Foreign Babes in Beijing is Rachel DeWoskin’s account of her life as a foreigner in the Chinese capital in the 90s. As DeWoskin is both a perceptive writer and an active participant in Beijing life, her memoir presents an engaging perspective on modern China. What truly makes DeWoskin’s memoir such a fascinating piece of non-fiction writing is, however, the very particular vantage point from which she views Beijing: DeWoskin went to China to work for an American PR company but ended up starring in a Chinese television drama viewed by an audience of six hundred million.
The TV show itself, from which DeWoskin’s memoir draws its title, tells the story of two foreign girls who visit Beijing and fall in love with local men. The most interesting aspect of DeWoskin’s unusual acting career is the parallels that emerge between the struggles of the fictional characters depicted in the show and the difficulties faced by DeWoskin and her fellow laowai as they attempt to navigate life in a city racing towards modernity. At the show’s heart is the relationship between the two American protagonists and their Chinese boyfriends. This simple premise is complicated by the political ramifications involved in depicting cross-cultural relationships, especially in a country which only recently opened up to the outside world. The depiction of Asian women in Western culture has been the subject of scrutiny recently (for example, see Rachel Rostad‘s take on Harry Potter‘s Cho Chang), so I was curious to learn how Chinese writers would handle the representation of Western women. The writers attempted to subvert the Hollywood model: ‘My role,’ DeWoskin says, ‘was to play the exotic, mysterious femme fatale, relieving Eastern women momentarily of that chore.’ The representation of the foreign girls in the show is complicated even further by the fact that the series was scripted by Chinese writers for a Chinese audience, and consequently presented the Chinese view of a foreigner’s view of Beijing; its primary focus was the espousal of a particular blend of patriotism and melodrama, rather than documentary realism.
Even if memoirs aren’t your thing, it’s worth watching the show itself. It’s hard to imagine something quite so cheesy attracting six hundred million viewers!