Rachel DeWoskin: the writer befriending Shanghai's second wives
Rachel DeWoskin has been coming to China since she was a child. Not trusting the water on China’s trains, her Sinologist father would give her beer to drink instead. It was a heady introduction to a country that has continued to play a large part in her life.
She lived in Beijing from 1994 to 2000, but it was on a visit in 2006 that she wrote an article on China’s “er nai cun,” or second wife villages, for The Times.
It’s a topic the 38-year-old writer wants to revisit when she arrives in Shanghai on June 23 for the 2011 M Literary Residency, a literary program co-established by M Restaurant Group’s founder Michelle Garnaut.
Kept women in Gubei
“If you go out near the airport, there are these communities of women,” DeWoskin says. “They live in regular apartment complexes, but they have velvet-lined karaoke parlors and lots of beauty parlors up and down the street. There are women everywhere and astonishingly few men.”
DeWoskin spent time with kept women living in Gubei, befriending some of them and learning about their lives. Often, these women are visited only once or twice a month by their sugar daddies.
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“I had this idea that there might be some kind of feminist silver lining –- that women were swimming in a sink-or-swim economy, or they were using this position in society in some way that was powerful,” DeWoskin says.
“In fact, when they turn 30 they usually get dumped, and a lot of these women don’t have other plans.”
Foreign Babes in Beijing
I had this idea that there might be some kind of feminist silver lining – that women were swimming in a sink-or-swim economy, or they were using this position in society in some way that was powerful.-- Rachel DeWoskin, M's writer in residence
DeWoskin says fiction gives her a better opportunity to affirm the spirit of the women she met.
She’s thinking of writing about these second wives in a screenplay, a form she’s become increasingly familiar with since she started developing a television pilot for HBO, based on her 2005 memoir “Foreign Babes in Beijing."
DeWoskin had just graduated from college when she went to live in Beijing in 1994. Despite her lack of acting experience, she landed a white-face role on the Chinese soap opera that lends her book its title. The show’s theme song lauded foreign babes who were “all in love with Chinese culture / and green vegetable snacks”.
DeWoskin played Jiexi, a walking, talking embodiment of the writers’ misconceptions of Western thinking and behavior. Jiexie is a tireless sexual aggressor who, among other peculiarities, puts forth the supposedly Western idea that Chinese are lazy.
In her book, DeWoskin mirrors these mix-ups with attempts to confront her own misconceptions and misgivings about China.
If it’s picked up, the HBO show will be something like a contemporary version of the Chinese original.
“There’s definitely a meta element to it –- a TV show about a TV show,” DeWoskin says.
The new show
Rachel is a seasoned and experienced writer who knows China well enough to add useful debate to the body of work on contemporary China today.-- Michelle Garnaut, M Literary Residency application judge
DeWoskin has already made several trips to Beijing to find inspiration for the newest iteration of "Foreign Babes". She says as well as the greater range of things to do and consume, one of the big changes for today’s expats is “a sort of familiarity and camaraderie that I think wasn’t there in the 1990s.”
An even bigger difference for the new show is its intended audience. Although DeWoskin downplays the historical significance of filming an American TV show entirely in China –- “I think an episode of 'The Drew Carey Show' did it before” –- for many U.S. viewers it’s likely to be something very new.
She hopes to improve upon the two conflicting representations of China she sees in the United States, where Chinese are either “cultivating pandas and wearing Mao suits, or so modern as to be inaccessible to the West,” she says.
“There’s a big cast of Chinese characters in this show and they’re just real people – 3D, complicated, people of all sorts. And they defy the stereotypes that we’re used to seeing and hearing.”
M Literary Residency
Michelle Garnaut, one of the residency’s application judges, is confident of DeWoskin’s ability to develop people’s understanding of China.
“Rachel is a seasoned and experienced writer who knows China well enough to add useful debate to the body of work on contemporary China today,” she says. Garnaut also feels that the “er nai cun” project is sufficiently developed for the three-month residency to really make a difference.
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Tash Aw, last year’s M writer in residence, used the opportunity to work on a novel about expats in contemporary Shanghai.
As well as getting details of daily life, he says, “I was able to immerse myself in the energy and loneliness of a mega-city like Shanghai. There’s a restlessness to it, but also a deep melancholy –- things that are good for a writer like me.”
Asked whether he has any tips for DeWoskin, Aw says, “I’m sure Rachel doesn’t need any advice from me –- unless she wants to know where the best xiaolongbao places are.”
Click to know more about M Literary Residency and its application process. Applications for the 2012 residency are open until Friday 1 July.