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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16

EXTRACT FROM SHANGHAI BABY
By WEI HUI

ALSO
Lament for Lingzi: Extract from Candy, by Mian Mian

MADONNA'S MARRIAGE
Madonna grew up in the shanty area of Shanghai's Zhabei District, and wanted to be an artist from when she was young (and as a result took not a few artists as lovers). But at 16 she dropped out. Her father and an older brother were crazy about liquor, and used her for target practice when they were drunk. Her mother was a weak-willed woman who couldn't protect her daughter.

One day she boarded a train bound for Guangzhou. She didn't have much choice. She began working as a bar girl, accompanying guests as they drank. Cities in the south at that time were in the midst of a wave of unprecedented growth. Many had money, and some of them had so much money that it left you speechless. Even her smallest movements expressed a sense of refinement that women from other provinces just didn't have. The clientele liked her, flattered her and were willing to do things for her. Her standing in that circle rose quickly, and in no time she had begun to recruit girls and run her own business.

They called her "Yang Nan-Nan," a pet name Shanghainese give to girls who are fair-skinned and pretty. She wore long black dresses with fine shoulder-straps and diamond rings from her admirers. With her black hair lying against her pale white face, she looked like a queen who dwelled within a secluded, innermost palace, behind layer upon layer of thick curtains.

"When I recall scenes from that period, it really seems like a former incarnation. A simple title captures it: 'Beauty and the Beasts.' I did master the principles of how to domesticate a man. Maybe when I get old I'll write a book just for women, instructing them how to accurately control a man's mind. When you want to kill a snake you have to strike it squarely on the heart. Men also have pressure points where they are weakest. Young women nowadays may mature earlier, and they are tougher and braver than we were, but women still get the short end of the stick in many ways."

She adjusted her pillow, looked over and said: "Don't you agree?"

"When you get down to it, the social system still devalues the needs of women and frowns upon their efforts to clearly recognize their own worth," I said. "Girls who are more street-smart are put down as 'crude,' and those who are more gentle are treated as 'empty-headed' flower vases."

"Anyway, girls have to improve their brainpower. Being a bit smarter doesn't hurt." Madonna paused, asking me if I agreed. I said I did, even though I wouldn't praise myself as being a women's lib warrior, but what she said rang true. Her words helped me to discover that there was a hidden place in her mind which housed deeper thoughts.

"So how did you get married to ... your deceased husband?" I asked.

"Something happened which taught me that in that world, no matter how much influence I might have acquired through my relationships, I was really just a pretty flower who could easily shrivel and die. At the time I particularly liked a girl from Chengdu. She had studied management at Sichuan University, read widely and could discuss things like art with me.

"The girl didn't have anywhere to live, so I took her in to share a flat with me. One evening three fierce-looking guys came looking for her. It turned out they were from the same hometown in Sichuan, and they had pooled cash and given it to her so she could come to Guangzhou and invest in futures. But literally overnight she lost 100,000 renminbi. Having lost all her capital, the girl was penniless and had no choice but to work as a bar girl. But she avoided contact with other Sichuanese and didn't inform the investors of her failure. In the end, these guys came looking for her with their knives concealed.

"I was in the bathroom taking a shower when they came, and when they discovered me, they took me along too. It was a terrifying situation. My room was turned upside down, and my jewelry and 30,000 renminbi were stolen. I explained that all of this had nothing to do with me, and they should let me go. They just shoved cloth into my mouth. I thought they intended to sell me and her to slave traders in Thailand or Malaysia."

Her cold, clammy hands clung to mine. As she told her story, her fingers trembled. "So you chose to get married?" I asked.

"Yeah, to get out of the business," said Madonna. "At the time there was an old codger—a multimillionaire in real estate—who wanted to take me as his wife. In the end, I overcame my repugnance at the thought of sleeping with a wrinkled mummy and married him. I guessed he wouldn't live long, and my instinct was proven right. Now I have money and freedom, and I'm luckier than most women. Even though I'm bored silly, I'm still better off than your typical laid-off garment worker."

From Shanghai Baby by Zhou Weihui. Copyright (c) 1999 by Zhou Weihui. English-language translation copyright (c) 2001 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Translated by Bruce Humes. Originally published in China in 1999. Reprinted by permission of Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

the arts ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: THE ARTS
Singing the Blues: Why Chinese rock doesn't rock

Looking Inward: Today's artists are beginning to explore individual rather than collective themes

Riot Grrrls: Mian Mian and Wei Hui face off

Literary Boom: Youth fiction is far more varied than the sex-and-drugs glam-lit that nabs headlines

What's Hot: The fads du jour among urban youth

Father and Son: Two generations of filmmakers reflect on their differences—which turn out to be less than they had feared

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