More Thoughts on Sex and Shanghai

There's something macabre about this online character, China Bounder.  While I appreciate his blog as a kind of "Kinsey report" of the sexualized environment of today's Shanghai, something is eerily disturbing about his particular line of thinking.  Certainly I'm not a trained psychoanalyst, but in mulling over his case last night while tossing and turning in the wee hours, I came up with the following observations.

First, take his most recent post, about the young Chinese woman he meets in Bangkok who wants to be treated like a prostitute.  He starts out by saying "I'm not going to bore you with opinions about China this week.  I'm going to shock you."  That phrase somehow bubbled up into my brain last night.  "I'm going to shock you."  Isn't that the attitude a serial murderer takes as he goes about his gruesome, grisly tasks?  Of course, the serial killer relies on the press to do his handiwork--this guy falls back on his own impressive writing abilities.  (By the way, I didn't find it at all shocking that the woman reacted in the way she did--and neither would Kinsey if he had collected that story).

Second, CB's re-entry into the blogosphere is accompanied by a post in which he compares his own actions to the horrifying deaths of two Chinese schoolgirls at the hands of mentally deranged male schoolteachers.  This comparison speaks volumes.  Here is an English teacher who claims to have seduced his own female students--an egregious overstepping of the bounds of teacherly decorum.  Teachers are supposed to nurture their students, not shag them (let alone bludgeon them to death) and the teacher-student bond is taken very seriously in Chinese culture.  This comparison is ostensibly made in order to suggest that the Chinese "mob" that threatened him (in words if not in deeds) was way out of hand.  Point taken. Nevertheless, there are many other comparisons he could have made to get this point across.  Why use this particular set of events?  Could it suggest some sort of subconscious affinity?

Then there is the eerily methodical way in which he "stalks" his "prey".  Somehow it made me think of the main character in the recently published book _Devil in the White City_.  Charming and witty on the surface, this man was a diabolical fiend who lured young women into his hotel of horrors in 1890s Chicago, where he enjoyed suffocating them and carving up their bodies before getting rid of the evidence in an industrial oven.  True story.  Fantastic book by the way. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Certainly it would be ludicrous to carry this line of thought TOO far.  CB is no murdering fiend, though he has certainly proven himself capable of emotional violence--at least, judging from the negative reaction he has provoked both on his website (see the extensive comments sections) and in the Chinese blogosphere, not to mention the emotional trauma he may or may not have inflicted on his female "prey" (here one can only speculate, since their voices are absent from the blog, except when he quotes them in his stories, but there seems to be little mention of the aftermath of his conquests).

Instead, this appears to be a man of generally low self esteem (at least he creates such a self-image in his blogs), with a relatively low-status job--English teacher--who has discovered, rather late in the game, that Chinese women go gaga over foreigners, and has taken this state of affairs to its logical extremes.  Perhaps he will discover, only too late, that the road he has chosen is a dark and lonely one, which does not lead to long-term fulfillment but, like pornography, only serves to temporarily assuage the carnal drives within us all before leaving one feeling empty and flat and lusting for more. 

Asia (and probably Africa and Latin America as well) is full of such "burnt out cases" (to use Graham Greene's famous phrase), white men who couldn't get enough of the exotic Other and will likely never leave.  China is relatively new territory in this regard--open sexual relations between Chinese and foreigners are mainly the product of the 1990s (though prior to 1949 it was a similar situation, only backed up by treaty port imperialism).  On the one hand, it is rather common for foreigners--men mostly--to indulge in casual affairs while living in large, anonymous Chinese cities like Shanghai or Beijing (the same is true for many overseas Chinese men, but let's leave them out of the picture for now).  On the other hand, men such as China Bounder are fairly few and far between.  Most of us (and I'm speaking from experience here) eventually settle down and seek more productive (and reproductive) relationships with more permanent partners. 

Shanghai is a special case, since it is a city famed for its sexuality.  From the courtesan houses of the late nineteenth century to the KTV clubs of today, the city is chock-a-block with opportunities for sexual congress.  This is a city in which nearly every neighborhood contains its share of "adult shops" selling sex toys and "hair salons" (usually marked by pink whirlygigs and frosted glass) selling everything from handjobs to full-on intercourse.  Millions of female migrant workers have migrated to the city to find jobs in the soft service industry.  KTV hostess clubs are basically sub rosa brothels, since male clients are expected to fondle their female companions in the clubs and it is generally assumed that these women are available "for a price" outside the clubs.  The nightlife scene--with which I'm deeply familiar--offers a range of sexual opportunities from "streetwalking" prostitutes to "white collar" (bailing) women who are up for a casual fling. 

And as China Bounder has discovered, every streetcorner, every bookshop, every coffee shop may be used as a convenient stage for a "pickup."  As he has also learned, the internet is also a valuable tool for men and women (or people of the same sex) to "find" each other.  The ability to type in Chinese is of course a definite advantage.  From ICQ to QQ, millions of women are claiming their availability online.  And in a city of nearly 20 million inhabitants within commuting distance of each other, the opportunities are endless.

Moreover, as CB rightly observes, extramarital affairs are quite common in Shanghai.  James Farrer and Sun Zhongxin document this quite well in their 2003 article "Extramarital Love in Shanghai".   Yet as Farrer and Sun also demonstrate, even extramarital love has its moral and ethical codes of conduct. 

For those of you who may stumble upon this blog and want to read more about "sex and Shanghai", here's a booklist that I'd recommend:

1) Sing-song Girls of Shanghai, by Han Bangqing (translated by Eileen Chang)

2) Shanghai Modern, by Leo Ou-fan Lee

3) The City in Modern Chinese Literature and Film, by Zhang Yingjin

4) The Lure of the Modern, by Shih-mei Shu 

5) Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, edited by Zhang Yingjin

6) Prostitution and Sexuality in Shanghai, by Christian Henriot

7) Dangerous Pleasures:  Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth Century Shanghai, by Gail Hershatter

8) Shanghai Love, by Catherine Vance Yeh

9) Opening Up:  Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai, by James Farrer

10) Sin City, by Ralph Shaw

That's about it for now.  Gotta get back to "real life."