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Shanghai girls just wanna have fun

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Shanghai — Luo Yi doesn't know how to boil water — in a country where it has to be boiled to be safe to drink.

The 25-year-old former German major, who calls herself Iselin, won't wash vegetables either, because she's petrified of finding an insect. That really irritates her father, a Communist Party secretary who was forced to till fields during the Cultural Revolution.

“He says to me, ‘You faint at the sight of a bug! If you had to go to the countryside, what would you do?' ” says Iselin, a disc jockey with the only rock 'n' roll radio show in Shanghai.

Iselin is a Chinese valley girl, part of a new generation of indulged daughters who are products of the one-child policy China introduced in 1979. Their parents were among the millions of Red Guards who were torn from their lives in the cities and sent to work in fields and factories for “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Like Holocaust survivors, these parents are a lost generation. They wanted to give their children everything they never had.

If they were the Mao Generation, Iselin and her peers are China's first Me Generation. All university-educated, she and her friends are breaking the mould of obedient, chaste and filial daughters. Disparaging about politics and focused on pleasure, they like sex, but not marriage. When Chairman Mao said he wanted to liberate women, they weren't what he had in mind.

“My mother can't control me. She's afraid of me,” Iselin says.

Her friend, Fu Xiaorong, agrees. “My parents can't manage me either.” She goes by the name Amy, and is a writer-editor for the fashion magazine City Beauty.

These young women have made endless choices that distinguish them from their parents. One is premarital sex (polls suggest that 70 per cent of young urban adults no longer wait for marriage). Another is choosing Western names: Iselin and Amy have a friend, Wu Zongwen, a writer for a men's magazine who calls herself Zoe.

Amy and Zoe were high-school classmates before ending up in journalism. They met Iselin when, by coincidence, both profiled her for their magazines. The two writers earn about 3,000 yuan a month ($455), a good urban salary, and Iselin about 3,500 ($530). That's richer than it sounds — Iselin's monthly rent is 900 yuan ($136).

On a recent evening, the three gathered for dinner at Shanghai Uncle, a trendy eatery near the Bund, the city's showcase avenue.

“We're the first generation of only children, so there will be many problems,” says Iselin, who thinks about trends because her radio show requires her to riff on music, fashion and the latest Japanese or Polish art-house movies.

She wears stylish rectangular glasses, a black polo shirt, a large Swatch watch, orange socks and suede Adidas. She has delicate cheekbones and once dyed her brush cut platinum. A few years ago, she buzz-cut her hair in homage to Irish rocker Sinead O'Connor. She doesn't care if people mistake her for a man.

Amy paints her nails with miniature black cats and once dyed her hair auburn, streaked with gold. A willowy 5-foot-8, she's wearing a choker and an off-the-shoulder T-shirt. At 23, she lives openly with her third lover and has no plans for marriage, despite weekly nagging from her parents.

Zoe, also 23, is petite and bubbly, with a mass of luxuriant permed hair that falls to her waist. She is wearing jeans and baby-blue New Balance slides. Although she lives clandestinely with her boyfriend, she is more interested in acquiring a kitten than a baby.

They're living their own version of Sex and the City, but the city is Shanghai.

“Shanghai women are smooth as silk, hard as stone,” says the government-run Shanghai Women's Federation. This was, after all, the city that embraced the qi pao, the figure-hugging high-collared dress split to the thigh. It was also the cradle of China's pink-collar work force, the first generation of female phone operators, stenographers, secretaries and shop assistants.

Iselin agrees that “Shanghai is a very female city,” but she and her friends think that it's the best place in China to be female partly because of its men. “Women want Shanghai men for husbands,” says Amy, “because they spoil women.”

She and Zoe took the initiative in choosing their respective lovers. “I made a bet with a friend,” says Amy, who spotted hers on the basketball court. “I said I would catch him within a month, and I did it.” Iselin dumped her boyfriend after he moved to Paris. “We felt no more passion,” she says, using the English word. Everyone giggles.

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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