Review: “Shanghai Baby” by Wei Hui

600526Set in the centuries-old port city of Shanghai, the novel follows the days, and nights, of the irrepressibly carnal Coco, who waits tables in a café when she meets her first lover, a sensitive Chinese artist. Defying her parents, Coco moves in with her boyfriend and enters a frenzied, orgasmic world of drugs and hedonism. But, helpless to stop her gentle lover’s descent into addiction, Coco becomes attracted to a boisterous Westerner, a rich German businessman with a penchant for S/M and seduction. Now, with an entourage of friends ranging from a streetwise madame to a rebellious filmmaker, Coco’s forays into in the territory of love and lust cross the borders between two cultures — awakening her guilt and fears of discovery, yet stimulating her emerging sexual self. Searing a blistering image into the reader’s imagination, Shanghai Baby provides an alternative travelogue into the back streets of a city and the hard-core escapades of today’s liberated youth. Wei Hui’s provocative portrayal of men, women, and cultural transition is an astonishing and brave exposure of the unacknowledged new China, breaking through official rhetoric to show the inroads of the West and a people determined to burst free. [From the publisher]

I fell in love with the city of Shanghai when I lived there for a year. In fact, I have a deep interest in most things Chinese. Unfortunately, a lot of traditional Chinese literature bores me to tears. Until recently the most common form of literature was family epics, which do little for me. I chose to read Shanghai Baby because it breaks that tradition, not to mention it caused a commotion in China because of its racy content.

Shanghai Baby has received a lot of pitiful reviews, and I can understand why. It really is scarcely-concealed erotica and laowei worship (the author really seems to love the Western world). The predominant message of the protagonist is, “It’s such a burden being beautiful and desired.” Despite that, there’s a complexity of emotion in the book that is absent in other Chinese literature. It could possibly be described as what the Japanese call an I novel; a novel that is essentially the story of the author’s life, yet remains fiction. I value the new breed of Chinese literature that is more than a family epic; it’s modern Chinese giving a portrait of modern China.

TL;DR: I’m conflicted about this book, but would recommend it to those interested in modern China.

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