Bare with me

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am

Mina Hanbury-Tenison has two sons, aged eight and 11. While they are aware their mother has written a book, 'they're not allowed to read it', she says on a quick trip to Hong Kong from her home in Shanghai.

Shanghai is the focus of her risque read, a cheeky, humorous or, alternatively, entirely offensive 'guide' to how to snag men in order to get rich and then richer and go up in the world.

Shanghai Girls: Uncensored and Unsentimental has generated plenty of controversial press on the mainland. It's had women creased up in laughter and annoyed some of the husbands of the author's friends to such an extent that at least one refuses to speak to her.

Why would he be offended? Here's a snippet from the section on 'Starter boyfriends': 'A starter boyfriend is not necessarily the guy you would want to take home to your parents or be seen dating by other men, especially by the ones you might want to marry.

'A starter boyfriend can help you practise your English or other skills you want to learn. He can also give you clothes, apartments, cars and jewellery that you can use to leverage up your status ...

'What's the trade-off? Sex, and sometimes with guys who are much older and physically unattractive.'

Historically there's nothing new in this book. Women have been getting together with older and less attractive men for material gain since time began.

Hanbury-Tenison says the book is her tribute to the Shanghai women she has met and their pragmatic attitude to love. But it's meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

It's based on anecdotes from Shanghai women she came to know after arriving in the city in 1996.

Hanbury-Tenison was born Mina Choi in Seoul, the daughter of a North Korean couple. Her father was a Methodist minister.

'He's passed away,' she says. 'He would have hated the book.'

After graduating in literature from Yale University, she moved to Los Angeles to try out as a Hollywood scriptwriter but later moved with her British husband, an agent in fine art, to Shanghai.

When not writing about Shanghai girls, Hanbury-Tenison writes a business diary for the Financial Times as well as a foreigner's view for Oriental Weekly.

Amid the debate on 'tiger mothers' who push their offspring to extremes, one of Hanbury-Tenison's column topics recently was that children have no social life.

'The amount of homework they have makes it very difficult to have any time to play with their classmates,' she says, which, coupled with the mainland's one-child policy, makes for lonely, socially isolated children.

Then there was the column about cycling in Shanghai. Fairly innocuous, one would assume. Lots of people have bicycles in China. However, the Shanghai government is actively promoting car ownership, and Hanbury-Tenison found that article and others of hers had mysteriously disappeared from the Web.

Her book resulted from conversations that began in 1997 with Shanghai women, primarily a woman she names Lan Lan, who tutored her in how to get ahead.

'I think having this Asian face, although I'm culturally more Western, there's a familiarity,' she says of her access to the gossip.

'They think you're part of the gang.'

The author says of Lan Lan: 'I was just dazzled by her. At a time when many people were severely economically challenged in Shanghai, there was this woman living this fabulous life, and she was so young. She was so together and beautiful.

'You didn't have all the top restaurants that have opened in the past eight years. There were only four places, really, where you could have afternoon tea in those days; she went to all of them.

'She was economically this very powerful person.'

By the time Hanbury-Tenison got to know them, all of the women were rich and well placed in society. While she's not always in agreement with them, she grew to understand their frankness and unsentimental attitude to relationships.

'Shanghai women are always upwardly mobile, period. However, [the anecdotes] came from people who came of age in the '80s and '90s.

'So do these tips still pertain now? No. Why? Because the richest people are now the Chinese billionaires. In 1997, there was a huge difference between dating a local guy and a foreign businessman. But now that's not the case.'

Hanbury-Tenison says Shanghai women, growing up in a city of commerce, understand what things are worth. While they may be seen as extremely calculating by others, she likes their frankness. The book's advice on assets that should be prized by a Shanghai girl: sexy lingerie is fine, but a Longines watch is even better. A two-week European holiday is not as good as getting him to pay for your MBA.

Tips on sex: be open-minded; sexual flexibility goes far; play up to a guy's fantasies; drop all your inhibitions and be a hawk in bed.

Much of what Lan Lan and the other Shanghai women shared with the author is common knowledge in Shanghai, one of the reasons the book won't be translated into Chinese, she says.

While Shanghai women regard themselves as better turned out than their Beijing counterparts, their tips on staying slim, turning on the charm and looking good - even to the extent of surgery - are universal.

However, at one book launch, attended by several mainland men, Hanbury-Tenison recalls an exchange from a different viewpoint. 'These mainland men said what I had written they all knew and it was just the tip of the iceberg.

'What was interesting was this mainland guy stood up, a lawyer with a degree from Yale. He said that some people thought the book was controversial, but he didn't. He said, 'All my friends understand when I marry a Shanghai girl, I've made it, that I can afford to keep her.' The ultimate trophy.'

Some have found the concept of the book vulgar and offensive and refuse to read it, the author says.

Lan Lan is on her third husband and continues to be successful, 'though she's disappointed in me', Hanbury-Tenison says.

'She feels I should go further, but I'm a bit of a bohemian and while she has ethics, they're different ethics. She says I'm too honest.'