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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #46 (November 15, 2005), page 11.
Comic memoir is also insightful look at modern China
Foreign Babes in Beijing
By Rachel DeWoskin
W.W. Norton & Company, 2005
Hardcover, 332 pages, $24.95
By Dave Johnson
I’ve read a number of articles, essays, and books that attempt to describe the New China, a nation on track to become the commercial, political, and cultural nexus of this particular planet. Some texts are shocking to American readers complacent with the status quo, and others are loaded with dry stats, convoluted histories of party leaders, and re-runs of post-revolutionary debacles.
But none are close to Rachel DeWoskin’s Foreign Babes in Beijing as an acerbic, insightful chronicle of dramatic changes engulfing the nation. It’s also a spicy, comedic memoir of a foreign babe who found herself infamous in the once forbidden city — a tale that goes down as smoothly as an episode of "Sex and the City," or a satirical romp starring Marco Polo after a power lunch of dim sum with Mark Twain and Jacqueline Susann.
After moving to Beijing to work for an American public relations firm, DeWoskin signed up to act in a nighttime soap opera called "Foreign Babes in Beijing." She recalls that the acting job, "Was supposed to be a lark, an adventure … I was playing Jiexi, the manipulative hussy who seduces a married Chinese man, falls in love with him, and then sacrifices everything for true love when she agrees to marry him."
Not only did Jiexi personalize and symbolize the culture clash between East and West, she was an exotic counterpoint to historical reality — most intercultural romances have been between Western men and Chinese women.
Added to that twist was Jiexi’s love interest, played by Wang Ling, a hunk she says was "designed by producers and personal trainers to turn the tables on Hollywood stereotypes of wimpy Chinese men."
The show, produced in 1995, was a monster hit throughout China, where the 20 episodes were replayed repeatedly to over six hundred million viewers. Not only does DeWoskin have great fun describing the interaction on the sets between the director, crew, and actors, she uses her oddball gig as a vehicle to capture the confusing ’90s when China reinvented itself as a new, exciting world in which it was permitted and glorious to get rich.
Starting with an overview of China’s political and philosophical history, the author succinctly describes how the collective mindset began to shift with the crush of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. DeWoskin arrived five years later to find that the hunger for freedom was still alive but subsumed by an arrangement between the leadership and the people. She says, "It was as if an unspoken compact had been reached between the government and its citizens: We do the politics the old way, you do your lifestyles any way you want."
This silent compact opened the floodgates of foreign investments, interdependent commercial ventures, and Western culture while raising a perturbing question among the Chinese: Can we enjoy all this prosperity and excitement and still maintain our spiritual and moral identity?
As DeWoskin develops the personality of the sexy soap opera diva who captivated viewers from the capital to the farthest regions of Tibet, she also makes friends with a host of characters in the world beyond the set. Using slices of the screenplay as counterpoint, the author talks honestly about the details of her own life. It is the day-to-day dramas swirling at the office, her own romantic entanglements, and the struggles of friends and colleagues that flesh out this entertaining and enlightening book. Does Jiexi find true love and emerge as the new wonder-woman of China? Stay tuned.
As she depicted hilariously and thoughtfully in her memoir, Rachel DeWoskin starred in "Foreign Babes in Beijing" and worked as a consultant in Beijing for five years before returning to the United States. She now divides her time between New York City and Beijing, teaching poetry and writing Chinese rap.