SHANGHAI BABY by Wei Hui (Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, 2001) is a bit like those painted wooden Russian dolls, one fitting inside the other until you come to the final core doll, a tiny replica of the big one. A story within a story, a novel within a novel. Also like a shell game where the core doll is the pea or coin that keeps shifting. Is Shanghai Baby Wei Hui? Is the character of Coco her double? Are we reading a made up tale, or a true story told within a made up tale? The questions don't require answers, but they are there as part of the peek-a-boo style of the book; a hiding in plain sight.
At first this feels like an Asian groupie's homage to American culture, from Henry Miller to Quentin Tarentino, pop to post-punk, and with quotes from the Beatles to William Burroughs to Sylvia Plath. It's a book of out front eroticismhot, but shallowimmature emotions and true depth of feeling. A salad bar of a book.
Wei Hui writes with an unadorned immediacy. I should note that this is a translation, by Bruce Humes, and that the book was originally published (and subsequently banned) in China in 1999. The plain spoken style reminded me at times of Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto (Kitchen, Lizard). They share a kind of pronouncement way of stating things that made me wonder it this weren't part of the difficulty of translating languages so unlike our own. An example: "My name is Nikki but my friends all call me Coco after Coco Chanel, a French lady who lived to be almost ninety. She is my idol, after Henry Miller. Every morning when I open my eyes I wonder what I can do to make myself famous. It's become my ambition, almost my raison d'être, to burst upon the city like fireworks. This has a lot to do with the fact that I live in Shanghai. A mystical fog envelops the city, mixed with continual rumors and an air of superiority...this hint of smugness affects me: I both love and hate it. "
Coco is a writer. Like Wei Hui. And, like Wei Hui, Coco has published stories using the same titlesShriek Of The Butterfly, Virgin In The Water, Desire Pistolas Wei Hui. And real life Wei Hui has even published a story called Crazy Like Wei Hui. Coco is a party girl, an addicted shopper, an urbane lover and poetic girlfriend. Throughout the book she is writing a novel and I could never be sure if I was seeing Wei Hui in the mirror Coco looked into, or if what I was reading was all Coco fiction: "I've always believed that writing is like sorcery. Like me, my heroine did not want to lead an ordinary life. She is ambitious, has two men and lives an emotional roller coaster...Like me, she was afraid that when she went to hell there would be no films to watch, no comfortable pajamas to wear, no heavenly sounds of records to be heard--just suffocating boredom."
In the end it doesn't matter if it's Coco's story or Wei Hui's. We are taken to Shanghai and the backdrop of that old, cosmopolitan city, with its long history of foreign influence, keeps the story in place. We travel the streets with Coco, meet her friendsMadonna, Spider, Ah Dick, Flying Apple and company, and we meet her lovers: The impotent painter, Tian Tian and the sexually charged German, Mark, a rich businessman with whom Coco shares a carnality that sautés the pages. Ouch.
The American culture worship took me by surprise. Where was the infamous Communist oppression? Where all the post Tienemen Square terror in these partygoers, drug users and night life hounds? Coco's crowd could be the East Village of a couple of years ago, or London's West End, even pockets of Williamsburg. Okay, the book was officially banned, but Coco's so hip to American references it's as if she's been here. There are the fleeting political passages, like the mention of US bombing of Serbia that comes up at a party, during a fist fight between the Serbian lover of bisexual designer Flying Apple and an American, Johnson. The American says he has nothing to do with the bombing, and no one (not the writer certainly) brings up Serbian ethnic cleansing or the bully Milosevic as the fight is broken up. I was left to conclude that American rock, movies and lipstick are tolerable imports, but political information appears one-sided, and controlled, as the Chinese government sees fit.
News flash--our own leadership is in Shanghai courting that very leadership as I type out these words. Forget Bosnia and Kosovo, President Bush wants to convince the Chinesewhom he'd not so long ago bashed as our number one bad guy competitor--to join ranks with the US against world terrorism. Bush plays his own delicate round of three card monty with Chinese human rights abuse--now you see them, now you don't. What a difference a blue day in September makes.
According to the New York Times, about Shanghai, Mr. Bush, "Said he was 'startled' by the 'mind boggling,' 'miraculous' city he saw from the windows of his limousine." The report went on to say that the government had spruced up the city and whisked away most of the citizenry, had planted acres of sod and "forests" of trees in anticipation of the world economy summit suddenly turned world security meet. The President is said to have gamely ordered up Chinese food to his suite in the Shanghai Ritz-Carlton, but that by lunch the next day he was calling up for burgers. Crawford, Texas meet Shanghai, China. I can imagine Coco in a sheer slinky dress waving a tiny flag as the Presidential motorcade passed by.
But Coco only glances at world problems. Or at the plight of Chinese peasants-no where to be seen in Shanghai, except for the take-out Chinese delivery boy (Coco eats either junk food, take-out or fancy restaurant fare paid for by someone else.) Her private angst consumes her. In Tian Tian she has found her soul mate. A lovely almost feminine man, he is supported by his mother, an expatriate living in Spain, who, according to Tian Tian's grandmother, is responsible for the murder of Tian Tian's father. Tian Tian is haunted by his absentee mother, he is fragile and too vulnerable for the world. It is no surprise that he succumbs to the lure of drugs; he's tailor made for opiates. But it is Tian Tian who encourages Coco to write her novel, and they are blissful together when he paints and she writes. Alas, there is that impotency issue. "My brain was a screen covered in dust, and my darling and I were the world's most hopeless leading couple." What can one do with deep love minus deep sex?
Take a lover. Coco does. Her deception of Tian Tian is understandable enough from the fleshly point of view: The spirit was willing, but, oh, the flesh is not. Along comes the tall Western, the "Danube" blue-eyed Mark, with his storm trooper plaything to fill in the gap. That he is married and also manages to have a tender side only complicates Coco's dilemma. She finds she is falling for Mark, beyond the stolen romps in showers and cars. But Coco (and Wei Hui?) has her eye on the prize, a writer's unbidden ruthlessness, the undercurrent of a book running internally alongside real events buoys her: "I gave up embellishment and lies. I intended to put a completely genuine version of my life before the public's eye. This didn't require too much courage, just obedience to that mysterious force...I didn't have to play naive or cool. This is how I discovered my real self and overcame my terror of loneliness, poverty, death and all other potential disasters." (Okay, a tall order for an art form, and not one that quite succeeds, but you see the point.)
No such saving grace is in place for poor Tian Tian. And for all his wealth and glamour, Mark is just a clever businessman, husband to a pleasant woman, a father who does what's right by family and corporate truth. He too forfeits, the sex and mystery of a wild card like Coco no longer in his life. And Coco, alone, will finally find her fame.
"I began to arrange the scented white lilies in a large jar of water. So delicate, that feeling when my fingers touched these seductive white petals. My love of flowers may be conventionally feminine, but I believe the day will come when I look in the mirror and compare my face to a poisonous plant. And my shocking best-selling novel will reveal the truth about humankind: violence, style, lust, joy, and then enigma, machines, power, and death." (Hmm. Be careful what you wish for?)
It's a pronouncement, but I got used to them. And to the fast-paced lyricism that shines here and there throughout. I came to like Wei Hui's book, with its unashamed female-ness and free thought. But I closed the book and the question lingered, would I have also come to like Coco's novel?
©J Stefan-Cole October 2001