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Shanghai girls just wanna have fun

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As the most Westernized city in China, Shanghai is also a paradise of consumption. Each month, the women spend their entire salaries on clothes, restaurants, karaoke, DVDs, taxis and hairdressers, obliterating two more traditions — frugality and helping parents out.

Iselin, with her smooth announcer's voice, has been asked to act as master of ceremonies at friends' weddings, but weddings bore her stiff. She doesn't plan to marry any time soon and isn't interested in having babies, either.

“There's too much to do,” she says. “I'm selfish. I don't want to put my passion into someone else. And I haven't had enough fun yet.”

As well, she feels children are too noisy (unlike her favourite rock groups, R.E.M. and Radiohead), and Zoe thinks they're too expensive (unlike her shopping and karaoke habits). Amy doesn't mind babies, but can't imagine having them for years.

Their aversion may be the natural outcome of growing up locked in at home while both parents worked. Certainly, their lonely childhoods made them defiant individualists.

“No wonder you like rock music,” Amy tells Iselin.

After dinner, the women head for Amber, a bar on a street once known as Rue Cardinal Mercier. As the dark, smoky room pulsates with techno and hip-hop, it's hard to imagine Mao at their age founding the Communist Party in 1921 in a townhouse a few blocks away.

Asked whether she will follow in her father's footsteps and join the Party, Iselin shudders. Zoe interjects, “Are you kidding?”

“Our generation really isn't interested in politics at all,” Iselin says, text-messaging a friend on her cell.

It amuses them no end that their parents prefer Maoist-era music. Iselin's father sings revolutionary opera when he gets tipsy. “When my father drinks, he sings revolutionary songs too,” Amy says, sipping iced apple juice, a fashionably new drink in Shanghai.

The next day, the women reunite for lunch at a restaurant owned by Amy's family, followed by an afternoon of shopping and karaoke. Fu Xueqi, 50, a worker turned restaurateur, seems delighted that Amy has brought Iselin and Zoe to meet him. He insists on footing the bill.

He ushers them into a private room and soon the lazy susan in the centre of the round table is overflowing with beef tempura, freshwater shrimp, sliced river fish in chili oil and crispy rice with diced ham and peas.

“I wanted to have a son, of course,” Mr. Fu says, gazing adoringly at his coltish daughter.

Amy tosses her long hair. “He was mad,” she says. “He stomped out of the room when I was born.”

“After a while, I felt a girl was okay,” Mr. Fu says.

Her parents both went to work in factories at 17, their high-school educations cut short by the Cultural Revolution. During their arranged betrothal, they never even dared to hold hands.

Having been deprived of virtually everything in her own youth — food, fun, clothing, opportunities — Amy's mother didn't want her daughter to lack anything. “She spoiled me,” Amy says.

“I doted on her,” agrees Zhang Yusheng, 50. “Whatever she wanted, we bought it for her.”

When Amy turned 20, they celebrated it like a wedding, inviting dozens of guests to a restaurant feast. Everyone gave Amy hong bao, red envelopes of cash.

Iselin's mother was indulgent too, spoon-feeding her until she was 7. Even as a teenager, Iselin was never asked to lift a finger. And that's why she drinks only bottled water today. She's afraid of lighting the stove.

Recently, Iselin's mother took a leave from her job as an administrator at a petroleum company in Beijing, and moved to Shanghai to cook and clean for her daughter.

“I call her my babysitter,” says Iselin, who confesses that she doesn't even know how to wash dishes. At university, she paid three cents extra each meal for disposable Styrofoam.

Today, her mother's emotional well-being depends on her. “If I'm happy, she's happy,” Iselin says. “If I'm not happy, she's unhappy.”

Zoe can't cook either, and Amy is scarcely better. The most complicated dish she can manage is egg fried rice.

“These kids can't do anything. They're all only children. If guests come to their home, they have to go out to a restaurant,” Mr. Fu says, handing his daughter the remote control to turn down the air conditioner. (He can't figure it out.)

Each Sunday, he and his wife bring a mountain of take-out Chinese food to Amy's apartment. They eat together, and then she and her boyfriend live off the leftovers the rest of the week. Even so, Amy has lost 14 pounds since leaving university.

“Her lifestyle is different from ours,” Mr. Fu says. He sighs: “ Guan bu liao” — we can't control them.

And then he urges Amy and her friends to eat more.

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