Female migrants' tales of hard life in the city

SINGAPORE - Like millions of women from China's villages, Hunan native Sheng Keyi left home for a better life in boomtown Shenzhen.

Unlike most who end up in assembly lines, hair salons or KTV parlours, the high-school graduate had an easier time doing office jobs.

Nevertheless, by the time she left Shenzhen after eight years in 2002, she had seen enough to write Northern Girls, or Bei Mei, as female migrant workers in the southern city are called.

Published in English by Penguin last year, the book won Sheng a nomination for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.

While the novel was a socially realistic story about the perils that befall female migrants in Shenzhen, Sheng, now 39, said she did not do research and relied on her imagination and reading instead.

She was inspired by fellow Chinese author Yu Hua and American novelist William Faulkner when she started to write the novel.

"I felt I had a lot of things I wanted to write about. Northern Girls came about naturally. It was as if the character of Qian Xiaohong was leading me," she told SundayLife! recently over tea in an expatriate area in Beijing.

The heroine of Northern Girls, Qian Xiaohong, is a spirited and sexually liberated migrant worker who keeps her head up in the face of indignities and material temptations.

Sheng saw her as a woman who rebels against societal mores to pursue freedom, but some Chinese readers have criticised Qian and called her sexually wanton.

"Qian Xiaohong is actually very pure. She will never use her body to gain benefits.

"Hers is a rebellion towards society though she is not conscious of doing so," said Sheng, who based the character loosely on someone from her village in central Hunan province.

She is the youngest of four children. Her father worked in a local office overseeing river navigation, while her mother stayed home. Writer Shelly Bryant, who translated Northern Girls into English, said Sheng has an amazing sense of humour. "She puns and plays, and she is very funny," she said.

Bryant, who is also translating Sheng's latest novel, Death Fugue, said her writing covers a fairly broad range.

"It can be bouncy and fast-paced, like Northern Girls, or much edgier, like Death Fugue," she told SundayLife!.

Sheng is sometimes compared to Wei Hui, who also wrote about female sexual emancipation in her 1999 bestseller Shanghai Baby.

But Sheng said she is not a popular or pretty-faced author like Wei. "I am not the type who sells a lot of books. I want to create good works."

Sheng, who has written six novels, prefers to write stories that probe human complexities and conflicts.

She is now working on a companion piece to Northern Girls, also about the harsh realities faced by a group of women in China, and it is likely to be completed next year.

She has no regrets about not winning greater fame or riches.

"I am doing what I want to do and I express my views of the world. If there's resonance with readers, of course it's good but it's something outside my work."

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