Revolutionary romance

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Deflected from the possibilities of intimacy

In a rapid tour of new Shanghai, Five Star Billionaire sees Malaysian literary wunderkind Tash Aw guide us around the burgeoning metropolis by way of five characters: a shallow gold digger, a pop star, two executives and a property magnate, all surfing the sullied wave of soulless commerce in a weave of interlinking stories and chance encounters.

There are still glimpses of rustic China through the blinding façade of skyscrapers, but what really takes centre stage is the greed, the thrust towards change and the death of love and family. It poses the question: what of China’s heritage will remain, once the entrepreneurs and developers have wrung its cities dry? What price this mercurial rise?

As Glass discusses this and various issues with the young author, it becomes readily apparent that Aw will emerge as one of the most prescient spokesmen for New China and the West’s evolving perception of it. And despite his candid portrayal of modern love in China, he still believes that love, though complicated, is still very much alive.

A majority of the intimate relationships in Five Star Billionaire end or are squandered before they can begin. Apart from Yinghui, the middle-aged female entrepreneur, the characters don’t seem to be that interested in love. Are you proposing that love has been left behind by the constant propulsion of New China and its need for change?
Not exactly. What I see in China these days is that people crave love and intimacy – maybe more than ever before – but they just don’t know how to obtain it. So often, I hear about people who are great matches in terms of temperament or personality or outlook, but they decide not to get together because of a variety of reasons that seem to me totally illogical – wrong profession, bad salary, wrong horoscope. We’ve become deflected from the possibilities of intimacy, and think that we can achieve intimacy if we find the right “match”. Everything now is measured in terms of whether your potential is a good match – we ignore basic things such as how we feel about them.

Subjective descriptions change from character to character, sometimes markedly. Most noticeably, Walter, self-help guru and entrepreneur, represents himself as dominant and assured, whereas gold digger Phoebe portrays him as a little lost and emotionally closed. Are these written purposefully to display a “survival of the fittest” trait inherent to Shanghai?
Yes, they are. Every time I’m in Shanghai, particularly at rush hour, I always think that life is not life, it’s a competition – a relentless contest just to survive. But the differences in perception are also to show how many people construct elaborate images for themselves to cover up their inner vulnerability. In modern Asia, people don’t like to show any weaknesses at all, as if it’s shameful to admit that you’re lacking in some way. Phoebe sets out to catch a man who fulfils all her requirements, which is why she first decides to go out with Walter, but what draws her to him is precisely his vulnerability – the emotional part of her finds her real match in him, but whether or not she allows herself to fall in love with him is another matter.

How does one find romance in such a comparatively conservative culture?
Quite easily. China is actually not very conservative compared to the overseas Chinese communities in, say, Singapore or Malaysia. The younger generation of people in China are incredibly liberated, modern and – in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai – quite flamboyant in their tastes, including romantic tastes. Shanghai is a very romantic city – everywhere you go you’ll see young and not-so-young lovers strolling hand-in-hand down the street. Young people are actively encouraged to find partners, unlike in other Asian countries where the flagrant pursuit of romantic union is still somewhat frowned upon. The difficulties of finding romance in a big city like Shanghai or Beijing are the same as in New York or London – too much time at work, a high-pressured lifestyle, the need to find the perfect soulmate, etc. They don’t really have anything to do with conservatism.

Ironically, the fallen pop star Gary, who lives in the most plastic world, comes across as the most sincere and humble – the only one not driven by money. Do you see the world of pop as somehow spiritually superior to that of industry and commerce?
I try not to make too many judgements in my writing. My job as a novelist is to record what I observe and let readers decide for themselves what they think. But I guess that I’m struck by how so many young people seek solace and comfort in pop music, which is nowadays a pure business like every other form of industry or commerce. Young pop musicians are expected to fulfil a certain role and to have an image that is totally artificial. In a world that is becoming increasingly unhappy, these young men and women are forced to be constantly happy, in order to make us happy. I just wondered what goes on behind that image – that mask that they are forced to wear.

On the whole, your characters’ ambitions seem reactionary to their early years – in particular Walter, whose soulless drive and success inversely mirrors his father’s failure and crazed ambitions. Is this breaking away from emotional roots meant to reflect how Shanghai may have lost its way spiritually?
Writing about my characters’ ambitions in this way is my way of asking ourselves why we strive to achieve all that we are achieving today – why we are prepared to make such huge sacrifices. Is it because we genuinely want to become very rich, or is it because we are trying to compensate for something in our past, for example, something we have lost? It’s also, as you point out, a way to question whether we have lost our spiritual and emotional path through life. I don’t have the answers – my job is just to ask the question. Sometimes I wonder if modern Asia even knows why it is in such a rush to achieve everything it is striving for today.

Do you think that China’s surge towards capitalism has created a soulless society that neglects its history and the romance inherent in its past?
No, definitely not. China is anything but soulless – it’s a country full of colour and vibrancy and a cacophony of voices and opinions, contrary to the view that most people have outside the country. It has such a rich, ancient past that even twenty years of rampant materialism can’t really erase the sense of history. If there is a relative lack of awareness of traditions and customs, that has more to do with the events connected to the Cultural Revolution rather than today’s materialism. If anything, I see the consumerist society of today as a distraction from the ravages of time, almost like a soothing balm; for China’s history is one of harshness, not romance.

Time features heavily in the novel. As you write of Justin, the failed property magnate, “time [is] an accomplice, plugging the gaps and fleshing out morsels of memory so he would have something to hang onto.” Is there a sense that time is being stretched too far, that this acceleration of money and culture will be meaningless if not experienced properly?
Oh yes, very definitely. I do believe that we have lost sense of the proper passage of time – that we have become incapable of experiencing things at their normal pace. We’re always looking ahead, anticipating things in the future without concentrating on the here and now, which means we don’t appreciate all that we have in the present. Maybe it’s a way of dealing with a difficult past – China has had a difficult recent history, and perhaps the acceleration into the future is a way of not having to engage properly with its past. But this approach means that experiences become transient and quite thin.

Are we to assume that you have met these characters in your time in Shanghai or Malaysia? How much of your personal experiences are fed into this text?
All the characters are purely fictitious, though of course parts of them are based on various people I’ve met or observed or read about over the years – I can’t really recall any in particular. But in general, it’s a very personal novel, probably the most personal I’ll ever write. Characters like Yinghui, for example, are exactly my age, so in that way represent all the desires and ambitions of Malaysians of my generation.

Your previous two novels, The Harmony Silk Factory and Map of the Invisible World, are lower in key, and they focus more on family relationships and socio-political and historical issues in Indonesia and Malaysia. As a reaction to this, did you set out this time to write a Great New-China novel? A modern, zeitgeisty piece?
No, it was definitely not a decision to write a New-China novel – I don’t think many writers would be so presumptuous as to take on such a big idea. I simply wanted to continue the artistic project I’ve been working on over the years, which is to look at the lives of transient, migrant people in South East Asia, to see how their experiences have changed over the last century or so.

Obviously, being ethnically Chinese myself, and wanting to write a very personal novel, I had to look at China – it’s where my ancestors are from, a place I identify with very strongly. So I couldn’t write a novel about the South East Asian immigrant experience without writing about China – that’s where it all started, and it’s just interesting for me that the voyage has come full circle with so many overseas Chinese now living and working in Mainland China.

Gary concludes the novel by singing a song in his mother tongue to an audience of 30,000. Is this meant to remind us that there is hope for the heritage of this region and that the push of commerce won’t be so blanket all-consuming after all?
I didn’t really see it in terms of a message against the push of commerce – in Gary’s case the issue is really celebrity, and the modern obsession with being famous. I simply wanted to show that not everyone is inevitably seduced by the glamour of celebrity, and that it’s possible, in the midst of this crazy, fast-paced world we live in, to return to our roots and remember where we’re from, what heritage we have, how our lives connect with others. Money and groundedness aren’t mutually exclusive; ambition and fame don’t necessarily lead to destruction. 

by Benjamin Lovegrove

Spreading waves

There are huge yearly spikes in the sale of red roses in China every year on February 14th. And Magpie Festival, which falls on the seventh day of every seventh lunar month, is sometimes called Chinese Valentine’s Day. Yet on any given day of the week, romantic gestures play an important role in the lives of young Chinese people, for whom a consummate union means social and economic security.

Over the past 20 years, romantic love in China has become an institution of enormous appeal to burgeoning Chinese markets. From pop music and film to fast food chains, it has helped stimulate vast swathes of domestic consumption among China’s unmarried population. Yet the pressure to marry early for Chinese men and women aged twenty to thirty has in many cases made romance into a form of risk assessment.

Chinese dating websites today still prioritise income and educational background before personal information. In 2010, popular Chinese dating show If You Are the One drew widespread controversy when a female contestant proudly told the audience, “I would rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.”

Romance is still a relatively new concept in Chinese culture. Romantic symbols in China today are largely borrowed from the West, but the even the Chinese word for romantic derives from English. Translated literally, lang man means ‘for unrestrained waves to spread’. Today, romance increasingly finds itself in the same bed as changing attitudes towards sex in China.

Richard Burger, an English author currently living in Beijing, published a book late last year that highlights the evolution of lust, desire and physical intimacy throughout China’s history. Behind the Red Door: Sex in China has received praise for its approach to a subject many consider overdue. Burger spoke to Glass about how a sexual revolution that started at the beginning of China’s economic reform is currently making romance both easier and more difficult to spot.

What does Behind the Red Door offer readers who want to learn more about romantic relationships in China today?
Behind the Red Door: Sex in China is a book about sex and sexuality in China, with a full chapter about dating and marriage. It explores the courtship process including uniquely Chinese marriage and dating rituals. It describes how Chinese people go about dating, how they involve their friends and family, and how they eventually land a spouse.

With what you have studied closely over several years to do with sex and sexuality in modern China, where does the word ‘romance’ seem to have its place in modern Chinese societies?
The Chinese are a very romantic people. On Valentine’s Day you’ll see countless young men carrying a single red rose, a gift for their girlfriends. In urban areas young Chinese people are as romantic as those in the West, although the rituals they go through are a little more formal. But in the cities you’ll see young unmarried couples walking arm in arm. Romance is very important to them, and they won’t want to marry unless they feel romantic towards one another.

The word romance in Chinese, lang man, is said to be a translation from English. What concepts can you point to that may have preceded this in China, symbolising an ideal union between human beings or a chance encounter with lust?
Before romance there was arranged marriage. Often the bride and groom wouldn’t meet until their wedding day. Romance played little or no role in this process. Hopefully they could, and would, develop romantic feelings towards one another, but more often the wife was considered a vehicle for having children and taking care of the household.

Sex was essential, but romance as we know it in the West was usually absent. Behind the Red Door demonstrates how sex in China has become increasingly commercialised over the past several decades. Have you identified a problem looking at this in relation to the way modern Chinese people articulate, understand, and are able to control their feelings and desires?
The commercialisation of sex in China has only loosened up the people’s attitudes on sex and made them more willing to show their affections, even in public. It is probably responsible for young couples starting to have premarital sex, which can lead to unwanted pregnancy or STDs, so in that sense it is problematic. With sex everywhere, more and more Chinese see it as a very basic function they should celebrate and participate in. Thus we have more than 50 per cent of China’s urban population having premarital sex.

Why do you think the infamous line delivered by Ma Nuo on If You Are the One about preferring to cry in a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle sparked so much debate and controversy? Is it a fair gauge of the views many young people take towards relationships?
To many Chinese women, marriage is all about security, especially financial security. This is truer still at a time when men outnumber women dramatically and the woman can pick and choose a husband based on her own criteria. Many young people take this attitude towards relationships. The reason the line sparked off such a debate is because many find it depressing and unfair that financial security is more important than a deep sense of love and intimacy. It speaks of the growing materialism of the Chinese people at the expense of true love.

Are we currently seeing a romantic revolution among young people in China that is especially different from the Free Love Movement of the 60s?
It’s totally different from the West in most respects. There is still iron-fisted censorship of books, television and movies, cutting out much of the overly amorous or sexual content. The Chinese government is obsessed with rooting out pornography, especially on the Internet. The Western sexual revolution came with a full set of new privileges: freedom of expression, freedom to buy pornography, freedom to romantically date and have sex with whoever you want. In China, this has not been nearly as liberating.

Which growing trends make you feel most optimistic about the future of sex and romance among future generations of Chinese, and which make you most pessimistic?
The sexual revolution has been ongoing for more than 20 years now and you cannot get the genie back in the bottle. As it continues it will keep chipping away at traditional puritanical values and it will be one more factor pointing China towards greater liberalisation. People will want a greater say in all aspects of their lives and it will help push the society towards allowing greater personal freedoms, and even, ultimately, a greater say in their government.

To what extent has writing Behind the Red Door made you able to understand the way the Chinese think about sex and romantic relationships, or to what extent understand these things less?
Writing the book gave me many fresh insights into how Chinese people look at sex and romance. Most interesting is the fact that as they become more liberal they are still bound to certain traditions. Young people, for example, still involve their parents in the dating process and seek their approval of their partner. Parents often play a proactive role in the dating process, acting as matchmakers and urging their child to hurry and find a spouse as they approach their late twenties. Friends, too, get involved and set up parties to introduce their unmarried friend to a potential spouse. Obviously the attitude towards premarital sex has shifted dramatically over the past twenty years. Writing the book gave me a rather panoramic view of sex and dating in China, and there were many surprises along the way, such a learning just how demanding many Chinese men are that their wives be virgins, even as they demand premarital sex from their girlfriends. A true conundrum.

Is there likely to be any major feminist movement in China in the next 20 years that will call for a significant shift in women’s perception of sexual and romantic relationships with men?
The shift has already started as women become increasingly willing to stand up for themselves as expressed on blogs and online chat. Women have begun to feel they have a right to be treated fairly and with dignity by their husbands and boyfriends and there are many online groups where women gather to tell their stories and seek advice on the love life and sexual issues. This is only going to become more commonplace, at least in urban areas with their large populations of educated, middle class young people. This will be especially true as China’s gender imbalance gives women the upper hand in the dating and marriage process, and makes them more particular and demanding of respect and fairness.

Which was China’s most erotic era before the opening up of the twentieth century? What would life have been like for a man or woman at this time?
Definitely the Tang Dynasty, when China was shockingly open about sex. The era was so liberal that prostitutes were licensed and registered. Some of China’s most detailed sex novels and erotic art were created during the time, a wonderful period of artistic freedom and self-expression. This was true mainly for men, however, as women were still expected to stay at home and attend to family matters. The pursuit of sexual pleasure was seen as every man’s right and there were few restrictions on what they could do to achieve it.

Could you describe what a traditional Chinese honeymoon would have involved in imperial times before wedding rituals became developed to take on Western traits in China?
I can talk about the wedding, not so much the honeymoon. All I can say is that the honeymoon would usually last for a full month, preceded by a wedding ceremony that could go on for as much as three days. For the first night of the couple’s honeymoon, the bride’s mother would put a set of engraved amulets or coins in the bottom of her daughter’s dowry bag. These engravings depicted couples having sex in a wide variety of positions. On their honeymoon night the bride and groom would lay the engravings on their bridal bed and use them as sex education guides. This is an ancient practice that supposedly dates back to the mythical Yellow Emperor of 5,000 years ago.

Which items, natural or man-made, have been the most potent romantic aphrodisiacs throughout Chinese history?
Deer penis and other animal penises have been popular with men in China for centuries in order to make them more potent. Today, Viagra has become the Holy Grail of impotence remedies, and officials even give bottles of Viagra as a gift for one another.

by Jack Aldane

Resolute realism

Eminent author Xu Xi is truly an international citizen and is based between Hong Kong, where she is Writer in Residence for City University of Hong Kong, and New York, where her ‘long-term life partner’ works. Her placement in Hong Kong, ‘the gateway to Asia’, allows her a unique vantage point over the developing and ever more complex world of love and romance in modern Asia. Also, being the only female author taking part in this series, she is able to offer a unique perspective on how prevailing attitudes towards women have shifted with this modern phenomenon of women taking the lead when it comes to finding a mate.

What are your thoughts and feelings on the situation of love and romance in modern Asia?
Too much show, too much reality TV influence, too much social media public love. Too, too much. But maybe that’s the whole modern world, not just modern Asia.

There is a general view these days that China, and to a certain extent Asia as a whole, is a loveless place where financial stability is considered far more important than love. Do you believe this to be true or is it an unfair judgement that could easily be said about the West?
It does seem in Asia that the emphasis on financial stability permeates right through the classes in a way that doesn’t seem as ubiquitous in the West. For young lovers especially, social and cultural norms weigh more heavily – the fact that arranged marriages don’t seem all that unusual in several Asian societies, for example, and parents, in China for instance, get involved in surprising ways. The parents who wander through parks in urban China ‘advertising’ their children for marriage are the 21st century equivalent of sandwich board human billboards. In the West, the Ivy League university dating culture is quite public and obvious in its focus on maintaining class structure, but generally the individual still reigns supreme in a way that is less true in China or Asia generally.

Are we expecting too much to ask people to marry only for love when such a partnership is a relatively new concept, and marrying for financial reasons has been predominant for millennia?
Yes. Marriage is the concept that is the problem and always has been in my books. If marriage were simply a real expression of the love of two people (i.e. the human need for companionship and emotional bonding) or a way to procreate and have two adults in charge of the newborn, then it shouldn’t be so daunting. But it’s the grand ceremony where families go broke to pay for it just for face; the huge emotional investment for brides especially; not to mention the price of white dresses in Asia, to be worn for only one day, which is astonishing, especially as this is all about aping the West. Then there’s the unreasonable expectations of fidelity when humans appear unable to be monogamous anyway (think of the divorce rate, the never-ending adulterous behaviour, even the serial monogamists, the second wives village in Shenzhen, etc.) Well all that just makes me wonder why we need marriage in the first place?

The Naxi (minority group in China) had the right idea, where women took in the man for the moment to have children so that the species can continue, but the tribe as a whole looked after everyone. I mean, the nuclear family makes no sense. It’s way too much debt (emotional, physical and financial) for two young people to have to take on; for each to have a career plus afford the mortgage for their own home (and in Hong Kong our property prices are so ridiculous I can’t see how anyone who isn’t rich can marry and afford children), never mind afford the time and space for a child, let alone more than one child. Child rearing should be the job of a community, not a nuclear family – or only if you can afford a domestic helper (which is a Hong Kong solution for many).

Japan has been known for years as a country where married couples rarely spend any time with one another and surveys show that they have one of the lowest sex rates in the world. Why do you think it is that no one takes much notice of this form of ‘lovelessness’, but when it comes to China people are quick to criticise?
Oh it’s not just on the subject of love and romance that China is the punching bag of the media or the masses these days. It’s because China is on the rise – it’s the upstart nation that, like Topsy, grew too quickly too soon, defying the world’s expectations. And with that came a lot of obnoxious nouveau riche behaviour. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, the ugly American tourist was the norm; later it was the ugly Japanese.

Today, the ugly Chinese doesn’t seem to me all that different from the ugly other nations’ tourists of yore. So any time there’s a story about human behaviour in China that provides the world something to point at and say ‘see, see, look how awful “they” are’; the world responds. A low sex rate can be attributed to many things, not least of which includes the size of the statistical base. In a country of over a billion people, the rate of just about anything eclipses most other nations. Besides, the other big complaint (at least in the international media) is that statistics out of China are always suspect, so might there be more sex happening there that the social scientists missed?

How would you define romance?
Fiction. Romance is a fictive construction, a story we tell ourselves, a mythology the world perpetuates; which is why love stories are perennially popular, especially those with happy endings, because it’s all about wish fulfilment. Romance is also hormonal. When you’re young, hormones rage with lust for the unknown; when you’re old, the imagination rages, yearning for past glory (hence the enormous popularity of Viagra and lubricants for the post-menopausal).

It’s during all those in-between years, where if you’re lucky and manage to keep the fickle flicker of romance alive, that perhaps romance might be real for a while. I’m not sure about that though, because divorce happens a lot in that in-between-youth-and-aged time.

Is our idea of love and romance too heavily influenced by commercial enterprises like films and advertising?
Probably, and in an earlier era, romance novels I suppose. But we know the effects of chocolate, how it makes us feel like we’re in love? Which is why the valentine chocolate remains such a hot item. Advertising is all about creating need by inciting desire – who needs Victoria’s Secrets underwear, except to titillate a lover (or oneself)?

What do you consider to be the most romantic thing that anyone has done for you?
Cleans the apartment and fills it with fresh flowers when he knows I’m coming back “home” to where we live together whenever we can. He still does it. Which is why I still keep coming home to him from everywhere around the world that I have to go to (and live and work in).

Has technology brought about the death of romance?
I sometimes think social media has, because romance has lost its privacy. Mind you, even without social media, enough young people spend an unconscionable amount of time bragging about and revealing intimacies of the latest “love” (all those G.D.s – gory details). On the other hand, without technological advancements, I wouldn’t ever have had the romance of my distance relationship with my current man – for the first year we dated, we had to rely on email because he was in New York and I was in Hong Kong. Sixteen years later, we’re relying on Skype because I’m back in Hong Kong (again!) and he’s still in New York.

Do you feel that Asian men’s attitudes towards women have changed in recent times? And how does that compare with Western attitude towards women?
If I look at young Asian men today, especially in the more economically advanced societies (e.g. Hong Kong and Singapore), they seem less arrogant than they used to be when dealing with women. It has a lot to do with how much more confident (and arrogant) young Asian women are now. The roles have shifted as more women rise in the workplace and can count on support and encouragement from families that no longer need to engage in female infanticide, or believe in only educating boys and not girls, or always favouring sons, etc. But that’s not necessarily as true in India or China, however, except perhaps among the wealthy, or the ones who are able to go abroad to the West. Also, young Asian women aren’t as desperate to get married, although I should say neither are young men, and divorce is not as much of a stigma as it used to be.

A famous Chinese business woman said that Chinese women succeed because they are not deferential to men. Do you think this is true?
That has nothing to do with being Chinese and everything to do with not being deferential to men. You only succeed as a woman if you’re not going to give in to the patriarchal power structure that still dominates the business world. Whether you agree with Lean In [the book published by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, which has spawned a series of groups by the same name encouraging women to be more forthcoming in business] or not, there’s an American woman saying more or less the same thing about the boy’s world of Facebook corporate culture.

Is Asia still lagging behind the west in terms of sexual equality or are they now leading the way?
Depends what you mean by lagging. In terms of legal protection, the West is still ahead. But in terms of attitude, I can point to the corporate work world of Hong Kong that I used to be in back in the 70s and say that it was better for me as a woman then than in the New York of the 90s, where I also was in the business/corporate world. The sexual atmosphere in the Hong Kong work world was better for a woman; in New York there was always more workplace sexual tension. Hong Kong was not better legally though, because companies could legally discriminate against women – not just in terms of pay but benefits as well. The company I worked for in Hong Kong gave male managers housing allowances but not women because “women will be taken care of by their husbands.” This was true for both expatriate and local staff, which is why I moved on.

Does Hong Kong have any unusual courtship traditions?
What’s “unusual”? There’s a lot of puppy love type behaviour here – young couples locked in obsessive “never let me go” love scenarios – but that seems fairly universal to me wherever kids are trying to create a private world for themselves away from their families. Modern marriage banquet rituals have their own local ritualistic quality, however, whether it’s the games couples are forced to enact (e.g. a blindfolded bride or groom having to identify their partner by feeling the hair of each guy/gal in the wedding party, etc.); the karaoke “love calls”; the drinking games. But I don’t think any more so than any other culture or society.

What positive changes have you witnessed in the last few years of your time in Asia?
More young fathers pushing prams, changing nappies, taking on the real responsibilities of child care. More young women in the workforce, using their education for more than finding a husband.

Any other thoughts you would like to add on this subject?
I recently “discovered” (because I’m always behind the times when it comes to pop music) the song Perfect by Fairground Attraction, an ’80s UK band. The song was their big hit. When I heard it – and it’s catchy the way good pop songs tend to be, with uncomplicated lyrics – it struck me as the problem of romance. We want perfection in an imperfect world. Romance, especially, is supposed to be perfect so we can tell ourselves the desired fiction. But it can be perfect only if you don’t have overly demanding expectations. And also if perfect is allowed to be as ephemeral as a pop song.

by Nicola Kavanagh

From the Glass Magazine archive – Issue 14 – Romance – Romance in Asia

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Glass Magazine editor in chief

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