Books and Films by Andrew Field

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Friday
Jun082007

Battle of the Sexes: Shanghai Baby vs. Foreign Babes in Beijing

weihui051707.jpg

Above:  Scandalous authoress Wei Hui.  I jacked this photo from Dan Washburn's excellent site, Shanghaiist, where a fuller story on Wei Hui and Shanghai Baby can be found. 

It recently came to my attention that Wei Hui's novel Shanghai Baby has been made into a film, starring Bai Ling as "Coco", the novel's protagonist.  Meanwhile, Rachel Dewoskin has turned her own non-fictional account of her stint as an actress in a 1990s popular Chinese TV series, Foreign Babes in Beijing into a film as well.  Interesting that both stories are being produced as films around the same time and that they both deal with female sexuality in China during the same era.  In one, Chinese women appear seductive, Western men are virile while Chinese men are weak.  In the other, Western women are attracted to virile, artsy Chinese men.  What a telling juxtaposition!  I'll get back to this theme at the end of this blog, but first, for those of you unfamiliar, here's a rundown of both stories.

Let's start with Shanghai Baby.  Coco is a Chinese woman living in Shanghai during the mid-late 1990s.  Her Chinese boyfriend is hooked on heroin.  She falls for a married German man and has a steamy, sordid affair, while nursing her down-in-the-dumps boyfriend.  I confess that I could not make it through the entire novel, and I agree with many that the sex scenes were--well, overdone (somehow I'm reminded of China Bounder and his Sex in Shanghai site).  But I did enjoy her descriptions of Shanghai, which resonated with my own experiences there in the same period.  In her novel, Wei Hui mentions several characters whom I know well, such as Tony Zhang, co-founder of the ever-popular club Park 97 (Tony introduced me to my wife!) and Christophe Lee, DJ extraordinaire.  Chris plays a big role in an article I hope to publish this coming year on the evolution of a clubbing scene in Shanghai since the '90s.  I've even included a passage from _Shanghai Baby_ where she describes the scene at Y.Y., then a popular late-night dance club:

"I saw my favourite DJ on the stand, Christophe Lee from Hong Kong.  When he noticed I was there, he made a face at me.  They were playing House and Hip-Hop, both totally cool, like a raging blind fire.  The more you danced, the happier and more unfettered you felt, until you were vaporized out of existence and your right and left lobes were both quaking—and then you knew you’d reached your peak." Wei Hui, Shanghai Baby (London:  Robinson, 2001), pp. 74-5.

I met Wei Hui a few times at friends' parties or at clubs (such as Park 97) but never got to know her.  Obviously we traveled in similar circles.  She was a good friend of a college classmate of mine, who told me she was writing a novel about life in Shanghai.  Little did we know that it would become such a "literary sensation."

Now she is on the hit list of every "good girl" in Shanghai, and other parts of China as well.  So is Bai Ling, who shows her impressive assets while playing Coco in the film (see the youtube promo below).

 

Here's what a Chinese female friend of mine wrote when she found out about this movie: 

"Very well, a match made in heaven - Weihui and Bai Ling! They are out there perpetuating the image of Chinese women being seductive and slutty. Don't they have anything better to do? Well, I guess they are doing what they are good at. Haha."

Seductive and slutty?  Not the Chinese women we know and love ;-)

Here we have the classic theme of "good girls" vs. "bad girls" which you will hear ad nauseum if you visit Shanghai.  Let's tar and feather Wei Hui and run her out of town!  Or...or better yet, why don't we brand her chest with a scarlet letter A for having dared to even write about such a horrid subject???  Bring out the torches!  Where's the dunking bucket?  We're a goin' on a witch hunt!

 Contrast this to Foreign Babes in Beijing.  Similar story, yet from another angle.  This time, a Caucasian American girl named Jessie falls in love with a...gulp!... married Chinese man!  And they have a sordid affair.  But in the end he decides to leave his loveless marriage and run off into the sunset with his American gal.  The story played to millions on Chinese TV, so it can't have been that sordid.  Rachel Dewoskin, who starred in the series, wrote a book about her life in Beijing at the time.  She also included her own real life affairs with...gasp!...Chinese men!  One in particular, whose name I don't recall.  As with Shanghai Baby, I was pleased to find certain places come up in Ms. Dewoskin's story that I was familiar with, such as Jazz Ya in San Li Tunr.  While no high literature, this was an entertaining read that gives a certain picture of what it was like to be a foreigner--and a woman--in Beijing at the time.

Sex and the City:  Shanghai vs. Beijing 

I must confess that while I found Wei Hui's descriptions of sex a bit over the top (in the words of another friend, they were "gross"), I was disappointed at the lack of sex in Dewoskin's book.  Granted, this was a non-fictional autobiography (whereas Shanghai Baby was a semi-fictional autobiography as far as I can tell) and thus Dewoskin had more at stake.  But a little more frankness about her sexual relations with so-and-so might have helped us understand her characters better.  Just a thought.

I'm looking forward to seeing both films.   Somehow, I get the feeling that the sex scenes in the film Shanghai Baby will be watered down, while those in Foreign Babes may be amped up a notch.  As everyone in Hollywood knows, sex sells.

Obviously there is great significance to the cities in which these stories take place.  Shanghai, the semi-colonial "whore of the orient" is a fitting background for a tale of seduction and corruption featuring a virile German man (read the West) who steals a pretty Chinese women (read China) from a weak, heroin (read opium) addled Chinese man.  In Beijing, it is the Western woman who is seduced by virile, artsy Chinese men, and made into a caricature of herself by agreeing to do a TV series.  In Shanghai, the West seduces China.  In Beijing, China seduces the West.

Here's a parting quote for Wei Hui from the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem:

"How to make it in the arts?  Publicize your private parts!  Critics say you can't offend 'em, with a phallus or pudendum." 

 

Reader Comments (7)

I wonder if that shanghai baby film will have any scenes in it with bai ling taking her kit off? Can't tell from that promo.

And the bloke from Bros is in it! What star quality. The Chinese woman with the coat hanger nipples and the man who sang "When will I be famous?" (Or was he the drummer? Damn those identical twins.)
June 8, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdamo suzuki
Great comparisons! I especially like the way you summed up the two types of dynamics - "In Shanghai, the West seduces China. In Beijing, China seduces the West." Very poinantly said. In Shanghai, what's truly seductive is not Shanghainese women, it is anything from the West, especially Western men! :) Without them, we Chinese girls won't be here having a piece of the West. Let them seduce more, then the world will be full of love - the true globlization in action - yeahhhh, way to go!:0)
June 9, 2007 | Unregistered Commentergobilily
My reaction to Shanghai Baby is ambivalent because I cannot claim to understand all the societal pressures the Chinese people live with on a daily basis, but my initial response was unequivocally "What a SLUT!" I am surprised that you thought the sex scenes in Shanghai Baby were over the top because most of the scenes, if I remember correctly, were rather succinct and trite. They seem very contrived and self-serving. Given the virility of the highly stereotyped character Mark, I find it incredulous that Mark never demanded fellatio from Coco. Come on! A virgin could have had more imagination with those scenes. Coco's self-pity alone is a huge turn-off. Ugh! Don't get me started on all the other things that irked me about this book. But I have to give Wei Hui credit for being open about human sexuality. She wasn't the first woman who did it, but she did it nonetheless. If anything, it proves that women can be just as physical and sexual as men. So much for decorum and Jane Austen's sense and sensibility!

About the juxtaposition you mentioned, I wonder how Chinese male readers/critics responded to the portrayal of an impotent Chinese man in the book. Such depiction seems to be a jab in the balls for Chinese manhood. I'm surprised Viagra wasn't mentioned in the book. Guess that would just make life too easy. Okay, I guess Viagra hasn't been tested in the case of Oedipus complex, especially those cases where the mother and son are linked by the purse string, but there's no harm in trying, right?

In the end, I don't think women from Shanghai are all that different from women elsewhere in the world, and the same goes for all the men. Sex that fails to caress the cerebrum doesn't last very long, and we all know how short orgasms can be. If Coco was on the quest of self-discovery, she will never find it through sex alone. Several book reviews I read depict Coco as a liberated woman, but I see quite the opposite. The man who stood in front of the military tanks during the Tianmen protest had more freedom in his pinky than Coco could ever understand. No amount of fornication or money can buy real freedom.

Interesting quote by Lem. But everyone is equally endowed with either (or both for some) a phallus or pudendum, so it's hardly a selling point. Whatever happened to originality and creativity in the arts?

Thanks for instigating the discussion. Cool website.

cheers,
mikkitaro
CT, USA
July 22, 2007 | Unregistered Commentermikkitaro
i don't know, but i'm really in love with this novel...i think, the innocent, independent, and vulgar character of Coco is really impressed me. the way Wei Hui wrote the novel is also very attractive. How she quotes the utterances from many famous people from literature and art universe, is very interesting...Though, somehow, i also was very shock when i read this novel. it's all about the Chinese women, especially the Shanghainesse women,how Wei Hui portrayed the image of them. no wonder that this novel is banned and burned in the author's own hometown...it need a huge braveness to reveal and break the establish understanding about Chinese culture. This novel absolutely talks about the clash of east and west culture, and in fact, in reality, this kind of clash culture in this novel is debated among the Chinese people instead.

Possibly and maybe definitely, Shanghai Baby just can emerge and also build the new stereotype and image of Chinese women. However, somehow, in other ways, Shanghai Baby can also represent the other images of Chinese women that Chinese women are the strong and independent women. I can see the spirit of feminism, since Wei Hui also declares herself as a 'feminist'.At least, this spirit can be a good motivation to break the ancient and conventional China culture.

Moreover...i really wanna see the movie!!!i have seen the thriller, and i think it's cool...it can be a good movie...
December 1, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterifa
i don't know, but i'm really in love with this novel...i think, the innocent, independent, and vulgar character of Coco is really impressed me. the way Wei Hui wrote the novel is also very attractive. How she quotes the utterances from many famous people from literature and art universe, is very interesting...Though, somehow, i also was very shock when i read this novel. it's all about the Chinese women, especially the Shanghainesse women,how Wei Hui portrayed the image of them. no wonder that this novel is banned and burned in the author's own hometown...it need a huge braveness to reveal and break the establish understanding about Chinese culture. This novel absolutely talks about the clash of east and west culture, and in fact, in reality, this kind of clash culture in this novel is debated among the Chinese people instead.

Possibly and maybe definitely, Shanghai Baby just can emerge and also build the new stereotype and image of Chinese women. However, somehow, in other ways, Shanghai Baby can also represent the other images of Chinese women that Chinese women are the strong and independent women. I can see the spirit of feminism, since Wei Hui also declares herself as a 'feminist'.At least, this spirit can be a good motivation to break the ancient and conventional China culture.

Moreover...i really wanna see the movie!!!i have seen the thriller, and i think it's cool...it can be a good movie...
December 1, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterifa
As an Asian-American born and raised in the West, I totally agree with the writer from CT about the novel being trite, contrived and self-serving. It lacks original literary insights and disguises creative expressions by borrowed heavily from mostly Western literary sources so as to please a Western frame of mind, particularly book critics. This is evidenced in the popular stereotypings of Asian female as being submissive and/or seductive and Asian male as impotent in stark contrasts to Western male virility, a slavish misrepresentation of Asians and colonial vestige that Hollywood still perpetuates to this date (ie, name a major Hollywood feature that portrays Asian men in dignified, positive light--zippo, nada!). Granted that the book is a personal expression of a new found feminine freedom and openedness that should be praised, its highlights are diminished by the perpetuation of Asian stereotypical representations. In that respect, the work is a mark of shame on not just Chinese but Asians everywhere. You must understand and have an inkling of the Asian mentality in order to appreciate what I am saying, of the long subjugation that Asians endured even here in the USA to truly grasp the sensitivity and outrage among Asians in general and Chinese in particular.
February 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSonny-san
in fact I'm not a great fan of the Asian movies, in the most of then are always the same histories, beside most of the Asian people have a funny face, but the most determinated factor in this movies, <a href="http://www.rx-mex.com/">Generic Viagra</a> and other product that are promote in this movies.
June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSan Aradi

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