Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Shanghai Noir

At the beginning of Qiu Xiaolong’s mystery novel When Red is Black Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau is sitting in an elegant bar, sipping French wine with a property developer.

His name is Gu, the CEO of New World Group, and they are discussing a business proposition. “You have to translate this business proposal for me, Chief Inspector Chan, not simply for my sake but for the city of Shanghai.”

The project that Gu wants to sell to American investors is to raze a neighborhood of old shikumen houses, replacing them with a row of private luxury apartments. “It’s a grand project,” Chen agrees. “Have you gotten approval of the city?”

“Of course, the city government is all for the project. When the New World goes up, it will not only enhance the image of our great city but also bring in huge tax revenues.”

Welcome to contemporary Shanghai.

Welcome to the world of Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese writer who making a name for himself and finding a wide readership with his Inspector Chen mysteries, of which When Red is Black is the third in the series.

A native of Shanghai, Qiu has lived, worked and taught in the quintessential middle-American city of St Louis for the past 18 years. There could hardly be a starker contrast between his adopted home and the wild, bustling, corrupt Shanghai, the setting for all his mysteries.

Qiu is one of two exiled Chinese writers living and working in America. Perhaps the more famous of the two goes by the name of Ha Jin, though he works in the literary fiction genre, not detective novels.

Their careers have followed similar trajectories. Both were in the United States as visiting scholars - Ha Jin at Brandeis University in Ohio and Qiu at Washington University in St Louis - when the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre occurred in Beijing. They decided to stay.

“Ha Jin is a friend of mine,” says Qiu. “In some Chinese reviews we have been lumped together - not all that favorably. They ask, ‘why are you writing in English instead of Chinese?’ Are we just trying to please a Western audience?”

Well, in fact, they are pleasing a growing number of Western readers. Ha Jin won the National Book Award in 1999 for his book Waiting. Qiu’s first novel, Death of a Red Heroine won the 2001 “Edgar” Award for the Best First Mystery.

There is a lot of Qiu in his Inspector Chen character. Both are intellectuals. Like Qiu, Chen studied English literature and is fluent in English (which is why he is commissioned to translate the New World brochure). Both have a passion for poetry, especially that of T.S. Elliott, a native of St Louis.

But Qiu hastens to add, “I have never been a cop or a [communist] party member. Indeed, he says he doesn’t much like Inspector Chen. “For me Inspector Chen is a kind of anti-hero, a survivor in the system, although he is trying his best to do a good job as a cop.”

Inspector Chen is also something of a prude. In When Red is Black Chen is provided with a lithesome “K”[araoke] Girl named White Cloud to serve as his “little secretary”. Toward the end of the book she expresses disgust at his lack of attention. Even the fat cats of Shanghai “know what to do with a woman”, she says.

The Inspector Chen character merits some comparison with the fictional Scotland Yard Detective Adam Dalglish, who is also a poet. Except that author P D James never lets her character write poems in her novels (probably because she isn’t a poet).

In contrast, snippets of classical Chinese poems and some by Chen (Qiu) himself are scattered throughout Qiu’s novels. “It is in the tradition of Chinese novels to have poems in stories, sometimes a lot of poems.”

In fact, Qiu thinks of himself as both a poet and a mystery writer. Before he started writing novels, he wrote poetry for years, both in English and in Chinese. His English language poems have won awards.

Qiu’s mysteries are, of course, cast with the characters of modern Shanghai: triads, ex-model workers, communist party cadres, children of old revolutionary leaders, and simple honest cops such as Sergeant GuangmingYu, who does most of the donkey work investigating the death of a dissident writer, which is the core mystery of When Red is Black.

For Yu owning one of the New World luxury apartments would be for him, as for millions of other Shanghaiese, “a dream he could not dare to dream.” His is the old world of a low-level Chinese cop with a monthly salary of 400 yuan, whose highest aspiration is to one day qualify for a modest state-provided apartment after years of waiting.

Qiu’s books have been translated into a several languages besides English and Chinese. In fact, his latest work, Red Mandarin Dress, came out this month in French but won’t hit the English-language books stores until November of December.

The books have been translated into Chinese and are available in China though often heavily censored. That is not hard to understand given that they deal with sensitive issues such as corruption and greed by party members. The locale is cunningly disguised as “S-City”.

Qiu travels frequently back to China to refill the well of inspiration. “I was in Beijing and Shanghai in March, and what I saw was more new houses, more cars, more people in the stock market, more corruption in the newspapers” – in short, more good material for the next Inspector Chen mystery.


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