BEIJING (Reuters) - Corrupt officials, fallen property tycoons and an incendiary gap between rich and poor... China’s racy financial capital Shanghai provides great fodder for crime writing, says Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong.
The U.S.-based author’s tales of Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a Communist Party member and beat cop probing politically sensitive murder cases in Shanghai’s underworld, have proved an unlikely hit for Western audiences.
In China, Qiu’s stories of Shanghai gangsters, sleaze and official misdeeds is less beguiling to official censors.
“The publishers promised they wouldn’t cut any of my work. But they ended up changing the name of Shanghai into ‘H city’,” Qiu, 54, told Reuters during an interview at a Beijing hotel.
“They took out street names and other landmarks because they were worried people would recognize these places as Shanghai.”
Qiu, who grudgingly accepted censorship for his first three novels — “Death of a Red Heroine,” “Loyal Character Dancer,” and “When Red is Black” — refused cuts for his fourth, “A Tale of Two Cities.”
“I haven’t heard from the publishers since. Maybe they are still thinking about it,” he shrugged.
While frustrating for the author, the cuts fooled no-one.
“Chinese newspaper reviews refer to my books as being set in Shanghai. Perhaps the censors don’t read the newspapers?” Chen laughed.
Chen, who grew up during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), but has lived in the United States for the past 19 years, can’t help but have a keen sense of irony.
The ruling Communist Party that denounced his factory-owning father as a “black capitalist” in the 1950s and 1960s welcomed businessmen into its ranks in 2002.
Qiu, who once penned a self-criticism for his father during the Cultural Revolution, found himself at a prestigious government think-tank in the 1980s writing critiques on the works of modernist poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
“The essays would say that the works had value, but would also warn people to be alert that the writers were products of capitalist society. That was the formula of the time,” Qiu said.
After leaving China in the late 1980s to study at Washington University in T.S. Eliot’s home-town St Louis, Qiu came back to Shanghai eight years later to find the formula had changed.
Economic reform had brought wealth, corruption and seething frustration from those left behind in the boom. Qiu, a bespectacled poet and professor, turned to crime writing to document the changes.
Fallen Communist heroes, people smugglers and gangsters became the counterpoints to Inspector Chen, a policeman poet, struggling to make sense of wrenching changes in Shanghai.
Qiu’s Inspector Chen series is hugely popular in the United States and Europe. Some are bestsellers, including the debut novel “Death of A Red Heroine” which won the crime writers’ Anthony Award for best first novel in 2001.
Written in English, the books have been translated into 19 languages including Swedish, Japanese and Hebrew.
Qiu plays down his similarities with Chen, with whom he shares a love for fine food and poetry, and a pedigree in politically charged bureaucracy.
But he can’t help lending Chen nostalgia for simpler times, when the guiltiest pleasure available to a Shanghai high-school graduate in the 1970s was reading banned English books furtively on a park bench.
“My first visit back to China after seven or eight years, I went to Bund Park (Shanghai) with some friends. I saw a young girl reading a book on a bench, just like I used to. I was so touched by the scene. Then I saw she was reading a book about the stock market. I was very disappointed,” Qiu sighed.
The episode, and other anecdotes that have haunted Qiu, inevitably become Chen’s bug-bears.
The inspiration behind the most recent installment in the Inspector Chen series, “Red Mandarin Dress,” was a picture in an early 1960s photographic magazine that somehow survived a raid on his parents’ house by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
The image of a woman clad in a traditional cheongsam running hand-in-hand with her young son struck Qiu deeply.
The sensual dress, denounced as the height of decadence in the 1960s, made Qiu wonder “whether the mother and son had lived or died, or if they had survived, what kind of trauma they had.”
The dress appears on the bodies of the victims in his latest novel “to show how a person’s mind could become twisted through all the things that happened in modern China’s history,” Qiu said.
While China’s often turbulent history inevitably pervades Qiu’s crime stories, some have seen the series as eerily prescient.
Qiu’s third and fourth novels “When Red is Black” (2004) and “A Tale of Two Cities” (2006) drew portraits of vicious property tycoons and sleazy bureaucrats, even as graft investigators gathered in Shanghai to uncover a massive corruption scandal.
The scandal, which netted dozens of officials and businessmen linked to the misuse of some 3.4 billion yuan ($478 million) of the city’s pension fund, is still unraveling today.
Inspector Chen is therefore unlikely to retire soon.
“There are so many things happening in China right now,” Qiu said. “Chen should be around for a while yet.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Macfie and Megan Goldin)