The gap that divides those of us born in the 1970s and the older generation has never been so wide.
Dark and edgy, deliciously naughty, an intoxicating cocktail of sex and the search for love, Shanghai Baby has already risen to cult status in mainland China. The risque contents of the breakthrough novel by hip new author Wei Hui have so alarmed Beijing authorities that thousands of copies have been confiscated and burned. As explicit as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, as shocking as Trainspotting, this story of a beautiful writer and her erotically charged affairs jumps, howls, and hits the ground running as it depicts the new generation rising in the East.
Set 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.
Although it caused an uproar in the author's native China, Western readers will find 27-year-old Wei Hui's semiautobiographical offering reminiscent of fiction by the brat pack writers of the '80s, though more clich d and less edgy. Waitress Nikki "but my friends call me Coco after Coco Chanel" is in love with Tian Tian, a melancholy and impotent artist who falls prey to narcotics. Coco loves him madly, but not so madly that she wants to give up sex, and this is why she's also been seeing Mark, a married German businessman. Coco's deceptions, Tian Tian's problems with his wealthy mother (who he suspects killed his father) and the intertwining worlds of art and fashion are all fodder for Coco's upcoming slice-of-lifestyle novel, in which Shanghai's privileged 20-somethings are shown in their natural habitat of clubs and coffeehouses. Beneath the techno beat, though, the sore subject of Western imperialism its avatars, this time, multinational managers still lurks. Among Coco's friends, one known as Madonna stands out in particular: she earned a fortune first as a madam and then as the widow of a rich man. Wei Hui evidently wants to imitate her heroes, the beats and Henry Miller, and relishes observations like "our bodies were already tarnished, and our minds beyond help." But she spends more time analyzing people by the brands they use and the cars they drive, thus giving the book an odd air of beat fluff, as if Jack Kerouac had mated with Judith Krantz. The book is as alluring as a gossip column, but, alas, as shallow as one, too.