BEHIND THE STEELY realism of Shanghai author Tang Ying lingers the girlish fantasies of the sentimental love-story writer. Since she started writing in the 1980s, her 30 novellas, two novels, and four collections of short stories have meshed heart-tugging narratives and knife-edged jaundiced dispassion, pushing and pulling readers through something of a drawn-out, bipolar lovers' spat. Recent titles - such as Senseless Journey (2003), No Love in Shanghai (2002), and Asexual Partners (2001) - track her path down a wobbly lovers' lane and mark her as one of Shanghai's most influential writers. Senseless Journey, published in the prominent literary journal Harvest (Shou Hou), sparked media debate in Shanghai because of its contemplation of a one-night stand on the night of the September 11 attacks. The affair between a female Chinese journalist living in Singapore and a Chinese-Indian man from New York is centred on their feelings of helplessness as they watch the cataclysm from their secluded hotel on a lonely Malaysian plain. 'They both became keenly aware of the weak side of life, of the world,' she says. 'As the towers collapse, it strikes them that life is full of insecurity. I want to stress in this story the special moments in life, the special moments of love.' Although Senseless Journey has attracted interest from several movie directors, Tang is making her own documentary film. Her latest novella, Solitude and Emptiness, will appear in Harvest later this autumn. She's enrolled in the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa, along with her husband, Shanghai playwright Zhang Xian. Strikingly tall and confident, a defiant youthfulness surrounds the couple as they discuss work, their home town, China and its future. As well as being companions, they're collaborators. Her novel No Love in Shanghai was transformed from her novella Wife from America, which was also a play developed by her husband and staged in Shanghai in the 1990s in the underground avant-garde so-called civilian theatres. The story follows a woman who goes to the US, leaving her husband in Shanghai. She returns to divorce him, and finds the city has been transformed into a desirous, corrupt place, totally foreign to her. Part of Tang's search for meaning has led her to expatriate Chinese communities around the globe, especially in New York and Singapore. In her documentary Another China - which she says will be part film, part novel and a non-fiction project - she wants to try to capture the lives of political dissidents, writers, artists and ordinary people from the Chinese diaspora, or 'great escape' of the post-Cultural Revolution 1980s, and how they've managed, or not managed, to build new lives. She's most interested in ordinary people. 'I feel closer to them and more interested in how they've managed to live their lives the past 20 years,' she says. 'Also, about the artists who have gone abroad, I feel truly sorry for some of them [who have not succeeded], and how their dreams just have hung in mid-air.' While living in New York in 2000 and again last year, Tang mingled with the expatriate Chinese community, observing their habits, their neuroses, their hopes and their failures. One particular aspect she finds thematically alluring is how the Chinese culture of eating brings together such diverse groups of expats, whether high class or low, on weekends in Flushing and Queens. 'They come together and sometimes joke that it's their stomachs, not their love of country, that brings them together,' she says. 'I found that the dinner table is highly symbolic of their situation.' Another fixation is how many of these communities abroad have held on to traditional Chinese customs and beliefs such as Taoist, Buddhist, Christian and rural folk myths that were mostly erased from China during the Cultural Revolution. Burial ceremonies and ghost festivals that many in China would consider superstition thrive in some of these expatriate conclaves. Yet, what really interests her is not what these people believe, but the paths their lives have taken and the stories they have inside them. 'The Cultural Revolution didn't end easily,' she says. 'So many families were broken apart by the tide.' This division continues, she says, among those Chinese parents who send their children abroad for education. After saving money for years to send their children to the US or Europe, these parents find they can no longer communicate on the same level with their children, and traditional structures are broken down. In the theatre adaptation of No Love in Shanghai, the couple argue over the fate of their young son, who has become more American than Chinese, and is now alien to the father. 'In China, there's this common idea that we should raise our children to take care of us when we are old. But this problem of sending children abroad ruins this whole system.' Tang is not only interested in how the family structures have fractured through internal and external displacement, but also the more murky psychological currents that she sees plaguing Shanghai. 'Because of the general transformation of the whole society, people's moral values have also changed,' she says, talking about Asexual Partners. The story follows the relationship between a young couple in Shanghai who agree to a marriage without sex. 'They're neither gay nor feminine,' Tang says of modern Shanghai males. 'They're indifferent in regards to sex, which might be due to the political oppression of the government or authorities to this city. In general, the whole country has suffered political oppression, but Shanghai, which used to be a highly civilised city, suffered particularly.' This indifferent male is not the same as the western metrosexual, she says. It's closer to the male individual in politically repressed Singapore, where she lived for a year. 'The men tend to feel somewhat indifferent in regard to sexual relations. They're neither masculine nor interested in male sex. It's a country were there are many gay people and groups, but what I'm talking about is not homosexual, but normal males' loss of sexual identity of any kind.' Much of Tang's interest in the hard-edged love story can be traced to what she calls her 'mad reading' periods, the first during the Cultural Revolution, when she devoured writers such as Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev and Dickens. Bored with her assigned readings - and as more modernist writers began to be translated into Chinese while she was in college - she turned to the early and later minimalist and abstract novellas of Marguerite Duras, and to the hard realism, although sometimes sentimental, works of Ernest Hemingway. 'I found a lot in common with the writers writing around these times of war,' she says. 'I felt the same desperation in my mind, as well. We had all experienced the same sense of dissolution in our times.' This period of reading was often interrupted, however. One week, a book could be considered poison; the next it could be in favour. 'The literary studies of the times were very political,' she says. 'One of the major concerns was if literature is about human nature, or if literature can reflect human nature at all. So, this is why I found a lot of reading in class very boring. I often went to the library to borrow other books.' As well as foreign writers, Chinese authors such as Lu Xun, Shen Cong Wen, and Zhang Ailing became her secret friends. 'Chinese literature, starting from the May 1 movement in the 1920s, had been pretty much left in ruins,' she says. 'So, there weren't many excellent novelists for us, especially urban novelists, for us to emulate.'