Frontline World

CHINA - Shanghai Nights, June 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Shanghai Nights"

Bright Lights, Big City

Read excerpts from Candy

China's Economy, Shanghai, Youth Culture

Arts, Culture, New Generation, Weblogs




The Story
Reporter, Nguyen Qui Duc; Two women smoking in club; Chinese Graffiti

Watch Video The neon lights of modern-day Shanghai are so bright that you can wear sunglasses even in the darkest hour of night: The city, the largest and wealthiest in China, has changed enormously in recent years. FRONTLINE/World reporter Nguyen Qui Duc, a native of Vietnam, is no stranger to the changing face of communism. And he has come to Shanghai because he has heard that young people, especially artists, are no longer accepting the old rules. He wants to see how far they've been able to push the limits.

For a guide, Duc turns to one of China's most celebrated young writers, Mian Mian, who has offered to take him inside her world, the youth underground of Shanghai. Government censors call Mian Mian "a poster child for spiritual pollution," but inside the city's nightclubs, she's a pop diva, queen of the clubs. She's notorious for writing openly about sex, drugs, and rock and roll -- still touchy subjects in China. The government banned her novel, Candy, which only made the "bad girl of Shanghai" more famous and her novel a clandestine best-seller.

Mian Mian takes Duc to clubs in Shanghai that are packed with the young and fashionable partying as if they were in 1980s New York. Marijuana smoke trumps oxygen in the bars. Devotees come to town from America, Holland, Germany and beyond to revel in the scene. The cops keep close watch outside, only periodically swooping in to close down a club.

But although the authorities tolerate the clubs to a point, they're still trying to silence writers like Mian Mian. And that's the lesson, it seems, in today's Shanghai: Do what you want, but keep it quiet.

The only signs of the past, in fact, seem to be found among vendors, who are selling replicas of Mao and other Communist leaders. But these icons no longer stand for revolution. Rather, history is kitsch, available -- for a price -- to any tourist.

As a matter of course, the government clamps down on anything it considers to be obscene, but the demand for the work of Mian Mian and her fellow artists seems to be winning this particular battle. Duc talks to a bookseller who carries racy material -- for him, the risk of being fined or shut down is worth it. When Duc asks for Mian Mian's book, the bookseller explains that he does carry it, but it keeps selling out.

Meanwhile, Mian Mian is using her fame to battle the censors, pushing the limits of government tolerance in a way that was unthinkable even a few years ago. She takes Duc to meet her friend Shi Yong, an artist whose work was banned until recently. Shi Yong recently put different pictures of himself on the Internet, asking people to vote for the one that best represents today's Shanghai. The winner was a satiric image of a hipster wearing a Mao suit.

In her book, Mian Mian writes about being alienated from her parents, so Duc asks for a chance to meet them. Despite the government's disapproval, her father speaks in support of his "renegade daughter," proud of her success. He himself always rode the bus, he tells Duc, but his daughter always takes taxis.

A lot has changed since 1989, when young people stood up to the government in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and demanded democracy. Hundreds of people were killed when the government cracked down then. Now, as Martin Wong, lead singer of a Shanghai-based rock band, tells Duc, "Rock and roll people -- they make another kind of revolution in Shanghai. They make revolution through their music, not in the square." Wong, whose music is the sound of calm revolution, cautions against big, fast revolutions, saying they're silly and unrealistic. Slowly, he says, is the way to go. Duc thinks that maybe the musician is right.

One thing is for certain: The cultural revolution in today's Shanghai is about bright lights and personal pleasure. And for some, like Mian Mian, the dream is to go "faster, faster." In her next book, she wants to capture the image of this new Shanghai -- beautiful people living a life of glamour in a city of private dreams. All of which, of course, seems a bit self-indulgent to Duc. But at the same time, it's heartening to see this new generation enjoying what was missing for so long in China: personal freedom.






"Yellow Banana"
Written and Performed by Hang on the Box

"False Monks"
Written and Performed by Cui Jian SACEM
Published by Hilltop Services Ltd. BVI

Special Thanks

Produced in association with the UC BERKELEY GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM

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