Chinese romance seen from the inside
According to Toronto writer Dan K. Woo, romantic relationships in today’s China are negotiated with convenience in mind. Instead of dreaming of Prince Charming, a young woman might be more concerned with finding a husband who can offer her an escape from his family’s home, and a young man might be looking for a hardworking wife rather than a classic beauty.
In his first collection of short stories, TaobaoWoo offers an insightful look at dating and marriage from the personal perspective of a young person who has lived in modern China and Hong Kong.
Woo’s family moved from Hong Kong to Canada in the 1970s. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Toronto, he worked in China and Hong Kong for a decade. Taobao is the sequel to his novel, Learn to love China.
By selecting Taobao as the title of his novel, Woo refers to one of the two giant Chinese online sales companies. He also uses the name, which translates to “treasure”, throughout his stories as his characters purchase and use consumer items they purchased from the company.
His book is divided into three parts: Chastity, Courtship and Conquest. It features characters from different parts of China to highlight the specific cultural differences that rural people display, even though they now live in a huge city like Beijing.
In The wedding market, a young woman longs to stay in Shanghai but cannot afford the high cost of living in the city. She returns to her family home and her mother pesters her to dress properly so she can attract a husband. Her mother persuades her to visit a friend’s son in hopes of forming a relationship, but the daughter finds him repulsive and fears she will never find someone to love. “She knew her mother loved and cared for her, and only wanted the best outcome,” Woo writes. “If only she could put a name to this affliction, this emptiness in her heart, she would feel better.” Finally, she accompanies her mother to a local park where other parents are trying to find mates for their sons and daughters. When she sees a pretty woman participating in a matchmaking activity, she agrees to participate.
Woo’s stories reflect the result of the old Chinese government’s “one child per family” policy, which led to more men than women. In The physics problemthe narrator says that there is a rumor that Shanghai was the only city in the whole country where parents were happier to have a daughter than a son, because they could earn money from the marriage of a girl: “Bride prices had gone up because of gender imbalance, especially in a rich and populous city like Shanghai.
The narrator meets a beautiful young woman who claims she is unable to have sex with a man, even though she has had six boyfriends. Accepting the challenge, he attempts to overcome his fear, but encounters a bizarre physical reaction that sends the couple to the hospital where they seek a medical explanation.
Many Woo characters make decisions about relationships based on what they know will work best in a practical sense rather than following their true desires. This pattern is evident in Brothersthe last story in his collection.
Jade comes from a very poor family, but her physical beauty attracts a pair of brothers. They both want to get married, but neither can afford to keep a wife. The older brother gets the idea of sharing a wife with his brother and approaches Jade. She realizes that her only escape from her family’s poverty is to marry and that her parents need her dowry to send her younger brother to school.
She agrees to marry the older brother, and her marriage to the younger takes place in a secret ceremony. The trio eventually found a way to get along and have a harmonious, albeit unconventional, home.
Woo details the misery of urban slums, where abandoned buildings and underground tunnels are used to house the city’s poorest residents. While the riches of an online merchant like Taobao appeal to everyone, for many, daily life is a struggle filled with trade-offs.
Andrea Geary is a freelance writer.
St. Vital Community Correspondent
Andrea Geary is a community correspondent for St. Vital and a former community reporter for The Headliner.
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