Skip to main content

Shanghai Baby


Shanghai Baby

Wei Hui's SHANGHAI BABY is the poetic, bittersweet and subtly
spiritual tale of one woman's quest for personal fulfillment and
drive for creative expression. The diverse and cultured city of
Shanghai is more than the backdrop for the novel; it is a character
itself. The city is celebrated by Hui, and its busy pace and
natural sensuality contribute to the postmodern tone of the book.
The most interesting character, however, is 25-year-old Nikki, the
"baby" of the title. Nikki, known as Coco to her friends, is a
writer. Unapologetic in her desire for both emotional and sexual
satisfaction, Coco becomes involved with two very different men,
all the while trying to write her first novel.

But more important than the details of Coco's exploration of sex is
the novel's examination of life, freedom, love, and death. Each man
Coco is involved with offers a different path for that examination
and different answers to the same philosophical questions.

Coco's live-in boyfriend, Tien Tien, is a fragile and beautiful
artist. The love between Coco and Tien Tien is sensual and
spiritual. Obsessed by death, Tien Tien awakens in Coco an
awareness of life and the importance of love. However, his
impotence, physical but often emotional as well, leads her to a
fierce and passionate affair with a married man. Strong, assertive
Mark, a German businessman temporarily living in Shanghai, is the
opposite of sensitive Tien Tien in every way. Coco's fragile
balance of juggling two lovers while writing her novel is upset as
both men eventually become unavailable to her and she is faced with

SHANGHAI BABY is a beautiful novel. The language is
poetic and sensual yet funny and brutally honest. Coco is frank in
her confusions, frustrations, elations, and joys. She is joined by
a bevy of interesting characters, including a former madam, a
computer hacker, a bisexual fashion stylist, an avant-garde
filmmaker, drug addicts, and artists, not to mention her parents
who must overcome their traditional expectations in order to
understand and support her artistic and personal choices. Each
character is faced with the same issues as Coco and each attempts
to make sense of relationships, sexuality, family, and life in a
changing Chinese culture. While Hui implies the struggle between
tradition and modernity is lessening (at least in cosmopolitan
Shanghai) her forecast for a woman's chance to find both sexual and
emotional fulfillment is less optimistic.

We have been taught that through novels we can witness the changes
and ultimately the growth of characters. As we read, they ideally
become better people. Hui's novel is more challenging in that Coco
does not fundamentally change and her growth is not overtly
apparent. Hui's honest portrayal of Coco is both frustrating and
refreshing and is thus an accurate reflection of the human
condition. Coco's vanity and selfishness (or confidence and
trueness to her own needs) can verge on annoying; she is not always
likable. However, she is capable of great insight.

This view into contemporary Chinese culture and the issues of
female independence and sexuality is worthwhile. Coco's
controversial publication of short stories mirror Hui's own
experience --- the sex and sexuality described by Hui in SHANGHAI
BABY doomed the novel to condemnation, banning, and public burnings
in China, where it was originally published. However, American
readers may be disappointed to find that what is scandalous in
China is more commonplace in Western literature. Although a fairly
easy read, it is not a light one. The themes of death, sadness, and
loneliness balance the themes of romance and passion.

Reviewed by Sarah Egelman on January 23, 2011

Shanghai Baby
by Wei Hui

  • Publication Date: August 28, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Atria
  • ISBN-10: 0743421566
  • ISBN-13: 9780743421560