'Shanghai Baby' by Wei Hui

I started to read this book for several reasons. One, I’d had it on my shelf in French and never read it, found it in Kim’s Bookshop in Chichester and decided to use the opportunity. Two, I read a lot of Chinese books, both fiction and non-fiction, and have never yet been disappointed. And three, this particular book was banned in the PRC, apparently because of its risky and controversial content, piquing my curiosity.

I had a look at some of the reviews on Amazon and got a mixed bag of opinions. Some said it was great, a good portrait of modern Chinese youth. Others - most, in fact - said it was crap and advised readers not to bother.

I started reading late at night, and continued in the morning. It kept me reading for a while, and I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt, because the author is Chinese (not that I’m biased, or anything…) and because she was young when she wrote the book.

After six chapters, I was about ready to hurl the book across the living room. Two reasons I didn’t: I might damage the book itself (for all its flaws, I still have respect for it as a book) and also I might break something. So I stopped reading.

It’s not often I give up on a book, but this one infuriated me. Too many similes, for one thing. And not only too many, but too many similes referring to popular culture that are not necessarily universal. The reader may not have seen the film or heard the song she likened something to. That’s fine if the writing is outstanding, but honestly… it’s not.

I guess it’s chick lit, which I don’t read anyway, mostly because I just know it’s not my thing and I’ll hate it. That aside, it is also supposed to be erotic. I didn’t get far enough in to reach any sex scenes, but what I saw, I thought was a bit, well… ghoulish, I suppose is a fair word. A bit cheap and crass. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no prude. But it wasn’t remotely sexy.

The narrator, Nikki, nicknamed Coco after Coco Chanel, is not very sympathetic. She comes across as narcissistic, egotistic and shallow. Not a good start. Her boyfriend, with whom she claims to be desperately in love, is impotent, and there is a scene on a rooftop where Coco decides to strip for him. It proceeds:

‘Don’t do that,’ said Tian Tian painfully, turning his head away.
    But I kept on undressing, like a stripper. A tiny blue flower began to burn my skin, and that odd sensation made me blind to my beauty, my self, my identity. Everything I did was designed to create a strange new fairy tale, a fairy tale meant just for me and the boy I adored.
    The boy sat entranced against the railing, sad but grateful, watching the girl dance in the moonlight. Her body was smooth as a swan’s, yet powerful as a leopard’s. Every feline crouch, leap and turn was elegant yet madly seductive.
    ‘Please try. Come into my body like a real lover, my darling, try.’

I actually cringed when I read this part. Talking about herself in the third person I felt was contrived, and she proves with this scene that she loves herself rather too much, which is a personality trait I myself dislike. Still, I ploughed on, but I had read fewer than fifty pages when I decided to stop. I simply couldn’t bear to go on.

Usually, I recommend Chinese writers as good storytellers, as China has a long, unbroken history of that particular art about as long as that of its 5000-year civilisation. And Wei Hui may have improved as a writer since this was published. But I won’t be reading any more of hers. Sorry.