her book interesting, and sent out her sample chapters.

“I posted them out on a Monday afternoon and on Thursday night I got an email from one of them saying we want your book and we’re working out a contract. It’s unbelievable, right?” she regales. It makes authorship sound easy, I muse. “It does, doesn’t it? That’s how I got the deal. But I did have to revise [the book].”

With her book out and doing well, she is in search of material that would inspire another manuscript. But she doesn’t know yet what about. “It’s hard to top this one. I’m not sure I can go somewhere else for the next seven years just to write a book,” she says. “But I can at least say that I’m an author. Whether I’m a continuing author — well, that is another question!”

In the meantime, she’ll continue returning to her cottage at Lugu Lake three to four times a year, spending one to two months each visit meeting up with friends and her godchildren (she now has six), and leading what is generally a healthy lifestyle.

“Everyone rears chickens, ducks and pigs. A meal is as simple as freshly killed chicken boiled in water. And the eggs are the richest you can find. I soft-boil two each morning. They’re of the deepest orange colour,” she says with a glint in her eye.

She spends the rest of the year swinging in and out of Singapore, or taking off to Europe or the US to spend time with siblings and friends. For now, as our chat and photoshoot come to an end, Choo Waihong turns to leave.

She’s probably headed off for that plate of wonton noodles waiting at the coffee shop.

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