Forbidden city

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 February, 2009, 12:00am

At first sight, Irene Yip Oi-lin seems more cute than controversial. When we meet at the Kubrick bookstore in Yau Ma Tei the unassuming 30-year-old smiles sweetly and then explains her interest in shopping in her lullaby soft voice.

Yip is so demure when describing her taste in the old handbags that she says help express her individuality, that it's hard to believe she also writes explicit, erotic stories about the innermost, often darkest desires of Hong Kong's 'office ladies'.

When we eventually change the subject of conversation to sex, Yip reveals the hint of an independent author who is willing to breach social taboos around Hong Kong's office water coolers.

'Every writer has the mission to speak for readers about the things that are unspeakable to most people, but will strike a chord with everyone - experiences and emotions that everybody shares,' she says.

Besides, sex needs to be discussed, she says.

'You don't do it with everyone, only with your partner,' says Yip, who refuses to discuss her own love life. 'However, because it is something so personal, one often feels lonely regarding one's sexual situation: you don't know how much is too much and how long is too long. When I try to discuss sex with my friends they often give me a funny look.'

Yet Yip is used to raising eyebrows on personal issues. A regular contributor to the literary pages of newspapers and magazines since secondary school, she wrote her first erotic short stories for her own website in 2003, two years after graduating as a Chinese and translation graduate from Polytechnic University.

Frustrated in love, exhausted by long working hours and disappointed by her meagre pay as a customer services officer, she channelled her dissatisfactions into a series of erotic short stories that drew heavily on her own work and sexual experiences. 'I want to write stories about people, particularly [those] about relationships that are not purely fictional or fantasy,' explains Yip, who also says she's a fan of erotic fiction writer Anais Nin.

Encouraged by readers' responses, in August 2006 she launched a weekly column of 1,200-character erotic stories which ran for a few months in Sing Pao Daily News.

Yip's following grew when she compiled her stories into a book, The Bosom Script, which became a best-seller at the 2007 Hong Kong Book Fair. The following year Yip consolidated her reputation for erotic fiction, with stories ranging from relationship melancholy to blatant sex in her second anthology, Men and Dogs.

Published by 29s and Kubrick, Yip's novels fall into the genre known as 'I-novel' in Japanese literature, which is a form of fiction based on the lives of real people or the author's own experiences.

Yip's tales tap latent, often unspeakable thoughts of Hong Kong's nine-to-fivers. 'K', which opens The Bosom Script, portrays the indolence and love life of a university graduate who struggles to find an ideal job and boyfriend. In 'Skin', from Men and Dogs, Yip draws on her memories of being aroused when a male colleague touched the back of her neck.

Critics say Yip's no-nonsense plots strike a chord with many young female readers. 'Her delicate writing delves into the emotional state of young working women today ... particularly their entrapment and boredom at work or in love,' says poet and screenwriter Lau Chi-wan. 'Many friends of mine have similar experiences and her books resonate with them. She truly writes from a feminine point of view.'

Fleurs des Lettres editor and literary critic Tang Ching-kin agrees. Many educated women in their 20s and 30s spend 'a large part of their lives confined in an office', he says. 'Their work experience constitutes a large portion of their lives. So although Yip writes from her personal experience, she is also touching on the collective experience of many young women in Hong Kong.'

Tang adds that unlike mainland 'beauty writers' such as Wei Hui, author of Shanghai Baby, and former sex blogger Mu Zimei, who have a penchant for depicting women as restless hedonists, Yip paints young Hong Kong working women as they are: tired and bored nine-to-fivers with unsatisfying work and unfulfilling sex.

'Chinese society likes to make a big fuss about sex, which is in fact just a part of daily life,' Tang says. 'Yip portrays a Hong Kong woman's sex life as it is, and that has to be appreciated.'

Tang says Yip also refuses to politicise sex issues, nor does she oversimplify women's sexuality.

Yip's plots look beyond the erotic and into personal feelings. In 'Heat', from Men and Dogs, she writes about an 'office lady' who is unable to feel the summer heat as she spends most of the day in an air-conditioned office, struggling to comprehend the suicide of a female colleague. 'Society expects women to be either ultra-conservative or very sexually open and have plenty of outrageous sex,' says Yip. 'I don't want to fit myself into either category. I just want to talk about the process of ordinary women pursuing their desires, and the content doesn't even have to include sex.'

Yip admits her 'erotica' label is more of a gimmick to attract readers. Her intention is to portray the alienation of office women with their unfulfilled desires in work relationships, due to the social stigma and conventions imposed on them, she says.

'People often perceive an office lady as a flower vase, one who carries handbags, wears high-heeled shoes and works a routine nine-to-five job,' she says.

'To be an office lady implies you lack intelligence and are shallow-minded,' says Yip, who now works as a writer and translator for a business-to-business website.

The emotional and intellectual needs of office women are being suppressed or ignored, she says, explaining how many are 'unconscious about their situation and will take whatever society imposes on them'.

Yip says she hopes her books can help these women improve their understanding of themselves, just as her writing helped her to learn about her own desires.

'When people talk about erotic desires they immediately associate it with making love or reproduction. But I think it involves a lot more than that. It is about wanting something - be it a man or an object - badly,' Yip says.

'You are desperate for something and you work hard for it. But what if in the end, which is often the case, you still can't get what you want? Some people will let go, but most people will not - and that's why so many women in society are unhappy,' she says.

'My stories are about exploring the roots of these desires,' Yip says. 'Many people are so involved in the process of pursuing their desires that they forget to ask themselves why they are doing so in the first place.'

Kwan Mun-nam, the editor of literary magazine Novel Wind, says Yip's feminine writing of sex and the daily lives of office women is 'daring but natural' and that her work represents a new style in Chinese erotic writing.

'Traditionally Chinese writers - from the mainland, Hong Kong or Taiwan - focus more on the upper half of the human body [the mind] and don't pay enough attention to the flesh. Why are we being so unfair towards the lower half of our body? ' says Kwan, whose magazine in its next issue will feature Yip's new piece, Unveiling, about a woman discussing the length of her boyfriend's penis as well as the sensation of shaving her pubic hair.

Women are generally more sensitive and have a deeper understanding of sex and gender relations in contemporary times than previously, says Kwan.

'In the past, Chinese erotic literature, such as The Golden Lotus, was written by men,' he says. 'Now more women are penning erotica and in a sense it is a subversion of this tradition.'

Yip has also become a target of ridicule. Some online readers criticise her looks while others pan her work as saucy, but Yip says such comments reflect attitudes that erotica is about male fantasies rather than a form of female expression.

'Do women need to look very sexy or have bouncy breasts to pen erotica?' asks Yip. 'People still feel writing erotica is a sin and not having a sexy appearance is another. To them a woman not appearing sexy and writing erotica is therefore committing a great sin.'

Unfazed by her detractors, Yip says she will continue to write erotic short stories online and in print. 'The key is whether you can put security aside and adopt an alternative choice in life,' she says. 'I believe a sense of security and happiness cannot coexist.'