Shanghai girls

Updated: 2012-03-27 10:56

By Chitralekha Basu (China Daily)

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Shanghai girls
Shanghai girls

A Shanghai exhibition displays vintage photographs of the city's women of the early 20th century. Shi Xunfeng / for China Daily

Is it true what they say about the city's women? And what are they saying? Chitralekha Basu finds out more in Shanghai.

The myth about Shanghai women as material girls endures, both in popular imagination and the realm of fiction. On one end of the literary spectrum are Eileen Chang's passionately individualistic heroines, who are both powerful and vulnerable when they use their sexuality to get ahead with men.

On the other are page-turners like Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby, in which Coco, the protagonist, writes and fornicates at a furious pace, even as she measures people by the brands they wear.

Shanghai is - in the imagination of the non-Shanghainese - inextricably linked to sleaze, shadiness and materialism. And when you add sexuality to this heady concoction, it often gives a whole new twist to the city's already dodgy image.

Recently, at an event hosted by Hong Kong-based Make Do Publishing at Garden Books in Shanghai, authors Mina Hanbury-Tenison and Chen Xiwo painted Shanghainese women in an image that might - from the perspective of old-school believers in the idea of romantic love - look less than flattering.

It was somewhat unsettling, in fact, to hear the duo dismiss the idea of this primal emotion among human beings altogether, looking at sex and sexuality from a purely utilitarian view - a situation in which disinterested romantic love, ostensibly, does not figure any more.

In fact, says Hanbury-Tenison, the author of Shanghai Girls: Uncensored and Unsentimental - a guide to hooking a rich husband and keeping him - her colleagues in Shanghai thought her book was "mild and, therefore, useless". The real situation, she insists, is far more ruthless and unsparingly competitive.

Shanghai Girls: Uncensored and Unsentimental is based on the firsthand account of Shanghai girl Lan Lan, who goes from being the girl next door to a successful entrepreneur living between New York and Shanghai - having married three times in between, successively into greater affluence.

Chen Xiwo, known for his cynical take on human relationships and explicit descriptions of "aberrant" sexuality, took a shockingly amoral view of the idea that Shanghai women were materialistic.

"Men from Fuzhou (Chen's native town) thought of the Shanghai women as too cheap and too much of go-getters," he says. But then, he adds, women in certain regions of China have, traditionally, "relied on prostitution to get ahead".

"I have had women friends who would, if they were raped on the street, passively enjoy rather than resist, particularly if the guy in question were attractive," he says. "Isn't getting oneself a rich husband whom one does not love tantamount to giving oneself up for rape?"

While Chen's extreme, and somewhat perverse, views about the victim enjoying being raped might be put to scrutiny (when was the act of rape anything other than exploitation of the weak and a gross display of power?), our immediate concern has to do with the ladies of Shanghai.

Are they the soulless go-getters they are made out to be? Are the duo of Chen and Hanbury-Tenison being unfair in tarring all Shanghai women with one brush?

We put the question to some of the leading writers who have made the figure of the Shanghainese woman central to their work.

Qiu Xiaolong, whose Inspector Chen series of stories are as widely admired for the deft handling of the mystery genre as for the ringside view they offer into the backstreets of Shanghai, admits that the reigning sentiment in today's China "is one of blatant, systematic materialism" and Shanghai women are no exception.

"It partially comes as a result of the disillusion out of the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76)," he says. "The only thing people can grasp for themselves comes in the materialistic form."

He is pained to see "a number of Shanghai women could be utilitarian" in choosing their partners. "But then, the same can be said of other cities and countries. You don't have to take Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair as the representative of British women."

Even as he is concerned about the "general moral landslide", he would want to believe it was "not necessarily something unchanging".

When we ask him if the idea of pure, disinterested love still figures in the lives of Shanghainese women, he says: "It does - at least among a small number of Chinese women. At least I hope so."

Looking back on the women in her novels, Chen Danyan finds they are, in fact, "after love, not so much wealth or desirability".

Chen's The Shanghai Princess - the saga of the Australian-Chinese Daisy Kwok who went through dramatically transformative experiences in Shanghai from 1917 to the 1990s - is about a great survivor who chooses to stay on in China despite the odds, all for the love of her husband.

Yaoyao, a character in Chen's book, The Old Stories of Shanghai Beauties, too, "represents pure love", the author says. "She follows love until her death and never strays from her true emotions because of material desires."

So how do the real-life Shanghainese women compare with her unspoiled heroines? "Shanghai girls, have, in fact, become more sagacious than the way I described them in some of my novels'."

Personally, Chen wouldn't take a charitable view of "gold diggers". But she acknowledges "it's in human nature to be attracted by beauty and power", and Shanghai women are no exceptions.

Gold digging, Wang Xiaoying insists, works on either side of the gender divide.

"I know of men hunting for girls from wealthy families," Wang says.

Wang, who has lived for decades together in the French Concession area of Shanghai's Huaihai Road, should know a thing or two about social aspirations and marriage.

At the center of her major work, Song of a Long Road, is a maid who falls in love with the young master of the house. To prove herself a worthy match, she works toward becoming a successful businesswoman herself.

"Love is the core motivation for her to pursue money and status," says Wang, and not the other way round.

"Women in Shanghai do use their feminine wiles to go after desirable men," says Sam Gaskin, associate editor of Time Out, Shanghai.

"Just as men use their masculine wiles to go after desirable women. And it's not something that just happens here," he continues.

"Sure, some individuals are less genuinely interested in the people they pursue. But it's lazy to attribute that sort of cynical approach to millions of people who happen to live in the same place - though I'm sure it makes writing books and articles easier."

Gaskin, who has made Shanghai his home since 2007, feels Hanbury-Tenison's perspective on the city's women is limited.

"The Shanghai girls described in books like Hanbury-Tenison's are all bundled together, whereas the Shanghai women I meet are all different," he says.

"The truth is that there's much more similarity among groups of people, and much more diversity within them, than people usually acknowledge. Hanbury-Tenison knows that, and she knows that it's not a narrative her publisher would be much interested in."

That's an advantage to Shanghai women then. Hanbury-Tenison serves.