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Chinese Heroin(e)

Asian underground lit phenom debuts in US


What do Americans know about the lives of the people of modern-day China? Our culture flows into theirs without cease, but what do we know of theirs, and their lives?

Candy, a gracefully harrowing novel by Chinese author/concert promoter Mian Mian, won't tell you much about daily life in mainstream China. It will, however, give you a powerful insight into the lives of today's Chinese via a revealing segment of the country's population -- China's "lost generation" of apolitical teens and 20-somethings who have dropped out of government-controlled society and disappeared into scattered big-city subcultures of prostitution, organized crime and drugs. Drawn to the freedom offered by these outlaw areas, this strangely recognizable group of disaffected young people with rock & roll hearts and rotting livers spend their days and nights having unfulfilling sex, shooting heroin, and listening to American oldies like "I Can't Help Myself" by the Four Tops.

Though banned in her own country and labeled a "poster child for spiritual pollution," Mian Mian is heralded by Chinese youth as an original and authentic voice of her generation. She writes about the experience of drug addiction and the passage from youth to maturity with the addled perspicacity of someone who took exhaustive notes all the way down both hard roads.

The clearly semi-autobiographical Candy doesn't have much of a plot: teenage Chinese girl Hong runs away to vice-ridden Shenzhen, ekes out a living as a micro-mini clad nightclub singer performing Cantonese love songs, takes to drink and hard drugs, and falls into hopeless love with a young local pop sensation named Saining.

That's pretty much it. As Roger Ebert once observed about a movie about drug addicts, the lives of junkies are simply too episodic to carry a storyline. It's not like they're trying to do something as fixed and beckoning as trying to win one for the Gipper or graduate from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They're moving from fix to fix, from meal to meal, from day to day, goalless and drifting.

Candy reads more like the torrent of words a floundering soul spins out to remind herself who she is while she's on her way to one of two distinct and inevitable destinations: dying or becoming someone new. The novel is not so much about what Hong does, or what happens to her, as it is about who she becomes and what she gains and loses on the way.

But the novel takes place in modern China, after all, and delivers a fascinating postmodern exoticism. China, we learn, is a faraway place not only of SARS, Hong Kong, and the Silk Road, but of marijuana growing wild in the abandoned lots of Beijing, and of HIV sufferers so disenfranchised that most Chinese fear deportation just for being tested for the disease.

The novel is more than just a peep at one segment of modern-day China; it offers honesty and authenticity in its depiction of the experience of growing from childhood to adulthood. Star-crossed love is frequently one of the great passages of youth, and Hong's passion for Saining is suffused with a bruised truthfulness. Mian Mian's account of Hong's first orgasm, and of Hong's first deep draughts of love and sex, are so true to the universal experiences of youth that readers may recall with a pang the urgency, innocence and newness of their own teens and early 20s.

Just as some of Billie Holiday's biggest fans are supposedly disaffected suburban white girls blaring Lady Day into their headphones as the pillow soaks up their tears, so has Mian Mian (another artist, like Holiday, ravaged by the needle) found a core audience in disaffected youth. Mian Mian's is the darkly romantic voice of the universal struggle to be true to yourself and your deepest dreams while every day sinking deeper and deeper into the rule-infested quagmire of the adult world. It's a struggle every sensitive soul grapples with -- even, it seems, a world away in Guangdong province, wearing red lipstick and a shiny micro-mini, and passed out cold on the bathroom floor.

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