Life Transformed

Pocket woman is China’s transgender pioneer

By Corky Mau
April 2023

Sasha Eastley’s journey to Sacramento from China wasn’t easy. There were roadblocks and detours, but she met them head on. She moved to Pocket in 2005, shortly after marrying Bruce Eastley.

They met through a match-making service. But Sasha kept a big secret from her husband, a secret she didn’t reveal until June 2022, when she told Bruce she had sex reassignment surgery in 1983.

Her future depended on her husband’s reaction. Bruce says, “I don’t recall being shocked, just mildly surprised. I couldn’t see any masculine features. Reflecting on my 17 years with Sasha, I don’t feel like my life has been upended. I now have a better understanding of a subject I knew very little about.”

With his wife’s consent, Bruce wrote a book, “The Life and Times of Zhang Kesha: China’s First Transgender.” The book chronicles Sasha’s life.

“I’m lucky I had support from my family, friends and now my husband,” Sasha says. “I want more people to understand the inner world of transgender people. Our society needs to show more tolerance and compassion.”

Sasha was born in May 1962, in Dalian, China, and named Zhang Kesha. Dad was a general in the Red Army. Zhang was the youngest of seven children. For large families, it wasn’t unusual for siblings to wear hand-me-downs. Zhang liked to wear a sister’s clothes.

From age 3, the future was clear. Zhang wanted to live as a girl: “I had a girl’s soul, trapped in a boy’s shell.” Most playmates were girls. But troubles arose in middle school. Dressing as a female, Zhang was bullied and considered a “fake girl.”

Zhang enlisted in the army in 1979, hoping to become more male. After three years in the military, the desire to live as a woman remained powerful.

Then Zhang learned about sex reassignment. In 1982, surgery became viable after a consultation with Dr. Ruan Fang-Fu, an expert on human sexuality.

In the 1980s, there were no laws in China approving sex reassignment. Surgery requests were routinely denied. But with help from Ruan and Zhang’s uncle, the procedure was finally approved, with conditions. The “research” surgery was performed in confidence. Everyone signed non-disclosures. Ruan could only document the surgery in medical journals.

Zhang entered the hospital at Beijing Medical University in January 1983. Dr. Wang Da Mei, a plastic surgeon trained in the United States, performed the surgery. It was long but successful. Sasha, then 20, could finally live as a woman. “My family was happy that I survived the operation,” she says.

In 1995, Jin Xing, a Chinese dancer, was the first celebrity to openly undergo transition surgery. The first Chinese clinic for transgender health care opened two years ago in Shanghai.

After surgery, Sasha lived in Taiwan and Hong Kong. She married but was widowed by age 40. She wanted a new life. Bruce Eastley entered the picture in 2004.

The couple held a book signing at the Elks Lodge to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Sasha’s surgery. Mayor Darrell Steinberg was there and said, “Imagine what she went through in China, having the courage to face all the harassment and discrimination. Here we are today, gathering to celebrate the very essence of who she is.”

Now Sasha enjoys peace and tranquility. She’s active in the Sacramento Camellia Lions Club, an all-female civic organization she started in 2017. She told her story to mahjong friends in 2019. Being good friends, they protected the secret until Sasha built the courage to tell her husband.

The book’s availability is limited. “The Life and Times of Zhang Kesha” video is on YouTube.

Corky Mau can be reached at Submissions are due six weeks prior to the publication month. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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