Shanghai constant source of new mysteries for writer

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The Independent Culture

For author Qiu Xiaolong, each visit back to his hometown Shanghai reveals new mysteries for him to grapple with as he tries to make sense of a changing China in his books.

Since his last visit in October, Qiu's beloved Bund - the city's neoclassical riverfront - has had a facelift, new Metro lines snake beneath the city and the massive World Expo grounds have risen up.

The global aspirations of the "Pearl of the Orient" parallel the success of the 57-year-old US-based writer, whose international following is growing thanks to his unique blend of suspense, poetry and history.

"So many things are happening in China. You just come back and you find things to write about," he said in an interview.

Qiu has been busy keeping pace. His first short story collection, "Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai", will be released in English in September, and his seventh Inspector Chen novel "Don't Cry Tai Lake" will follow.

Although written in English, both have already been published in French, with the newspaper Le Monde serialising the short stories.

In Germany, he has already sold the film rights for "Don't Cry Tai Lake" and a Chinese publisher translated three of his books - although censors demanded Shanghai be identified as "City H" throughout.

One of Shanghai's most perceptive chroniclers, Qiu sees China through the eyes of someone who grew up during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.

His first writing may have been a self-criticism he said he ghost-wrote for his father, who was branded "black" for being a businessman and too weak at the time to put pen to paper. His persecutors were allegedly poor "red" workers.

One of Qiu's recurring themes is how China's economic reforms have flipped the hierarchy of red and black. He plays with this idea in real life too, proudly wearing a black t-shirt from Barcelona bookstore "Negra y Criminal" (Black and Criminal).

Another red tee-shirt in his suitcase simply says "communist" - but his wife forbade him from wearing that one to the Expo, he said, laughing.

At the World's Fair, between visits to the US, Shanghai and North Korean pavilions, he chatted with older Shanghainese, who said they had returned four or five times despite long lines and relatively expensive 24-dollar tickets.

"They told me they have never been abroad and they may never go abroad. So that makes a huge difference for them," he said.

"A reader suggested to me that Inspector Chen should chase a criminal through the World Expo because it's like a maze," he said.

Inspector Chen is a poet assigned to police work upon graduation, whose deductions are often driven by verses drifting through his head.

The mix of poetry and crime was inspired by Chinese classics such as "Journey to the West" or "Dream of the Red Chamber", where poems act like a soundtrack, announcing new characters or signaling rising emotions, he said.

A poet himself, Qiu also figured if he smuggled poetry into stories about murder, corruption and political intrigue, his verse would find more readers.

His love for detective stories dates back to other smuggling days as a 14-year-old during the Cultural Revolution, when he read a banned, yellowing translation of Sherlock Holmes stories, which he hid under a red cover.

"People would see a red cover and think it's Chairman Mao's book. But it was not that - it was Sherlock Holmes!" he recalled, grinning.

In his latest novel, Qiu focuses on environmental abuses as Chen investigates a murder at Tai Lake, a scenic spot that has been plagued by pollution-linked algae.

"For the inspector, it's not just the chemical part but also in what kind of materialistic - what kind of profit-means-everything - age would people do this kind of thing?"

In "Years of Red Dust", Qiu tells a series of interconnected tales, whose meanings change with each story that follows.

In one, the residents of a lane eulogise a neighbour as a revolutionary martyr after hearing she died in the Korean war, but in a later story, when they learn she survived, they shun her.

"In Shanghai this kind of thing happens in real life quite a lot," he said.

Qiu said he imagines what his father would say if he were alive to see the Expo, where Chinese visitors rush past the French pavilion's priceless paintings to jostle for a glimpse of a Louis Vuitton handbag.

"When I used to read Sherlock Holmes, I took for granted it would be like an impossible dream for me to one day read this story in the open," he said.

"Something like the World Expo would have been beyond the wildest imagination - unreal."

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