The Embassy’s China Bride
(By Bruce Humes & Christopher Cottrell)
She’s an aging Chinese female novelist of cult fame banned for her intimate portrayal of women and their men. Her lover De Niro is a wild Italian hell-bent on motorcycles. Her other lover is the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Spain to China. This is the tale of their trysts and catkins in the heart of Beijing.
“I’m a writer, a novelist. I specialize in the study of pain,” she says.
“Enchanté, novelist,” he replies. “I’m a painter.”
Welcome to a true life inspired account of passions set largely in the luxurious and exclusive confines behind the embassy of Spain’s steel gate in Beijing’s Sanlitun district. This is not merely the stark diary of the carnality and spirit of a blacklisted female writer in China. It also delves into the minds of the over-sexed, conflicted European men who populate the booming 21st-century capital, and the dark side of their relations with Chinese women who flock to them like moths to a white-hot light bulb.
Narrated by the love-struck protagonist writer, she speaks at once to her departed Italian beau De Niro while re-living her relationship with the Spanish Ambassador, Manuel.
The embassy, diplomat-artiste and novelist-narrator all feature their own “contradictions.”
Exclusive venue for the duo’s frequent trysts, the Embassy arguably acquires a dual personality of its own as we become intimately acquainted with its faceless sentry, grand ceilings and “solemn” conference hall, which contrast with the scandalous pleasures enjoyed in the Ambassador’s painting studio and his nearby love nest.
The diplomat’s principle contradiction lies in his keen desire to lead two lives simultaneously — that of the scrupulously proper public official, and one deep below the surface of an amorous artist who follows his heart. This duality, plus his marriage and philandering, ultimately unspools the novelist-narrator as she floats aimlessly like a catkin willow, hoping that Manuel will leave his wife and be hers forever. But in her heart she believes that true romance inevitably contains the seeds of pain and mutual hurt.
Fittingly, the no-longer-young female narrator and older Manuel first encounter one another at a painting exhibition, for in the ensuing liaison, the arts are never totally absent. An invitation to the Embassy follows, complete with a garden lunch, catkin viewing, foreplay in the Ambassador’s atelier, and then —after an unclothed, mad dash from the West Wing to the East Wing — a heated session of oral sex.
As pleased as the narrator is with this initial union, she can’t help but wonder: Why doesn’t Manuel don a condom and make love to her? This remains an unanswered and troubling conundrum throughout their 13-month relationship.
Invitations to the Embassy multiply, and via the unnamed narrator we are privy to the ins and outs of the affair, which culminate in the anguished realization that she is not the Ambassador’s sole bride. “It never occurred to me that I was just one among many,” she confides. “Each night he played the groom anew.”
The Embassy’s China Bride succeeds in creating two convincing characters, De Niro and Manuel, who incarnate archetypes of Western males that can easily be found in today’s China. The female protagonist relishes recounting her intimate scenes with Manuel to her cynical Venetian lover, a man she nicknames “De Niro” after the actor because he is similarly handsome. We gradually realize that De Niro met with a gruesome accident on his beloved motorcycle, and she is actually chatting with a dead man.
These scenes are particularly engaging, partly because of what they reveal about the narrator’s personality — she doesn’t love only “successful” men — and partly because we are privy to the thoughts of a European who, in certain aspects, is the very inverse of the highly respected Ambassador. De Niro is a talented architect, long unemployed and intensely disenchanted with China, yet unwilling — or unable? — to abandon the magnetic metropolis of 20m where he once arrogantly flaunted his Italian manhood. Manuel, on the other hand, is an esteemed diplomat at the height of his career who is literally enchanted by his rosy, even naïve perceptions of “China,” its mysterious script, and its alluring women.
Yet it is worth noting that in the midst of Beijing’s bustling Sanlitun, where European men are almost universally welcome and wannabe female partners a dime-a-dozen, both men suffer from a deep-seated loneliness.
The Embassy’s China Bride paints us a picture of a society in the throes of an economic boom that is attracting large numbers of more-than-willing ex-pats from the rich West in search of everything from well-remunerated jobs to romantic adventures with local women. Both parties are magnetically attracted by the other’s “exotic” culture. But behind this veneer of prosperity lie the universal tragedies of union and eventual separation. The solemn and dignified Embassy is no exception. Nor is its China Bride. [終]