Trapped in Shenzhen
Folktales from a hyper-modern 21st-century city
I first saw Shenzhen in 2006, gazing through the window of a bus, driving past miles of medium-rise apartments shrouded in a smog of pollution with nary a piece of greenery in sight. It was a place I could not wait to leave. Until 1980, when the Chinese government declared Shenzhen a Special Economic Zone, it was a quiet fishing village on the border of mainland China, abutting Hong Kong’s New Territories. Since the designation Shenzhen has become China’s fastest growing city with a population of more than ten million. It is now a major metropolitan centre, a commercial and industrial magnet where everyone is from somewhere else. “Just like here in Canada,” says a character in Shenzheners by Xue Yiwei.
Xue Yiwei is an award-winning Chinese writer of 16 books. He has lived in Montreal since 2002, when he moved there from China to study at the Université de Montréal. Shenzheners, a collection of short stories, translated by Darryl Sterk, is the first to appear in English. This collection offers the reader a bleak vision of contemporary industrialized China. Although a character in the first story compares Shenzhen to Canada, the comparison does not hold. When my parents came to Canada they were, like many immigrants, filled with hope and believed that their sacrifice would result in a better life for their children. The people in Shenzheners do not share that hope, or, if they ever did, it has been destroyed. In fact, they feel trapped. These are not stories of solitude, but of gut-wrenching loneliness and the devastation that ensues when one human being is unable to connect with another. And in the last story, The Taxi Driver, the protagonist decides to leave the city and return to his remaining family in another part of China.
In each story, Xue Yiwei focuses on a specific event in the lives of his characters and how it irrevocably changes and often damages their lives. In the first story, “A Country Girl,” a Canadian woman floats through life, until one day she boards a train in Montreal and sits beside a Chinese man from Shenzhen, who is reading the same Paul Auster book in Chinese translation that she is reading in English. During the five-hour ride, she experiences a profound connection that will haunt her for the rest of her life. In another story, a student is fascinated by a street peddler, but after witnessing the peddler’s mistreatment and beating by a group of fellow students, he becomes contemptuous of the peddler and of himself, and ends up seeking refuge in the abstract world of physics. When a teacher shares a love of poetry with a student, events take a dark turn. The contents of a mysterious package ruin a man’s marriage even before it begins. After marrying a man she perceives to be perfect for her, a woman is devastated by his infidelity and destroys herself in the course of her revenge. A musical prodigy, whose future is destroyed by his teacher’s depravity, remains silent and decides to retreat into a life of mediocrity rather than face the demands of his brilliance. A mother’s obsession with a stranger ruins her marriage and prevents her from connecting with her own child. At the end of a work shift, a taxi driver enters a pizzeria and relives the death of his wife and daughter.
In each of these stories the life of the main character is altered by a single act or decision. Often the event is a tragic one, and one from which there is no escape or resolution, leaving the character in a state of hopeless limbo.
Of these nine stories I found The Father to be the most powerful. This story begins with the death of a child’s mother. During the process of his father’s grief, the child discovers that the father whom he has always seen as aloof and reserved was not always so. He learns that a single act of cowardice and indecision (which also involved his mother) had changed his father forever. Everyone associated with his father since has unknowingly suffered from the ripple effect of that trauma. At the end of this story the reader is given the faintest glimmer of hope when the child places a hand on his father’s knee.
Shenzheners has been compared to James Joyce’s Dubliners. I see little similarity. Shenzheners is a powerful book in its own right, without a need for comparison. In Dubliners, Joyce’s intimate, lyrical prose brings to life with great detail and compassion the lives of the inhabitants of early 20th century Dublin. Joyce takes the reader into homes and down streets and allows us to eavesdrop on conversation between his characters. By contrast, the prose in Shenzheners is unadorned. For the most part, the translation by Darryl Sterk, an Edmonton-born Mandarin Chinese translator living in Taiwan, serves these stories well. However, I did wonder about the occurrence of “capacious prospects” five times in the first story. And since it was never clear to me whether this was an attempt at irony, it just stuck out.
By being so spare, these nine stories in fact have a strange folktale quality. The characters have no names, are only known as the teacher, the pedlar, big sister, mother, father, by a pronoun. And with the exception Father and Mother in “The Father,” the characters do not even have the benefit of a capital letter in their monikers. The stories have little sense of place, and it is only when reading the last one and its descriptions of traffic and crowding did I feel that I was in a bustling modern city. Instead, we are told about a park, a river, a row of trees, a room, but not much more. By being minimal in his descriptions and leaving places and especially characters without names, Xue Yiwei creates anonymity and reinforces the theme of alienation. Indeed, these stories are not folktales: they are not allegories or parables; the characters are not archetypes whose actions might provide a moral guide to living. The reader does not close the book with a sigh of satisfaction. The writer goes straight to the bone; everything else is superfluous.
This is not an easy collection and Xue Yiwei’s pessimistic vision of life is often hard to swallow. What he does, though, is shine an unflinching light on the lives of people in contemporary China, and, in doing so, questions the price that China is paying for this “modern” society—a question that China (and perhaps all of us) ignores at its peril.