Tag Archives: Shanghai

Chinese take-away

I read recently, two extraordinary books about China. One by the Chinese equivalent of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, unpublishable in his own country, Yan Lianke. Based in Beijing, many of his most controversial writings are banned in China. Four Books is among the banned novels. The other book is by the writer and journalist, Rob Schmitz, who has lived and worked in China for many years and is now based in Shanghai, his book is called Street of Eternal Happiness.

Four Books [for which I have no image because I left it on Orkney for others to read] is a strangely constructed novel, purporting to be sections from writings of various hands, collected and collated into a single bundle of papers. Set at the heart of the Cultural Revolution, several different people – one or two of whom are the authors possibly – are in the distant countryside “farming” and “smelting”. This disparate group are led by ‘The Child’, an androgynous youth who appears to be in charge and to whom all the others kowtow. The others include ‘The Scholar’, ‘The Intellectual’ and other similarly labelled characters, all of whom have been deemed to need re-education. The somewhat barren area they are congregated in is called the Re-Ed District and seems to have numerous separate and competing sections.

The competition element is crucial. The leaders, The Child and his/her ilk go to the next up in the hierarchy and report progress in their “village”. How many bushels of rice they can grow in such and such an area of ground, or how much iron they can smelt…the results are obvious. By exaggerating their yield they are forced to give more and more of their produce to those higher up in towns and cities; those actually producing the goods eventually starve.

Escape is virtually impossible, and hideously punished if caught. Information from outside the immediate compound is scarce and unreliable. Informing on your colleagues, however, is plentiful and a reliable source of “rewards”, generally extra food rations and thereby diminished in reliability.

The discovery of iron rich soil in the bank of the river led to mass smelting, and all metals were demanded to be smelted thus, leaving the compound short of tools and vessels for cooking and eating, and again competition meant a huge over-estimate of supply. Whole areas were de-forested to supply the fuel for the smelting, leaving nothing for shelter, building or fuel for cooking.

With the wisdom of hindsight, the results were entirely predictable. Intellectuals, writers, teachers, accountants and the like were not, and never would be, good farmers. The boastful claims for dubious rewards made by the “leaders” to leaders above them and on up and up the chain, meant that more and more got syphoned to the cities and factories and less and less was available to those in the countryside and a mass starvation followed, partly through a lack of foodstuffs and partly the wherewithal to cook it. They were reduced to eating grass and roots, and then…broke the final taboo.

Read, in translation, this was a very moving and articulate account of the whole process, written as from those undergoing the rigours.

ChinaThe other book, Street of Eternal Happiness, is not entirely different. Rob Schmitz lives in a fairly modern high-rise that looks down on the street and at the back looks over a strangely under-developed area surrounded by a high wall.

As journalist, and a man with an appetite for discovery, Rob begins to talk to (and interview) the local inhabitants of the street. The flower seller who has left the countryside, brought up two sons and now has the problem of their education to deal with; the sandwich bar owner, who makes money producing accordions and whose bar is a side-line; the family who live behind the wall in one dilapidated house surrounded by desolation and a bundle of letters that lead him back in time to a situation similar to the ones described in Four Books.

Many of these city dwellers are not more than one generation away from the scars and wounds of the Cultural Revolution.

This is a dedicated, fascinating, funny and sometimes appalling story of the lives lived in a single street in one of the most diverse and interesting cities. The city’s own history, going right back to the arrival of Europeans, is marked out in the city plan and the waves of fortune and misfortune still appear in the very fabric of the buildings and in the tales of the people Rob speaks to about where they have come from. He clearly has an natural and rare aptitude for drawing out people’s innermost thoughts and feelings, aspirations and desperations.

For anyone visiting, this is a must read; for anyone with no intention of visiting, this is a must read because it is a window on China, a small window with wide implications for the world.

Is the Great Leap Forward, so violently promoted by Chairman Mao, going to prove more of a long jump which is just about to land?

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Chinese Whispers

Recently I have revisited the detective novels of Qiu Xiaolong. These eight books follow the career of Chen Cao, a poet, literature student, translator and dreamer who is moved by the State (of China) into a career as a policeman in Shanghai. The first book in the series, Death of a Red Heroine, covers this surprising transition in career choice (or lack of choice) and introduces us to the policeman Chen and sets him off on his first criminal investigation.

scan0009The substance of each crime, mostly quite lurid and unpleasant, is the coathanger upon which Qiu Xiaolong has hung his unsubtle commentary on the changing face of China. The Cultural Revolution is still reverberating in the first novels, but in the sixth novel, The Mao Case, Inspector Chen is dealing with a complicated political thriller: an old man with apparently no means of subsistence except his painting and his students lives in a beautiful mansion generally reserved for the elite cadres of party faithful. How is the painter affording this luxury? Inspector Chen is asked to investigate discreetly, but almost before he makes a move one of the students is found dead in the garden, and another is afraid that she will be next…which could be managed, except that she is the granddaughter of a very close friend of Chairman Mao.

Inspector Chen has to tread carefully through the mine-field of the Triads, corrupt businessmen and ultimately The Chairman himself, and beneath the stone he will find a secret that the Party will do anything to protect…

By the seventh and eighth novel, Chen Cao is Chief Inspector; friends with several Mr Big Bucks and other people whom he has helped one way and another in his career, he has many important and significant supporters in the Party in Beijing and is a highly respected, honourable, and incorruptible policeman, an honourable man in a world full of treachery and deception, corruption and political manoeuvring.

In the seventh novel, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake scan0005his superior in Beijing lends him his villa in the countryside in a secluded park reserved only for the highest cadres in the Party. He is given no particular reason for this sudden generosity, though through a series of nods and winks he gathers that he is meant to be taking a look around and reporting back. This is complicated by two things, a beautiful girl Shanshan and the death of the boss of a local factory. The factory has been a focus of a considerable campaign against its pollution of the local lake, now so poisonous that the famous local delicacy “Three White Fish” is no longer edible. Internal Security jump on the case and seize on a likely suspect, Jiang a well-known activist and environmental campaigner but Chief Inspector Chen thinks that maybe that is too simplistic, so with the help of a local policeman who knows him through his translations of English detective thrillers, particularly those of PD James, they look a little deeper into the motives of a few other people who might have been involved…

The latest book, The Enigma of China, is even more interesting because it is dealing with cyber crime, netizens and corruption and bribery at a highest level. An minor politician is shuangguied (ie placed in a secluded safe house for a particular type of investigation) in a discreet hotel in Shanghai but while under close guard manages to commit suicide. Chief Inspector Chen is invited to “oversee” the investigation into the suicide, but is not partie pris to the investigation of Zhou Keng’s misdemeanours which have come to light after a network-led viral expos√© of him, showing a photograph of him at a conference with a packet of specialist cigarettes which he could not reasonably be expected to be able to afford; this led to further elaborations of his expensive lifestyle and obviously suggestions of corruption etc.scan0006

Once again, all is not as it seems and another unexpected death leaves Chief Inspector Chen wondering what exactly is going on…but just as he reaches the answers to the enigma he finds that he is about to be promoted out of Shanghai. The dilemma is one which this noble and decent man has to consider, should he risk angering people at the top and probably damaging the lives of one or two people he is close to, as well as significantly jeopardising his own position, seeking justice in spite of all these considerations, or should he deviate from his usual practice?

It is very hard to amply describe the beauty of Qiu Xiaolong’s writing, he is himself a poet and every book is full of little poems that Chen has supposedly written, and also snatches of poems of ancient Chinese writers which Chen finds float into his head from time to time, often at times of great stress or in one of his many romantic moments. He is not married, but is clearly very attractive, even in his forties (which is the age he has reached in Enigma of China). In several books he is having a long distance affair with a beautiful journalist, but sadly she decides to marry someone else. But is is through these relationships and his home life, and the domestic life of his long-time friend and colleague, Detective Yu and his intelligent wife Peiqin, that we discover a great deal about Chinese society, especially Communist Chinese society.

This leads me on to mention an excellent series on BBC Radio 4 called Foreign Bodies in which Mark Lawson interviews various foreign detective and police procedure novelists about how their books as well as telling a crime story are also commenting on changes in society in their countries of origin. This has had two series so far, both I think still available as a podcast. If you are interested in social history abroad, this surely is a programme for you.

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Man Booker 2013 – Chinese Puzzle

Tash Aw’s new book Five Star Billionaire is not unlike one of those Chinese puzzles that one sometimes gets in a luxury cracker. Lots of little pieces which seem not to fit together in any meaningful way until suddenly, by some sleight of hand that you cannot replicate, they slot together to make a perfect whole.

This is particularly true of Five Star Billionaire because so many of the characters are re-inventions of themselves. Country girls desperately trying to be city sophisticates; busted business men trying to hide from failures; busy executives trying to rise from the ashes of failed personal relationships. Walter, Phoebe, Yinghui, Justin, Gary and Yanyan – all of them are trying to move on from their past to the alluring future and by one thread or another, although they do not know this at the time, they are all linked.

As one of them manipulates the others, either through self-help books he has written, or through chat-rooms or through even more convoluted connections, their personal histories, even things that their parents did slowly reveal a mind-boggling pattern of cold hatred.scan0001

But each chapter opens like a slow motion video of a peony; a hard rounded ball gradually flowering into a floribunda of exquisite delicacy, centred with gold. As we read on, the petals take on more definition and the connections unwrap. This is a dazzling display of story-telling is set against a background of an emerging city, ruthless, modern and changing.

I really enjoyed this book, as I have all Tash Aw’s books. I very much hope to see it on the short list. This completes all the books that were already published when the long list came out. Two more have been hastily rushed out from the printers and are waiting for me at Primrose Hill Bookshop. One of them is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which I think is the one with 800 or so pages and the other is a first-time novel by Eve Harris. Meanwhile, before I get to those, I can read the new Samantha Harvey, All is Song (a writer I also discovered through the Man Booker Longlist. So read on…

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