Shanghai Girls Gone Copy-Catty

What does it say about the state of literature in China when writers are so desperate for readers that they resort to copycatting even the most superficial aspects of another author's book: the title and cover art?
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In a culture not especially heralded for its innovation nor respect of intellectual property rights, mofang (copycatting) has become China's ultimate cliché. But what does it say about the state of literature when writers are so desperate for readers that they resort to copycatting even the most superficial aspects of another author's book: the title and cover art?

Our exposé on the ethics of enTITLEment begins back in late 1990s Shanghai, when a highly publicized catfight was brewing between Chinese wildchild writers Mian Mian and Wei Hui, with the former accusing the later of plagiarizing La La La, a then-unprecedented collection of true stories about drugs and decadence.

Though Mian Mian was ultimately proven to be the victor in terms of talent, the spoils went to Wei Hui, whose sexier albeit shallower book received the lioness' share of sales in the western market under the 2001 title Shanghai Baby.

"The China critics panned Shanghai Baby outright and labeled Wei Hui as just one of those pretty chick-lit authors using the lower half of her body to write," reflects Bruce Humes, the official English-language translator of Shanghai Baby. "But many also enjoy the book for what it communicates about Shanghai: modern, fun-loving, brand-conscious, sex-on-demand."

Though it was officially banned in China, the notoriety of Shanghai Baby nonetheless set a perilous precedent for the popularization of "spiritual pollution." Soon the shelves of Xinhua were saturated with a scandalous succession of copycat naughty Chinese authoresses with tritely titled books.

"Beijing Doll often reminds people of a previous bestseller, Shanghai Baby. Why do you use such a title?" Shenzhen Daily asked author Chun Sue in an interview about her risqué coming-of-age autobiography that turned her into a 2004 Time magazine cover girl.

"Sometimes we are like the products on a production line," the young writer candidly replied, admitting that her publisher changed the title "at the last minute" to create a media frenzy.

Chinese literature may have matured in recent years, including three back-to-back Man Asian prizes, but unfortunately for the Sino-literati, its "bad girl" genre of books remains as provocative -- and petulant -- as ever.

In the spring of 2010, exactly one year after veteran author Lisa See published her seventh novel, Shanghai Girls, to critical acclaim, a nearly identically-titled Shanghai Girls: Uncensored & Unsentimental began to appear in Shanghai bookshops.

Content-wise, there was no contest. See's novel was a mature and meticulously-researched historical work about two starlet sisters' fall from grace, whereas the new Shanghai Girls was a 132-page gold-digging guide supposedly narrated by a socialite named Lan Lan.

"When she is not flying around in private jets at the invitation of her many powerful friends," read Lan Lan's bio, "she loves to trade gossip and investment tips with other Shanghai girls."

The tongue-in-cheek ribaldry and contrived controversy could be forgiven, but the sheer unoriginality of Lan Lan's title, which might have been construed as an unapologetic attempt to piggyback on Lisa See's best-selling status, made it difficult.

In 2011, a third Shanghai Girl book hit the scene, this time self-published by aspiring author Vivian Yang. The plot, about a student who is lulled into a love triangle with a Chinese and a foreigner, was seen by some readers as derivative of Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby.

Bookshelf browsers were further confounded not just by the title, but by Yang's appropriation of a vintage Shanghai pin-up girl for her book cover -- practically indistinguishable from Lisa See's cover.

Lisa See, currently completing her latest novel -- unsurprisingly if not disappointingly titled China Dolls -- in an email is casually dismissive of Vivian Yang's choice of covers: "Well, there are only so many of those posters out there. The images are so wonderful. It doesn't surprise me that publishers want to use them."

Yang's novel, however, is set in 1984, but her cover design (a smiling Chinese girl, in red short-shorts, riding a bicycle) was also the exact same picture used for the 2007 reprint of Carl Crow's '30s-era expat autobiography Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom.

To be fair, old hai pai (Shanghai style) artwork, originally used in advertisements commissioned by Crow himself, are now in the public domain, free for anyone to use. Yet as Foreign Devils publisher Graham Earnshaw of Earnshaw Books in Shanghai, points out: "It is possible that Yang never saw our book. But the precision of the crop, so close to ours, strongly suggests otherwise."

In her own defense, Vivian Yang claims that she is in fact the original Shanghai girl, as her book was first self-published over a decade ago, then re-issued with revisions (including a new cover) last year. "As such, I couldn't possibly have foreseen in 2001 that Lisa See in 2009 would have come out with a novel with an extremely similar title to that of mine."

Indeed, even in the digital age, when entire libraries are literally at our fingertips, happenstance is bound to happen. This writer should know: my own book China: Portrait of a People shares similar titles with three other books, including The Chinese: Portrait of a People, China, Portrait of a Country, and China: A Portrait of the People, Place and Culture.

In retrospect, I am the first to concede that it was not a very imaginative title, yet at the time of conceptualization it sounded pretty cool, as I was completely unaware of the others (two which are also photography books, and also published in 2008).

It is also important to remember that, as Chun Sue's own experiences illustrate, publishers, not authors, make the final decisions when it comes to a book's title and artwork.

And, as Shanghai Baby translator Humes profoundly recalls once being asked: "If the word 'Shanghai' weren't on the cover, or in the novel's title, or in the book itself, would anybody have ever bought the book?"

We can therefore extend the benefit of the doubt to all the Shanghai girls, babies, dolls, etc. out there for their bookalikes, and even for their catty copycatting, though one hopes that, for the sake of the genre, China's banal book title formula of [CITY NAME] + [GENDER-SPECIFIC SOBRIQUET] will soon fall out of fashion.

Tom Carter is the author of the unimaginatively titled China: Portrait of a People.




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