Singapore's material girls

A Beijing novelist's steamy tale of gold-digging Chinese women in Singapore raises hackles in both countries
August 10, 2001


BOOK tours are a useful promotional device, but Chinese author Zhu Ziping passed on a recent invitation to sign copies of her new novel, Wuya, in Singapore. She's too worried that angry women will turn up to give her a rough time. "Maybe I could wear a big hat, so people won't recognize me," Zhu says.

Her offense: portraying Chinese women, in their search for mates, as money-obsessed and ready to prostitute themselves for a more comfortable life. Writing under the pen name, Jiu Dan, she describes the experiences of mainlanders like herself, who went to Singapore to study English. All her characters have just one goal in mind - snaring a rich man. Some moonlight as club hostesses to meet guys. One ex-journalist becomes the mistress of a wealthy ex-politician. Although fictional, her book mirrors real life closely enough to hit a raw nerve.

Many mainland women, humiliated by the unflattering portrait in Wuya (Chinese for "Crow"), have written letters, phoned the publishers and posted critiques on the Internet, one attacking Zhu for having "no shame." In Singapore, where Wuya was launched last month, publisher Lingzi Media fielded angry calls from Chinese professionals. "It's very unfair to mainland women who come to Singapore. People here and back home will look at them suspiciously," says Rao Qiaohong, a Chinese married to a local man. In China, Wuhan-based Yangtse Literature Publishers has faced similar outrage. "It's kind of dirty," huffs Luo Liyan, a Beijing shop owner. "Maybe there are girls like that, but they must be the minority. Jiu Dan writes like every Chinese woman is an unscrupulous gold-digger." The novel has also fuelled fierce online debates (see 2001.html).

The author shrugs off the criticisms. "Being a tai-tai (rich man's wife) is the ambition of many mainland girls," Zhu says. "It is not romantic. Let's not make it prettier than it is. China is still poor, and young women want better lives." Though steamy, her novel is no more graphic than those of "bad-girl" writers like Shanghai-based Mian Mian. Where their stories of sex and drugs in the urban underbelly share a hip grittiness, Wuya's barbs lie in the ordinariness of its characters. Motivation is stripped to its tawdry basics: We are living in a material world, and we are material girls. "Hooligan" novelist Wang Shuo, one of China's hottest writers from the 1980s, admires the approach. Wuya is a "beautiful" work, he says. "Without any fear of losing face, Jiu Dan bares her soul. It is without any of the literary pretensions that other Chinese writers suffer from."

Zhu, 33, insists the book isn't autobiographical, although she also admits to being less concerned with mastering English than hooking up with a rich man while she lived in Singapore during the mid-1990s. She didn't have much trouble achieving that goal. Her boyfriend's family had five cars, she recalls, including a Mercedes-Benz and a BMW. As in the novel, her affair ended unhappily. But the characters are composites of various people she has met, Zhu says. Even so, the book has many of her friends in Singapore squirming. Recently, she even got an angry phone call from her former lover, who felt he recognized himself in the book. "He thought he lost face," she says.

The author now lives alone in Beijing, where she works as a columnist for a TV magazine. Zhu's ambition, however, is to quit journalism to become "the greatest female novelist in China." She has published two other fictional works; neither has been as successful as Wuya. The title was inspired by the sight of a flock of crows at a Singapore beach: The birds with a bad rep reminded her of people suffering the same handicap.

Controversy hasn't hurt Wuya's sales. After an initial run of just 2000 copies, Singapore's Lingzi Media is now printing a fifth edition. It's the first time a book by a mainland author has done so well in the Lion City, says Pat Ong, a manager of the Popular Book chain. In China, sales have reached 60,000 copies. That's not enough to give Zhu the financial cushion she craves to become a fulltime writer. Her hopes rest with English, French and German translations of the book. Until the checks roll in, Zhu must squeeze in her next novel between her editing work. The tentative title: Xique, or Magpie. Unlike the unlucky crow, the magpie is considered a harbinger of happiness - and perhaps Zhu's ticket to a writing career.

- With reporting by Vivien Ng/Singapore