Shanghai Workshop – Abstracts
By on Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Here you can read the abstracts of the workshop “Precariously Yours:
Gender, Class, and Urbanity in Contemporary Shanghai” which took place on 4 – 6 December 2014.


 Shanghai Workshop – Report|||

Workshop concept note|||


Keynote by Josephine HO, National Central University, Chungli (Taiwan):


“Sex and Women in the Metropolis: A Communitarian/Narrative View”

Concern over rapid social change in China tends to descend upon the great number of women who, enabled by life in the city, have ranged out of their embeddedness in traditional marriage and family structures. Easily transmuted to mistresses or sluts who are said to bring havoc to peaceful coupledom and feminine virtues, or passionately converted to consumerism and Westernisation that allegedly further erodes China’s professed ascetic socialism, the so-called “surplus women” are visibly problematised. Yet, defenders/sympathisers of the surplus women often converge with the critics on embracing a similarly liberal/libertarian view of the autonomy and choice that the women exercise. In this talk, I aim to call for a communitarian/narrative conception of self that may bring forth a more complex understanding of women living in the city.

About the speaker

Josephine Ho is one of the foremost feminist sex-radical scholars in East Asia and writes extensively and provocatively on many cutting-edge issues, spearheading sex-positive views in the region on female sexuality, gender/sexuality education, queer studies, sex-work studies, and transgenderism. Her present interest of research has to do with sexual nonconformity under global governance. She founded and continues to head the Center for the Study of Sexualities at National Central University, Taiwan (, widely-known for its social activism and intellectual stamina.

Keynote by Fran MARTIN, The University of Melbourne (Australia):


“Precarious Autonomy: Chinese Women Students (Re)negotiating Gender through Educational Mobility”

In China’s large cities, as in many other societies in East Asia, recent decades have been marked by unmarried women’s increasing levels of education and strong workforce participation; the average age of first marriage has also been rising. For well-resourced women, increasingly, one’s twenties become a time in which one can develop projects of the self, from beauty and fashion consumption, to post-traditional sexual expression, to tourism and educational travel. A slew of neologisms has been spawned to refer to the growing cohort of unmarried, middle-class, late-twenties women; these range from the outright derogatory (败犬; 剩女) to the affirmative and celebratory (轻熟女; 盛女). But what is the actual social experience of women in this much-discussed category? How do they negotiate the manifold contradictions of their situation, which is characterised by a radical disjuncture between pop-cultural celebrations of their supposed freedom, on one hand, and intense social anxieties over their elaboration of non-marital adult femininities, on the other?

This paper draws on an in-process research project in order to advance an investigation of these questions. Based on a longitudinal study that is currently in its beginning stages, my paper examines educational travel to Australia by young women from China –– who now form a marginal majority of Chinese international students in Australia, echoing the feminisation of educational travel from East Asia as a whole. In China, young urban women increasingly see international educational travel as part of a self-scripted life project directed toward realising dreams of wealth, freedom and individual happiness. However, my interviews with 15 such students in Melbourne in 2012 reveal that such a mobile self-making project stands in fundamental tension with influential gender discourses within China that frame adult women’s social role as one of caregiving within the family, and assume that women should and will marry before age thirty to reorient toward this role. The young, well-resourced urban women whose bodies materially comprise China’s female knowledge diaspora are thus located at a point of turbulent confluence between conflicting conceptions of possible and desirable female personhood. In a strong sense, their ascribed gender identity interrupts the autonomous self-making project of which their overseas study is seen as a part. I will conclude the paper with some speculations on the resources that may become available to these young women, as a result of their experiences of overseas study, for contesting the normative gender expectations that threaten to interrupt their self-making projects.


About the speaker

Fran Martin’s best-known research focuses on television, film, literature, Internet culture and other forms of cultural production and social life in the contemporary Sinophone world (The People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora). Martin’s research over the past fifteen years has focused on the transformations being wrought on concepts, practices and experiences of gender and sexuality as a result of cultural and media globalisation. Fran has several years’ experience studying, teaching and researching in PR China and Taiwan, and her current research project, funded by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, focuses on the experience of women students from the People’s Republic of China undertaking higher education in Australia, especially their negotiations of gendered selfhood and cultural identity. Fran’s publications include Mobile Cultures: New Media in Queer Asia (co-edited with C. Berry and A. Yue, Duke UP, 2003); Backward Glances: Contemporary Chinese Cultures and the Female Homoerotic Imaginary (Duke UP, 2010); Situating Sexualities: Queer Representation in Taiwanese Fiction, Film and Public Culture (Hong Kong UP, 2003); Angelwings: Contemporary Queer Fiction from Taiwan (Hawaii UP, 2003); AsiaPacifiQueer: Rethinking Genders and Sexualities (co-edited with P. Jackson, M. McLelland and A. Yue, Illinois UP, 2008);  and Embodied Modernities: Corporeality, Representation and Chinese Cultures (co-edited with LN Heinrich, Hawaii UP, 2006). Martin is Associate Professor in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Leta Hong FINCHER, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Hong Kong SAR, China):


“Single Chinese Women Subverting the ‘Shengnü’ Label”

In China, the derogatory term “leftover” woman or shengnü is widely used to describe an urban, professional female in her late twenties or older who is still single. Many urban Chinese women express anxiety about becoming a shengnü if they are not married by their late twenties. And many marry quickly – often within several months of meeting a man – specifically to avoid being designated “leftover.” The intense pressure to marry comes from parents, relatives, colleagues and the state media, which has since 2007 often referred to a “crisis” in growing numbers of educated women who “cannot find a husband.” At the same time, the political space for organised feminist activism in 2014 has contracted, with women’s rights NGOs risking harassment and closure by the authorities if they become too influential. Given the difficulties of organised feminist advocacy, how can urban women resist entrenched patriarchal norms? This presentation explores the different ways in which women in cities such as Shanghai act on an individual level to empower themselves, from linguistically subverting the shengnü label to fighting against stigma and embracing the freedom of being single. It explores the possibility that more and more urban Chinese women may make a deliberate choice to reject the institution of marriage in an effort to maximise their individual liberty and economic independence.


About the speaker

Leta Hong Fincher is the first American to receive a Ph.D. from the Department of Sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing. An award-winning journalist, her research on gender and China’s urban property market has been cited in many news organisations, including The Economist, New York Times, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, BBC and CNN. Dr. Hong Fincher received her master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Stanford University and her bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. She is now teaching at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in the Division of Social Science.

Melissa BUTCHER, Birkbeck College (University of London) (until March 2015: The Open University):


“Being Single – Approaching Autonomy, Respectability and Precarity”

The focus on public space draws in the spatial dimension of singleness, linking this to contemporary models of urban redevelopment, as well as the different qualities and ways in which urban spaces impact on and reflect how (single) women move through and dwell in cities. In doing so this paper highlights the interconnections between women’s use of urban space in India and China and dominant models of neo-liberal economic production that favour a discourse of independence and agency, but that also generates conditions of precarity. Secondly, the analysis draws in the realm of the cultural, tracing the inevitable shift in subjectivity under conditions of neoliberal economics (reflexive, autonomous, modern, individual versus traditional, collective, family oriented). Using tropes such as ‘respectability’, we argue that women are adopting cultural frameworks that seek to balance the demands of the ‘global city’ and the need for the body of the woman to maintain notions of ‘tradition’ embedded within cultural identity.


About the speaker

Melissa Butcher is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography, the Open University. Her research examines the intersections between globalisation and contested urban space, youth and urban cultures, questions of identity and belonging, and the deployment of intercultural competencies to manage cultural change. Butcher is currently leading two research projects, Hackney as Home (ESRC), and Creating the ‘New’ Asian Woman (EU HERA). Her recent publications include: New Perspectives in International Development (ed. with T. Papaioannou, Bloomsbury 2013); Managing Cultural Change: Reclaiming Synchronicity in a Mobile World (Ashgate 2011), and Dissent and Cultural Resistance in Asia’s Cities (ed. with S. Velayutham, Routledge 2009).

Lena SCHEEN, New York University Shanghai (China):


“Shanghai Lalas and Leftover Ladies: An Ethnographic Study of Female Professionals”

Battling the ‘problem’ of an estimated 40 million bachelors looking for a wife, the Chinese government has been initiating various policies and campaigns to encourage women to get married. But in spite of all its efforts, official statistics show the number of unmarried women and divorcees only increasing at an accelerated pace. The main target of the government’s campaigns are urban single women professionals, derogatively referred to as shengnü (literally ‘leftover ladies’). In Shanghai alone, the number of unmarried women doubled between 2000 and 2010, a rise closely connected with the emergence of lala (lesbian, bisexual, and transgender-identified women) communities.

Drawing upon preliminary ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Shanghai, this paper will analyse the diverse and mutually illuminating experiences of lala and shengnü professional women. It will focus on women in leading positions, self-employed women, and freelancers. Preserving their independence, domestically and in the workplace, these women encounter the cultural contradictions of capitalist, post-reform China on both a personal and professional level, raising all kinds of questions:

What escape routes, if any, from the constraints of China’s heteronormative, patriarchal society have these women discovered? What are their tactics of resistance against gender stereotyping and parental and state expectations? In what ways does their nonconformist status inform their work practice? Considering that Shanghai is commonly regarded as China’s most ‘cosmopolitan’ global city, what can the lives of these Shanghai women tell us about contemporary Chinese society as a whole and its future?


About the speaker

Lena Scheen is Assistant Professor at New York University Shanghai (NYU Shanghai). Her research explores the social and mental impact of urban transformation, focusing on cultural production in Shanghai. Her publications include the monograph Shanghai: Literary Imaginings of a City in Transformation (Amsterdam UP, in production) and the edited volume Spectacle and the City: Chinese Urbanities in Popular Culture and Art (with Jeroen de Kloet, Amsterdam UP, 2013).

WU Xiaoyan & CAI Luoyi:


“Another Source of Power: Love and Desire Liberated from Shame —— VAGINA MONOLOGUES in China”

With the booming of China’s economy, women’s social status nowadays in China is by no means at an equivalent advancing level. On the contrary, under the rapid growth of economy, the oppression upon women has even been intensified. In urban areas, single women over 28 are strongly criticised by mainstream media as “leftover women.” Likewise in the education section, college entrance-exam admission scores for female students have been intentionally raised to inhibit their excellence over male counterparts; female victims of sexual harassment are often blamed for their personal fashion preferences; and domestic violence against women frequently lead to malignant criminal offenses. Rural women are by far one of the most neglected and vulnerable groups, suffering from forced abortion, deprivation of land ownership, minimal education opportunity, high female infant mortality rate, etc. However, these everyday problems women face are rarely visible in mainstream media.

Inaudibility equates to invisibility. Hence visibility is the first step towards change.

In 2003, the Chinese version of Vagina Monologues was performed in public in Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. In the past 10 years, this play has been adapted and performed by many students and people, which makes it the representative of China’s feminist drama and an important platform for gender equality education. In 2012, the brand new China’s Vagina Monologues Yindao Duoyun was performed in front of more than a thousand audiences and has gained enthusiastic responses. In the process of localising Vagina Monologues, we have discovered a feeling that affectively suppresses Chinese women – shame. Self-denial, ingratiation, discrimination, violence, among others that generated by shame are revealed from the real stories recorded and performed in Vagina Monologues. In this talk, we aim to explore how Chinese women negotiate their love and desire powerfully and forcefully by articulating shame in contemporary China.


About the speaker

CAI Luoyi, Feminist Activist, Core Member of the Feminist Cultural Club “Beaver Club” (China)

Cai Luoyi started to participate in the localisation of China’s Vagina Monologues since 2009. She has taken part in performing, script-writing, directing and organising public performances of China’s Vagina Monologues in the past 5 years, which promoted the development of Vagina Monologues in China. At the same time, Cai has also devoted herself to the lesbian movements in China. In 2010, she founded the student drama club of Vagina Monologues at East China Normal University and successfully launched this drama’s public performances in the university. In 2012, she has joined the feminist cultural club “Beaver Club” and participated in the creation and performances of the brand new China’s Vagina Monologues, i.e. Yindao Duoyun in Suzhou and Shanghai.


WU Xiaoyan, Shanghai Institute of Arts (China)

WU Xiaoyan has devoted herself to the localisation of China’s Vagina Monologues since 2005. In the past 10 years, she has taken part in script-writing, directing and organising public performances of China’s Vagina Monologues. At the same time, Wu has also paid close attention to and participated in the lesbian movements in China. In 2012, she founded a feminism cultural club named “the Beaver Club” which successfully performed the brand new China’s Vagina Monologues Yindao Duoyun in Suzhou and Shanghai. In the same year, Wu also launched a feminism anti-sexual harassment movement “I Can Be Coquettish, You Cannot Harass” at subway stations in Shanghai which triggered heated responses from the public.


SHEN Yifei, Fudan University (China):


 “Hot-mom: Motherhood and Feminism in the Process of Individualisation”

Based on the data selected from 967 newspaper articles titled “hot-mom”, this paper traces the emergence, development and generalisation of the word “hot-mom” in the media through keyword coding and type coding methods. The study attempts to explore the impact of the image on motherhood and contemporary women, and the realisation of feminist consciousness. Findings show that the concept of “hot-mom” has been generalised to that of “super-hot mom”. Commercial utilisation has led to the rapid degradation of the meaning of “hot-mom” as an expression of the concept of female subjectivity. As a consequence, it neither emphasises feminism nor motherhood, but simply denotes an entity of consumerism. It is suggested that without any institutional change, women assume more responsibilities and risks as they undergo the change to “live for themselves” in the process of individualisation, which may result in greater oppression of women.


About the speaker

Shen Yifei is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Fudan University, Shanghai, China. She received Ph.D. in sociology from Fudan University. Her books include: Constructed Women: Contemporary Theory on Gender (2005); Gender Mainstreaming in Chinese Policy: Political Participation, Legal Status and Social Security (2008); and iFamily: the Individual Family and State in the Process of Modernity in Urban China (2013). Her research interests include gender, family and NGO. Her professional affiliations include, The Centre for Family Studies, Director (2013.9-), the Socio-cultural Anthropology Research Center, Deputy Director (2007.9-), Women/ Gender Studies and Training Institute, Director of Research Projects (2011.10-), and the Institute for Research on Gender and Development, Fudan University, Deputy Secretary General (2003.5-).

Keynote by Shilpa PHADKE, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai, India):


“I’m Not a Feminist But…! Young Women in Urban India and Gender Politics in a Time of Globalisation”

This paper will engage with young Indian middle-class urban women’s relationship with feminism. Focussing on undergraduate women who have access to higher education and a variety of resources it reflects on the location of a feminist identity and often the disavowal of it. I will simultaneously engage with a brief history of feminism in the last four decades as well as my own trajectory of growing into feminism as well as being an under-graduate in the 1990s, which I argue were a less fraught time to be a feminist.

Teaching in the early 21st century, I encountered a group of privileged upper-middle class young women in Mumbai for whom equality has come to mean a denial of difference. In a neo-liberal economy, their concerns are increasingly class-focussed and to complicate this context by bringing in gender seems to them to be almost pre-modern. I think through what it means to be a young woman, especially a heterosexual woman, in a context where increasingly being part of a couple is a way of demonstrating desirability. In a context where feminists are seen as undesirable to men, then often feminism as a politics is then far too precarious for many young women to take on.

Based on my own pedagogic experiences and interviews with some young women in Mumbai, I engage with why feminism and being feminist is so fraught in a post globalisation period. In doing so, I reflect on post feminism as an ideology and the ways in which young women are articulating a self image as “independent but not feminist”.


About the speaker

Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist, researcher and pedagogue. She is Assistant Professor at the School of Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. She has been educated at St. Xavier’s College and SNDT University, TISS, Mumbai, and the University of Cambridge, UK. Her research interests include gender, public space, sexuality, consumption and the middle-classes, sometimes all at one time. More recently she has become interested in questions of feminist mothering and separately concerns around the location of lower class young men on the streets. She publishes both academically and in the mainstream media.

Evie WU, Nvai (China):


“LBT Movement in Shanghai”

This talk will focus on what is Shanghai Nvai, what’s our mission and objective and what we do. Shanghai Nvai’s Missions include the following: Eliminate discrimination against lesbian, bisexual, transexual women; improve women’s influence in LGBT community; promote gender equality and diversity. Started from early 2012, Nvai’s focus of work has been diverted to “raising the awareness of gender equality and opposing the discriminations against LBT people.” We have long-term events, such as Theatre Education Program, LBT themed salon and Oral History and Oral History writing training. In 2012  we were successful on Art and Social Action which had a large impact in China. All of board members and core volunteers are LBT women. The focus groups of our work are general public and women in Shanghai and East China, especially LBT women. The programs we have launched in the past years are: Theatre Education Program; Art and Social Action; LBT Themed Salon; Oral History and Oral History Writing Training; Eliminate Discrimination against Homosexual in Corporate Environment; and Shanghai PRIDE.


About the speaker

Evie Wu is the representative from Shanghai Nvai. Established in 2005, Shanghai Nvai is the first independent grassroots group by and for LBT people in Shanghai. They stand for and work for the rights of women, lesbians, bisexual women, and transexual women,and advocate social equality and diversity.

Sheba CHHACHHI, Independent Artist (Delhi, India):


“Public Intimacies”

How do we think about public art, art activism or even the public sphere itself within instrumentalised image regimes? How do new forms of representation and visual mobility, assertions and interventions from within political movements, as well as insertions by artists/art institutions in the public sphere of the city speak to changing articulations of feminism, and the women’s movement? This presentation examines these questions, amongst others, through the prism of my own work in the city of Delhi, as an activist and chronicler of the women’s movement, from the 1980’s and as an artist making public art interventions from the 2000’s. Located in a wide range of urban spaces – community halls, shanty towns, cultural centres, petrol pumps, libraries, shopping malls and museums, these experiments could yield insights into the modes of address and vocabularies of public art which ask for critical reimagining.


About the speaker

Sheba Chhachhi is a photographer and installation artist. Her works investigate questions of gender, ecology, violence and visual culture, with particular emphasis on the recuperation of cultural memory. Chhachhi began in the 1980s, both activist and photographer, documenting the women’s movement in India. By the 1990s, Chhachhi moved to create collaboratively staged photographs, eventually turning to large photo based multimedia installations. Her photographic work retrieves marginal worlds of women, mendicants, and forgotten forms of labour. In her installations, Chhachhi often draws on premodern thought and visual traditions, interweaving the mythic and the social. She experiments across the spectrum of durational mediums, from pre-cinematic animated lightboxes to virtual reality interactivity, creating immersive environments, and bringing the contemplative into the political in both site-specific public art and independent works. She has exhibited widely in India and internationally, and participated in numerous international biennales, triennales, and museums. Most recently, her work has been presented at Grand Curtis Museum, Belgium, the 9th Gwangju Biennale, Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Greece, Kiran Nadar Museum, Delhi, and Singapore Art Museum, where she was awarded the Juror’s prize for contemporary art in Asia in 2011.

Kevin MAY, NGO Worker (China):


“Gender and Change”

Women represent 70% of the world’s poor people, and gender issues constitute one of the key focuses of my work which essentially concerns poverty reduction and development. We do not treat gender as a separate issue, but instead integrate it into all our work, alongside other factors that produce poverty and inequality in China and beyond. As such, we promote a holistic approach towards gender, poverty and inequality issues. This proves to be a daunting task, different projects face different challenges. In my talk, I aim to present some of our gender-related projects, share our experiences, and eventually reflect upon the role of gender in our poverty reduction work. How do we promote gender equality and the empowerment of women, what are the obstacles and challenges we face, and how do we try to overcome them?


About the speaker

Kevin May is a programme manager of a poverty reduction and development foundation, based in Beijing. His grant making currently focuses on organisations and partnerships that promote the positive influence of China on the poor people of other developing countries in Asia and Africa, especially smallholder farmers, rural women and indigenous people. Prior to that, he worked at an environmental NGO where he supported the development of policies and programmes that promote company transparency, corporate reporting on environmental factors and corporate social responsibility. He received both his master’s degree in law and bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Hong Kong.