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Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009

In love with China: from forbidden fruits to futile fantasies

MY FAVOURITE WIFE by Tony Parsons. London: HarperCollins, 2008, 405 pp., £6.99 (paper)

CHINA DREAMS by Sid Smith. London: Picador, 2008, 183 pp., £7.99 (paper)

In 2005, American journalist Sheridan Prasso published "The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient." While Prasso's 437-page book deals mostly with real people, a comprehensive review of fiction concerning romance between Asian females and Western males could easily fill a equally voluminous work.

Half a century after Richard Mason published his then-controversial novel (and subsequent blockbuster film) "The World of Suzie Wong," Tony Parsons' East-West romance has shifted the venue from Hong Kong to mainland China.

On assignment to Shanghai with his wife and daughter, British attorney Bill Holden — the same name, incidentally, as the male lead in the Hollywood version of "Suzie Wong" — has a extramarital affair with a Chinese woman named JinJin Li.

As a taste of things to come, the opening page cites a proverb purportedly from Chinese, but which I suspect the author coined himself, that states, "A man with two houses loses his mind. A man with two women loses his soul."

Parsons' descriptions of China and its people reflect thorough research and avoid stereotypes, but the story's conclusion offers no real surprises. Holden may feel genuine love toward JinJin, but their illicit relationship is doomed to fail, first because Western protagonists are almost inevitably bound by conventional values — which means home and hearth come first — and second, with concessions to political correctness aside, the Asian femme fatale remains among the most expendable of literary characters.

JinJin may have redeeming qualities, but as the other woman,there's no question that she will take the fall — it's only a matter of how far.

Takeout fantasy

The formula Sid Smith adopts in "China Dreams" at least earns points for creativity. Tom, a white Briton on the lower rung of his country's social strata, develops an obsessive crush on May Tan, daughter of the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant for whom Tom delivers takeout.

Use of a brutish protagonist gives "China Dreams," the third in Smith's trilogy, a sort of Hugoesque, Quasimodo-and-Esmeralda quality that is disturbing and surrealistic by turns. Tom flits back and forth between squalid reality and fantasies in which he encounters his lady love in China — a place he will never see, and wouldn't fit in even if he did. The nihilistic conclusion, however, quashes any analogies to Hugo, whose characters exhibited heroic dignity, virtues Smith's woebegone protagonist completely lacks.

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