Lust, Exhaustion

I am in Shanghai this past Monday evening, riding a taxi to my pal Shanghai Vixen‘s fabulous French concession flat, when suddenly Tang Wei’s bottom and Tony Leung’s most private parts appear, for a split second, within inches of my nose.

Did somebody inject a hallucinogen into my siu lung bao? No, I’m not having a erotic hallucination, or a deja vu of my recent viewing of Lust, Caution. Capitalism is the culprit. (In Shanghai, every morning at six am, the minarets blast out Deng’s call to prayer: “It is better to get rich than sleep!”) Anyway, nowadays in Shanghai, there’s no escape from commercialism’s tentacles. Most taxis come equipped with those annoying seat-back video screens: as the flag on the meter drops, the ads begin rolling inches from your eyeballs. Push the button for “sound off” and it just gets louder.

The Shanghai taxi-seat ad trailer for Lust, Caution is a montage of the hottest 20 seconds culled from the  12 minutes of bedroom scenes that will almost certainly be cut when the Chinese censors finish editing Ang Lee’s film for mainland release. But in Shanghai, the heavy hand of censorship is a breeze for any film aficionado to circumvent. All you have to do is flag a cab.

What a difference from my Hong Kong Lust, Caution experience! Here, the film is rated “Category III”, meaning anyone who is over 18 is allowed to buy a ticket and see the unexpurgated original version in the comfort and privacy and freedom of their local theater. That’s in theory–in practice, the act of going to see this film made me feel as naughty as a bad Catholic school girl being hauled off to the nuns for a skirt-length check. First, at the top of the escalator to the IFC Palace Cinema, the ticket collector made a point of warning me “Must turn off mobile” as he ripped my stub in half. Then, outside the door to the screening room, where two guards were stationed, I had to submit to a search of my bag.

I sat down in the very cushy IFC seat and tried to relax. But when the lights went down, two additional security guys with flashlights began to patrol up and down the aisles. Were they searching for hidden video cameras, perverts, or both? The guards stood sentinel at the front and back of the theatre for most of the first hour of the film. And just as Tony ripped off Tang Wei’s cheong sam, they ripped into action again, vigilantly roaming the aisles, flashlights swinging.

You could shrug it off, as some of my Hong Kong friends did, and say that this surveillance was all about catching pirates. Still, I’ve been to lots and lots of movies in Hong Kong, many of them Category III, and I’ve never experienced this kind of hyper-patrolling. It made me feel uneasy, adolescent, and as the film unfolded I couldn’t stop feeling self conscious. Were the guards watching for my reactions? I carefully repressed any, and composed a poker face which I held throughout the show. After I walked out of the theater, it occured to me that the Hong Kong Flashlight Patrol, quite unintentionally, added an aesthetic dimension to the film that I would never have experienced if I’d seen it in New York. Watching Lust, Caution in Hong Kong, I was made to feel as stifled, encumbered and repressed as any character in Eileen Chang’s short stories. I’m sure Eileen would have approved.

Speaking of Cheung Ngoi Ling…

I went to Shanghai on business and didn’t have much free time. And I don’t usually do sightseeing things like make pilgrimages to the houses of famous authors. Someone had given me a copy of a book with pictures of notable sights in Shanghai, and one of them was Eileen Chang’s old apartment. The old art deco style building stayed in my mind, and as I was on my way to the Jingan Temple, crossing Changde Road, I spotted a building that looked just like it. So I got closer, and sure enough, over the dreary, neglected entryway:

the local community board had placed a commemorative plaque in 2005. Chang lived here in the late 1930’s and early 40s, while she wrote “The Golden Cangue” and her most famous short stories:

But we were talking about sex, weren’t we? I actually thought the sex in Lust, Caution was more tragic and upsetting than it was erotic. It wasn’t tittilating or a turn on, and it didn’t warrant a surveillance blitz. But that’s Hong Kong for you. Sex in the city is…well, I don’t think I have ever been in a metropolis with less frisson. And I’ve been in a lot of cities that are pretty low on the heat scale–London, Singapore, Boston. In Hong Kong, there is no public flirting. Zero. You can walk the streets all day and night, and not catch a single eye, feel an instant of zing. (When I go back to New York, it takes me weeks to readjust to the alternative universe of open sexual vibes). And when the police force ditched those beautifully cut pea-green colonial-era uniforms that made every officer, even the geekiest guy, look like Andy Lau, Hong Kong lost its last little drop of public va va voom.

There is an upside, a big one, to Hong Kong’s negative frisson–it is a remarkably safe and gentle place to be a single woman. I’ve never been harassed on the street here, and I think nothing of walking around alone at 3am. Nowhere else in the world can I feel as free on the streets as a man. But there’s a downside, too. Living here can feel monkish at times–there’s lots of life’s energy in the air, but there’s something missing in the mix, something that you can’t quite put your finger on. I’ve lost several good friends to Hong Kong’s dry asexuality. As my friend Sunny (gay, Asian) said, as he fled to Madrid after 10 years in Asia’s World City. “I want to be in a place where there’s a chance I might actually have sex.”

Of course he exaggerates. Indeed, I have it on very, very good authority that sex occasionally does occur in Hong Kong. (I was surprised to find out that several of my 50-something pals here are the children of concubines, second or third wives.) But, like the passion in Eileen Chang’s short stories, sex in Hong Kong is nuanced, hidden, repressed. When I first started coming to Hong Kong seven years ago, I thought this was a Chinese thing–Confucian modesty, shyness and all those other cliches. But then I went to Beijing, to Shanghai, and the frisson on the streets hit me like a truck. Sorry, Confucius, the boys of Shanghai have really strayed from the path. Eyes connect and hold the gaze a little longer than necessary. Heads turn. Eyebrows raise. It’s almost like being back home in New York. Indeed, it may be better.

“Shanghai men are like Shanghai food–sweet and oily,” chuckles Ms. Vixen as we sip gin martinis in her salon. In my honor, Ms. V has invited her Hong Kong born and bred pal Karen over for drinks. Still a bit shocked from my passionate encounter with Tony Leung in the Shanghai taxi, our conversation naturally turns to a discussion of the Lust versus Caution ratio of the men in our respective cities. Do Shanghai men make the first move or wait for you to take action? (Answer: they move. But you should assume they have a wife or girlfriend–or both!–already in the picture)

And this question, to
Karen siu je: Should I take it personally when a Hong Kong guy arrives at my apartment after midnight, immediately turns on the Chelsea vs. Bolton football match, then falls dead asleep on the couch at half-time?

Karen rolls her eyes at my naivete. “That is typical behavior for a Hong Kong man.”

And…I try to phrase this delicately..what about the Hong Kong guy’s, um, lack of interest.

“Again, this is all very typical. How many hours does a Hong Kong guy work? Ten, eleven, twelve hours a day? There is nothing unusual about his behavior. He is exhausted. You are lucky that he is snoring on your couch.”

And there you have it. Unbridled capitalism  (plus a dollop of income inequality, cronyism, and an overheated work ethic) has succeeded in creating an overworked society in which the restrained, repressed relations between the sexes surpass even Confucius’ wildest dreams. I have a suggestion for Ang Lee: come to Hong Kong to film your sequel. Lust, Exhaustion.


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