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Sunday, Oct. 28, 2001


Provocative as she wants to be

SHANGHAI BABY, by Wei Hui, translated by Bruce Humes. Simon and Schuster, 2001, 259 pp., $10 (paper)

Sometimes context is everything. A sexually frank novel that reeks of thinly disguised autobiography told in a confessional style would hardly cause a ripple in the West these days. In China, however, such a book is banned, damned and publicly burned. Especially when the author penning such "decadence" is a woman.

More power to her. Author Wei Hui's "Shanghai Baby" represents a flash of counter-cultural lightning in the gray, dreary skies of China's politically controlled culture. In a society where political, social and religious avenues of protest are harshly curtailed, Wei proposes personal, poetic, sexual solutions -- the Slacker approach, as it were.

Wei's protagonist Coco is a free-spirited, twentysomething writer who seeks to "burst upon the city like a firework," but is still grasping for a story to tell. In a clearly Faustian bargain, her own life supplies the material, a tragic plunge through a whirlpool of love and sex.

While working as a cafe waitress, Coco falls for one of her regulars, a bookish young guy named Tian Tian with a bit of an air of tortured, Baudelaireian self-destruction about him. Coco moves in with Tian Tian, and quits her job to concentrate on her writing at his behest. Tian Tian lounges around and paints a bit while living off a stipend from his guilt-ridden mother (who abandoned him to live with her lover in Spain). In the evenings, the couple move through Shanghai's neo-boho circles, a milieu of mild hedonism populated by artists and addicts, hackers and hookers, that seems like a long overdue re-emergence of the louche prewar Shanghai of the '30s.

Everything would be fine for our heroine but for one detail: Tian Tian is impotent, a situation no doubt connected to his mother complex. Coco thinks she can live with it, but, as she puts it, "the deeper the love, the sharper the flesh aches." A one-night stand with a sexually confident (and married) German banker named Mark turns out to be too delicious not to repeat. Coco's belief that she can keep it all under control is put to the test, as she is forced to confront what it is she truly desires, or -- more likely -- that she doesn't really know.

Wei works hard to deliberately blur the lines between Coco and the author herself: "The novel had brought me a new worry. I didn't know how to disguise myself effectively to my readers." What to make of this? On the one hand, Wei -- who is pop-star sultry in her press photos -- may be seeking a cult of personality; on the other, it may just be a device to heighten her novel's immediacy. Then again, it may have actually happened that way.

One clue may lie in the novel's controversial content, which seems to have been shrewdly designed to outrage the authorities. Stop for a moment and consider how Chinese officialdom (no doubt, male) will react to a book in which the Chinese lover is impotent and addicted to opiates while the Western boyfriend is indefatigable in bed.

While Wei perhaps intended this as a symbol of Coco's internal divisions -- between East and West, love and lust -- she must have been aware of the historical allusions as well, an enfeebled China outperformed by the colonialist West. This, combined with her frequently stated love of "decadent" Western culture -- everything from Henry Miller to Sonic Youth -- was guaranteed to raise hell, even if Wei didn't have a penchant for florid descriptions of her orgasms. ("My tongue tasted a sweet yet raw and melancholic flavor, the true flavor of my flesh.")

The authorities should have given "Shanghai Baby" a closer read, though; while Mark may rule Coco's body, it's Tian Tian who holds her heart. It's he who comes across as a fully drawn, sympathetic foil to Coco, while Mark is almost a caricature of the Asian-babe obsessed Western male, libido personified, a lover who barely communicates to Coco except through penetration. (Actually, this works as a sly role-reversal of the sex-object roles so often foisted on Asian "babes.")

Beyond the scandal, there's a decent book here, as Wei/Coco attempts to "suck dry the juice of life like a leech, including its secret happiness and hurt, spontaneous passion and eternal longing." While Coco claims Miller as a mentor, the specter of Jack Kerouac looms large. Certainly his killer combo of hot and cool -- of Bohemian "kicks" and moments of absolute clarity -- is precisely what Wei aims for, an alchemical transformation of life embraced in all its messy glory into transcendent art.

That she only manages to hit such peaks momentarily -- as compared to Kerouac's extended raptures -- is a criticism, but a minor one. This is only her first novel, and the promise is there. (Kerouac himself didn't ripen until his 30s.) Furthermore, the prose reflects the hesitant voice of Coco, a wannabe superstar who's still wondering whether she has the chops. Certainly, compared to the yup-novels of a generation ago -- Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, et al. -- there is far more soul here than a shot of "Catcher In The Rye" angst chased by a cocktail of emotionally numb hedonism.

Like her hero Kerouac's works, Wei's "Shanghai Baby' -- currently being sold in China outside clubs in bootleg editions -- will serve as a rallying cry for those fed up with the outdated (and hypocritical) moral values of China's gerontocracy. If one cannot change society, then one can at least change oneself, and move through it in flowing, underground currents of free living. As the Beats proved in America -- where a handful of artistic rebels against '50s conformity wound up inspiring a generation of youth in the '60s -- sometimes an "escape" into art is anything but.

Giovanni Fazio runs an independent record label in Tokyo, and covers film for The Japan Times.

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