South China Morning Post 7/21/01

Saturday  July 21  2001

TO SAY ANNIE WANG believes in herself is an understatement. 'I am a pioneer. So naturally people follow me,' declares Wang, who in her 27 years has been a teenage radio show host in Beijing, head of her exclusive Beijing high school's news agency, a bureau assistant in Beijing for the Washington Post and, last but not least, author of six books, the latest of which, Lili: A Novel Of Tiananmen, is not only her first novel but her first work written in English.

As the daughter of a top Beijing journalist, Wang grew up enjoying all the perks available to the children of China's elite: she and her friends had access to the latest American movies and rock 'n' roll recordings and were able to read books that were banned or simply unavailable elsewhere on the mainland.

For fun, they ambushed visiting celebrities at hotel entrances from their stake-outs inside a parent's limousine. In her radio show and articles for youth-oriented newspapers and magazines, Wang shared her passion for Western pop culture, introducing her audience to the writings of J D Salinger and Jack Kerouac, and to the music of George Michael, Karen Carpenter and the Beach Boys.

'I received so many letters from kids outside Beijing telling me how much they learned from my programme and how I was their role model,' Wang says.

For much of the past few weeks, Wang has been on a book tour of the US and so busy that she has been averaging three hours' sleep per night. But her alertness doesn't flag when she talks about her novel. Lili follows the progress of its eponymous heroine from her imprisonment for 'hooliganism' - a crime which, in her case, amounts to consorting with and having sexual relations with Beijing street toughs - to her political and psychological coming-of-age that culminates with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Wang's Lili is sullen and selfish, but beautiful, of course. She attracts the attentions of an American correspondent, Roy Goldstein, who helps her overcome her self-loathing and apathy.

Goldstein not only leads Lili to 'see China through his eyes', explains the book's blurb, but enables her to 'comprehend the magnitude of the changes that are sweeping across her country and to appreciate being a part of something greater than herself'.

As Lili journeys towards her epiphany, she - and Wang's readers - become acquainted with various segments of China's post-Cultural Revolution society: impoverished peasants, professional urban working women, gangsters, avant-garde artists, professional beggars and newly rich businessmen.

The inspiration for Lili came to Wang during the Tiananmen demonstrations and their aftermath, she remarks. At the time, Wang was a 16-year-old high-school student, but found herself, like so many other residents of Beijing, gravitating to the square. 'I saw soldiers at every intersection,' she has said about the morning the tanks rolled in. 'I saw blood. I saw things, and those images stayed with me.

'I had such an impulse to say something. This idea of writing about a woman and how her life changes somehow was born at that time.'

The book was not easy for Wang to write. It started out as a short story in her 1991 book From Beijing To California, which Wang expanded into a novel because the original version, in Chinese, had not been as well-received as she had hoped. She also decided to write it in English, crossing her fingers that it would appeal to an English-language publisher.

Wang experienced 'terrible depressions' while writing the book. 'Though I was writing in English, I really wanted to maintain a Chinese flavour in the dialogue and in the writing,' she says. During the 10 years in which she laboured over the manuscript, the author attended university in Beijing for a year, went to the University of California at Berkeley to study for a BA in mass communications, went back to China where she worked a short stint for the Washington Post and became a contract interpreter for the US Department of State, a position that enabled her to obtain US citizenship.

As a result, she now calls Silicon Valley home, but travels frequently. Indeed, she is preparing to move temporarily to Hong Kong.

Why Hong Kong? 'I write about China,' she says. 'It changes so fast. And I've never lived for any length of time in the south.'

While she is the last person to deny that her adolescence was indeed a cushy one, she says that once she got to Berkeley, she had to fend for herself. At first, she was homesick, lonely and in 'abject poverty', she says. And she 'couldn't keep up with the teachers in class, even though I had once been confident about my English'. So Wang took a dictionary to class to look up every new word and over-prepared for her classes. (Indeed, today her English is as fluent and her vocabulary as wide-ranging as that of most American speakers.)

Eventually, 'through strong willpower and hard work, I surmounted all the difficulties and received top grades in all subjects'.

Wang keeps her fans informed of her activities, on her Web site (ChineseCulture.net). The lively site is filled with photos of Wang, her two older sisters who share the site, and their friends. One sister, Wei Wang, is a scholar and 'former broadcast producer' and the other, Fei Wang, is a Silicon Valley multimedia producer and the site's designer.

Annie Wang belongs to a unique generation of Chinese 20- and 30-somethings who have come of age at a time of material prosperity and greater personal, if not political, freedom. The difference between her generation and those who experienced the Cultural Revolution during their formative years is one that Wang was acutely aware of while she was writing Lili.

'Lili did transcend herself, but I'm not sure about my generation. People my age have not really suffered in the way that Chinese who came of age in the 60s and 70s did,' says Wang. 'They take their good fortune for granted and live on a superficial level. Material goods, fashion and having a good time are what interest them.'

She knew she wanted to be a writer when she was young. 'I'm motivated by a desire to expose the ugly side of life and I turned to journalism because my father and older sister are also journalists.' The Wang household was always fun, lively and filled with discussions of current events and politics, Wang recalls.

Though she is hesitant about discussing her father, it is clear that she has tremendous respect for him. Asked what he thought of Lili, she says: 'We have different opinions about things. He believes that my values and concepts are very, very American. The good part is that he respects me as an adult and as a writer.'

So far, the reception to Lili has been positive. The book is 'a unique read for an American audience', said one reviewer. 'Wang's novel relates the flavour and ideas of Asian literature without the often stifling buffer of a translation.' Another critic praised Lili as 'a perfectly blended story of adolescent evolution in a discordant political climate' and as 'an engaging novel of fate exploring what draws an individual towards larger happenings on a social stage'.

A distinctly sour note, however, came from an Asian reviewer, Terry Hong, in the Christian Science Monitor. Hong took Wang to task for perpetuating 'demeaning versions of the inscrutable East' in Lili's relationship with Goldstein. 'The triteness of the story verges on insulting,' wrote Hong. 'The big-nosed but handsome, bleeding-heart, white journalist who wants to save the lost little Asian girl set adrift in the cruel world because he thinks of her as exotic and mysterious. Lili is nothing until she meets her great white saviour.'

Wang was offended in turn. 'I find reactions like this very troubling because this shows an ignorance of China and a preoccupation with racial issues,' she says.

'Foreigners have been coming to China in greater and greater numbers since 1979 when the Open Door policy was inaugurated. Chinese have gotten used to seeing Westerners. And there's been so much exchange between China and the West that just as foreign commodities and foreign investment money have come into the country, so have Westerners who have relationships with Chinese. Why do I have to be politically correct?'

This is a question that Wang has dealt with before. One of the pieces in her short-story collection, Passion And Departures, concerns an affair between a young Chinese woman, an MBA graduate from a prestigious university, and a West-African immigrant who meet in a New York hotel lobby.

One wonders, however, at Lili's fate. Lili ends shortly after the denouement of the Tiananmen protests. She has reconciled with her parents and been transformed by her experiences. Will she join her American lover in America? Will she join the pro-democracy underground?

When asked to speculate on her heroine's probable fate, Wang declines. 'That's not my job,' she says. 'My job ended when the book ended. I want subtlety, to leave things unsaid, and to give people room to think.'

Stella Dong is author of Shanghai: The Rise And Fall Of A Decadent City, 1842-1949

 

Copyright 2001 South China Morning Post.

 

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