Modern-day Beijing is very different from the sheltered society it used to be. Times have changed, and so have the citizens of China. Since the revolution in Tiananmen Square at the end of the 1980s, more freedoms have been afforded, allowing for a social evolution of sorts. This is the premise of The People’s Republic of Desire, which follows four modern Beijing women: Beibei, a thirty-something president of a PR firm; Lulu, who is addicted to a man who will not commit; and CC and Niuniu, who are returnees.
“Returnee” is the term for someone who after emigrating to the U.S. returns to live in China. Beijing is full of such returnees, many of whom have brought back their new, Americanized values and knowledge of pop-culture, only to impart it upon their friends and family. The result is a Westernized society preoccupied with things like celebrity gossip, sex, and plastic surgery.
The novel is told through the voice of Niuniu, the youngest of the four women. Niuniu works as a journalist; this is very consistent with her character, because she offers up observant yet unemotional and impartial commentary on the people and situations she is confronted with. At times this is tedious, like the several chapters devoted to the character Colorful Clouds, a woman in her forties who thinks she has achieved the American dream by marrying well. Other times, Niuniu’s observations are funny and entertaining, like her retelling of the girl’s night out to a disco and the sleazy guy who tries to pick all of them up.
If you decide to read The People’s Republic of Desire, be aware of the type of book it actually is. Its bright pink cover claim of it as “a cross between Sex and the City and The Joy Luck Club” suggests a culturally enlightened form of chick-lit. Yet this book follows few of the standards of chick-lit. There is more narration about secondary characters and aspects of Chinese society than there is delving into the lives and emotional states of the four main characters. This is neither good nor bad, but entirely up to personal taste. Annie Wang is a skilled writer, and she delivers a complex perspective on an interesting topic. But if you are looking for a quick, page-turner sort of read, this is not the book for you.
Decide to read it for the descriptions and insight into modern-day Beijing, and you will be happy with your choice.