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


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."