I heard about this novel through an Asian American Literature Fans Megareview and it sounded like the perfect summer novel read. I’ve given up trying to read non-fiction (last year’s goal) as then I tend to consume very few whole books. Published all the way back in 2006, Annie Wang’s The People’s Republic of Desire is my first specimen of Asian (Chinese) chick lit in that Sophia Kinsella et al style, a grown-up step up from “coming of age” novels I have tended to read before.
The narrative is from the point of view of Niuniu, a returnee to Beijing after completing post-secondary education in the US and fleeing memories of a fresh break-up. She is a journalist for an international publication and seems to play the listener role with her girlfriends and collect stories about people in her extended circle of friends.
Her inner circle of friends, best girlfriends from pre-college days, include Beibei, Lulu and CC.
- Beibei is the oldest and married, the alpha of the group and in life. She runs a successful company that represents entertainers and after betrayal by her husband, they have an open marriage and she believes she’s the ultimate empowered feminist when she has her work success and can take young lovers like a man. (Does this sound like Samantha from Sex and the City to you??)
- Lulu is editor of a fashion magazine, sensitive and looking for true love. At the beginning of the novel, she is infatuated with a commitment-phobe artist but early on, he leaves her. He is not a commitment-phobe except with regards to Lulu.
- Unlike Beibei and Lulu who stayed in Beijing for university and like Niuniu, CC attended university in the West. She is even more Westernized than Niuniu since her parents sent her to England at a young age, as soon as they could afford to. She has returned to China to work in a PR firm and plans events and brings back her British boyfriend Nick who develops a wandering eye when he is in a land where many people are like CC (but not like CC).
In very short chapters that read like vignettes and end with a glossary of the Chinese terms used within the chapter, Wang manages to cover every topic that four single women would cover in many tea dates, dinners and drinks after work and expose the intricate world that is dating in modern China with the mish-mash of a long cultural history and eager acceptance of Western influences.
In learning about the four characters and their romantic histories and current dating prospects, the reader gets a fast-paced revue of the issues of women in China, men in China and life in general in China. Like what? Like the old and current concept of class that persists in Chinese society. Like regional rivalries and how men and women differ in each of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong such that fellow countrymen cannot be compatible. Like rampant materialism and ageism, outdoing the Westerners at Western things and the head-spinning fast pace of change in China…. and the sheer number of people doing anything in China. Like the one-child policy creating generations of little emperors and empresses, the latter exacerbating the existing concept of Chinese “princess” girls.
The four central women are very sexual against a backdrop of general loosening of morals in China. With daily gossip about their peers’ jaw-dropping activities, of course they think they are in the minority of sane singletons and they discuss their plight with a pseudo-philosophical bent making allusions to their place in history. I found that to be uniquely Chinese. Since I did not really feel like any of the characters were much more beyond a caricature or stereotype, I was discouraged for their prospects. They seem to love their lifestyle more than love itself and that is the obstacle they must overcome in order to have a happily ever after.
I think the most real parts came at only two points. Lulu’s mother comes to stay with her a while and is very concerned about her daughter still being single at the ripe old age of late twenties. The complaints that come out of Lulu’s mother are so contradictory about men and relationships that the poor girl wouldn’t know how to act if she really followed the advice. And it’s just so frank in that awkward Chinese way (and not funny American sitcom way) that I can empathize from experience.
Through most of the novel, Niuniu seems to me like a cold, dead fish, shell-shocked from the end of her big romance that I couldn’t get excited about. I was far more fascinated after this small glimpse into her American life: “When I dated a white guy in the United States, he said I had a nice little butt. But when I dated a black guy there, he said my butt was small. His roomates always sat around the living room teasing me, saying ‘James, whachoo doin’ bringin’ that skinny-assed girl to our house?’ The room falls silent for a moment. Mouths are agape. Not because my friends are impressed with my familiarity with African American dialect, but because they had no idea just how much ‘game’ I had back in the States.” I was very intrigued by her “game”.
The Republic of People’s Desire is like an expose of modern China in small bites. I wasn’t too shocked by any particular anecdote but I think a lot of people would be. It makes one worry tremendously about China’s future, if people aren’t taking things just that much to the extreme to have a most rude awakening. In this genre, it usually gets really bleak for the heroine(s), but there’s usually hope. I didn’t get that sense which is almost more realistic. What really soured me was a connection made between two characters in the final pages that didn’t seem realistic and I did not see the sense of it except it helped Niuniu turn it all around?
The short chapters may be welcome by some but I found the novel a little difficult to get into. Each chapter has a topic and has to come to a witty conclusion. It felt like watching several seasons of Sex and the City back to back and that is tiresome to all but the hardiest. My favourite feeling while reading it was, knowing that there is truth amidst the stories, deep appreciation for having found my NPY and not having to go out there and look for my mate!