REVIEWS: Chinese Fiction in Translation
by Mian Mian
English translation from the Chinese by Andrea Lingenfelter
Little, Brown and Company, 279 pp, ISBN: 0-316-56356-0
drugs, and rock 'n roll: ingredients for novels about modern China?
Yes, SHANGHAI BABY by Wei Hui (Pocket Books, 2001) showed international
readers modern Chinese youth were not immune to the running dogs
of Western decadence: Globalization might even include mixing with
dissolute foreigners. Following SHANGHAI BABY to English by a few
years, Mian Mian now suggests with CANDY the decadence is more likely
homegrown, possibly an inevitable side-effect of China's ascension
to manufacturing colossus for the world.
this first novel by Shanghainese Mian was banned in China--an "honor"
Wei Hui also earned she was labelled a "poster child
for spiritual pollution."
The buzz made CANDY an underground bestseller.
Mian Mian harvested autobiographical details for her protagonist Hong's
drug-plagued odyssey is open to question. She prefaces the novel with
a note: "This book exists because one morning as the sun was coming
up I told myself that I had to swallow up all of the fear and garbage
around me, and once it was inside me I had to transform it all into
candy. Because I know you all will be able to love me for it."
In a larger context, Hong's story, the characters in her life, often
resonate with American stories we've heard of the Old West and Gold
Rush days (whether in California or Alaska). She leaves Shanghai to
seek her future in the new frontier of the Special Economic Zones the
Chinese government created along the south coast in the 1980s, near
Guangzhou. Not only did the SEZs permit a laissez faire approach to
business--much of the Confucian social rules that apply elsewhere are
ignored. In the SEZ thick with fortune seekers and finders, prostitution
flourishes, as does alcohol and drug addiction.
Hong, only 17, has dropped out of a competitive high school, somewhat
dispirited by the suicide of a classmate (an echo of Murakami's NORWEGIAN
WOOD), when she leaves for the south. There she meets a young musician
Saining and they become lovers, so often hopeless for each other and
so often hopeless for their addictions. They survive, slacker-style,
largely by the generosity of Saining's mom, who lives in Japan.
Hong's love for Saining has compelling moments of violence,
promiscuity, and druggy indifference. But the greatest achievement of
story, perhaps, is the honest testimony to the erasure of desire, the
great sucking away of soul only addiction can wreak on a love that
nonetheless won't go away. From a null point, from a Murakami-esque
life, Hong goes on to find redemption can be hers.
This stark portrait is not without lighter moments. For example, Hong's
friend Bug is convinced he has AIDS. The horror of that discovery is
brought alive. Page after page: consultation with friends, plans to
leave the country, examination by a Beijing AIDS specialist. Finally,
the revelation too many OTC drugs to get high had caused the troubling
Like Murakami's post-consumerist young generation in Japan, Mian Mian
suggests the same search for individual authenticity is underway in
China. As China's economic engine gains force, so does disillusionment
among the young with the old ways. Hong suggests her ambivalence towards
China's rising star: "The moment the plane left the ground, I fucking
burst into tears. I swore I would never come back to this town in the
South again. This weird, plastic, bullshit Special Economic Zone, with
all that pain and sadness, and the face of love, and the whole totally
fucked-up world of heroin, and the late 1980s gold rush mentality, and
all that pop music from Taiwan and Hong Kong. This place had all of
the best and all of the worst. It had become my eternal nightmare."
Hong awakes before the CANDY is gone. Mian's compassion for youth of
New China elevates and brings irony to a story lesser writers might
have passed off as sensation-ridden heroin chic.
© Charlie Dickinson October 2003
Ashes by Kenzo Kitakata
all rights reserved