Shanghai Baby by the Chinese writer, Wei Hui, has been translated into English by Bruce Humes. The novel is set in the turn of the 21st century in Shanghai, China.
What is the book about?
Shanghai Baby unravels a story about Coco, living in Shanghai, who wants to be a writer and who eventually drops her waitress job, when she meets the artist Tian Tian, at the same cafe. After a little encouragement from him, she decides to pursue writing a novel full time. She had already published an erotic and daring collection of short stories titled, Shriek of the Butterfly, and was working at a magazine before. What prompted her to leave that job and become a waitress is not explored. What is explored, however, is her relationship with her city, with her parents, with Tian Tian, who is a drug addict and impotent; and her lover, Mark, a German expat, working there and the one who satisfies her sexual desires.
The reader does get a glimpse of how Shanghai is and gets to see the city’s glitz and glamour, particularly through the hip and party loving friends of Coco and Tian Tian. However, the story only provides a superficial glimpse as it is riddled with various assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices (about the city, its inhabitants, especially its women) as much as it is peppered with numerous pop culture references of the time. The latter adds to the authenticity of the timeline but the former is limiting, to say the least.
What is admirable is the description about the process of writing that Coco endures such as having a a great flow one day but then falling into the the abyss of the writer’s block. However this is not the main aspect of the story.
What cannot be fathomed is Coco’s relationship with Mark, particularly its descriptions that have an unfortunate, violent normative tone which made me wonder whether that was because of the translator (projecting his male voice onto the words) or if the original is also the same.
Shanghai Baby does have an obvious autobiographical aura and the ideas of separating the person from the art is also touched upon in the novel. And yes, the novel’s depiction of a bold woman, creating her own, unconventional path, is a good angle of the story, but what falls flat are the shallow philosophical musings (along with the many epigraphs that crowd the beginning of each chapter: they should have been reduced to one each before each chapter) as well as its construction of the idea of a “modern” woman in Shanghai and how it is limited to glamour and how open a woman is about her sexual desires. Perhaps the novel’s idea resonated with the public at the time (the blurb also says that it was banned in China), but the notion of a monolithic “modern woman” is deeply problematic and needs to be questioned.
The book has some similarities with Touching Earth by Rani Manicka, especially in Tian Tian’s descent into a drug infused madness, but Touching Earth, is more thematically coherent than Shanghai Baby.
One last reason to pick it up?
Sadly, there are none. It is alright to give Shanghai Baby a miss. It is just about an average story where if you have the copy, it is a quick read but offers little or no depth; whereas if you do not have it, it is absolutely fine not to buy it either.
However, the blurb did mention how the writer is akin to a modern day Anais Nin. Since I have not read any Anais Nin, I cannot comment on this comparison. However, if you, dear reader, are a lover of Anais Nin’s work, and do find this analogy helpful, perhaps you could pick up the book and let us know what you think of Anais Nin and Shanghai Baby?