Chongqing in She, A Chinese

By a coincidence that some would call synchronicity I watched  Guo Xiaolu’s fine film She, A Chinese  (winner of the Locarno Golden Leopard in 2009)  just after reading this passage from the second volume (Birdless Summer, 1968) of Han Suyin’s autobiography:

Chungking {Now:  Chongqing} was phantasmagoria, a monster, brusque chimera, an unreal and thorough freak; a fortress where trees could not grow on the inch-thin soil covering the rock.  A city of squalor and filth, and with one of the most impossible climates on earth; a furnace in summer, in winter swallowed by unrelenting fog; and yet, for all its squalor, its rats, its misery, its desolation, its impossible cruelties, it was also magnificetly, raucously alive, palpitating with the solid triumph of its million people, whose sufferings seemed endless, whose courage, determination and forbearance towards gross injustice was the cindery mask over the flame that would one day devour all this structure of evil. (72-3)

In She, A Chinese Chonqing  plays a very different role. The film’s the story of the quest of a Mei, an unsentimentalized rural Chinese everywoman, for the consumer goods she reads about but can never hope to acquire in a village in Sichuan Province, where the film’s first section is set.

In the second ‘movement’  Mei goes to Chongqing, a gigantic city that was once part of Sichuan but is now an independent administrative entity – as the municipality has a population of just under 29, million, the Mayor is more important than some heads of state. Here the film pulls a sleight of hand: Mei falls in love with Spikey, a gangster, who like her dreams of migrating to the West, specifically to London, and his sudden violent death leaves her grieving but with the money to fulfil that dream.  When Mei first arrives in Chongqing the camera travels across a huge expanse of skyscrapers – the message is that this city is very different from the village where Mei grew up, that it is a key player in the rapid Chinese economic development that we read about so much in the newspapers!

View of Chaotianmen Docks on the Yangzi River

Night view from Jialing River cable Car

Indeed it is, and that’s where the film needs to trick us: no Chinese girl lucky enough to have inherited the huge trawl of ill-gotten gains acquired by her deceased gangster boyfriend needs to leave Chongqing to be able to buy any consumer item she chooses.

The people behind me aren’t just out taking the night air – they’re here to SHOP!

We were there late in the year – the Chinese Christmas is like the English  one, but without our beautiful old tradition of a Times article in late November in which an earnest cleric wonders if perhaps we haven’t sacrificed the true meaning of Christmas to a frenetic pursuit of consumption.

And interestingly Guo Xiaolu’s representation of Chongqing leaves out something that strikes most visitors, certainly foreign ones and I have reason to believe Chinese ones too: it’s a hilly city, and this has led to the growth of a profession I’ve never seen in any other Chinese urban centre:

My guess is that the film leaves them out because theirs is too much like the rural work of its first location.

And naturally it leaves out the tourist stuff:  

Huguang Guild Building

 Anyway, the ( thin) justification for Mei’s boyfriend’s refusal to buy any of the goods available in his city is that he’s saving avidly for that ticket to London – for a gangster he shows a truly middle-class talent for self-denial, not possessing even the mobile phone that almost all young Chinese buy as soon as they have any spare cash at all and which he in particular needs in his nefarious line of business as an enforcer.

The other thing about  the representation of Chongqing only becomes clear when Mei signs up for a tour group visiting the city of her dreams and jumps ship at Greenwich: it’s shown as monocultural, entirely Han Chinese. There certainly aren’t many obvious Westerners there, but given it’s location in the south west there must be some at least of what in China are called ‘minorities’.

 It’s when we get to the film’s third location we see that Guo Xiaolu wants to point a contrast, and I like the way it handles what is portrayed as London’s all-pervading multiculturalism.

 But before I discuss that a word about the passage from Han Suyin I quoted earlier: by 1968 she’d turned against the Nationalists – partly because of the bigoted Nationalist army officer she’d married – and seems to be best described as a critical (sometimes very critical) supporter of the Communists. Chongqing was the wartime capital of the Nationalist Government, so she’s keen to bring out all that’s worst in it, while paying a tribute to the Chinese people’s resistance to the Japanese and looking forward (in both senses) to the Revolution. Of course, things did change dramatically between the late 1930s and the late 1990s, but that’s not the whole story. It never is; no representation ever gives us ‘things as they are’.

After a brief marriage to a decent (but aging) English ‘white’, Mei moves in with  a slightly oppressive (but decent) Indian Muslim, and is told by an African-Caribbean doctor she’s pregnant just as that relationship is breaking up.

 The final scene carries much of the film’s meaning: Mei returns to the (presumably) Essex seaside, where her husband took her to introduce her to his past – and to a place that stands as a symbol of traditional Englishness. She’s been contemplating a return to China, and the sea is one way of getting there, but she opts not to take it. Instead, with a Chinese-Indian ‘seed’ inside her, she decides to try to make it in London. She hasn’t found it to be the place of riches she’d expected, but she has found it’s a city where an Asian woman might make a go of it and while doing so bring into the world a baby whose ethnicity, she can reasonably believe, won’t be a bar to acceptance and achievement. And the seaside setting reminds us that both mother and child have the traditions of England at their disposal, as well as those of China and India.

 The film’s message is much more upbeat than some have suggested, and I hope it’s correct.

( For a gloomier reading see


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One response to “Chongqing in She, A Chinese

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