Saturday, March 06, 2004

Title: Shanghai Baby
Author: Wei Hui
Publisher:Constable and Robinson

shanghai baby is apparently the fourth novel by young Chinese writer Wei Hui, although it remains the only one to have been translated into English to date. As a novel it is perhaps inspired by her own life to some degree, her main character being a young female novelist in Shanghai, called Coco. For me it seems inevitable that I should compare Shanghai Baby to the only other Chinese novel that I have read – Lili. Both being written by young Chinese women, and being received with controversy – also, both these books feature Chinese women who take foreign lovers. However the two come from different periods to some degree – Lili is set in Beijing and leads up to Tiananmen, while Shanghai Baby is very much up to date, and is more of a Gen-X kind of deal, set in Shanghai, obviously.

Coco, as she is nick-named, has had a collection of short stories published, and was working for a magazine. But she decided that working for the magazine wasn’t going to help her with her writing career, so she quits, takes a job as a waitress and starts work on her first novel. It is working in the café that she first meets Tian Tian. He is an artist, but is pretty much free to do what he wants thanks to an allowance from his mother in Spain. The two become lovers, and move in together. But the fact that Tian Tian is impotent is something that stands between them. Through one of Tian Tian’s friends they meet a German guy called Mark, who is infatuated with Coco. Being a foreigner there is something exotic about him for Coco, and the fact that her boyfriend is impotent doesn’t help. So it isn’t long before the two are lovers. Which puts Coco in the position of juggling her two partners and her novel. Of course Tian Tian suspects something is going on, and turns to drugs.

In some ways Shanghai Baby is about how globalised and modern China is, although the fact that Wei Hui was initially championed and then turned upon by the establishment as a result of this book perhaps offers a stark contrast. The text is filled with pop references, from Portishead to Sonic Youth, quoting from Western literature and film, while contrasting that with more natural Chinese references. The Shanghai that is painted is a vibrant one, filled with a kind of bohemian generation – artists, writers, hackers, fun and trendy pubs, and foreigners.

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