Sunday, October 17, 2010

News from Shanghai: a book by Qiu Xiaolong

The News From Shanghai
The New York Times Review of Books, October 15, 2010

YEARS OF RED DUST: Stories of Shanghai
By Qiu Xiaolong
St. Martin's Press, September 2010, 227 pp.; $24.99;
ISBN: 978-0-312-62809-3, ISBN10: 0-312-62809-9, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, 240 pp.

In the first four decades of the People’s Republic, Shanghai existed in a strange limbo, a kind of ghostly half-life. No longer the jeweled sewer of decadence and corruption it had once been — a city of opium smokers and courtesans, millionaires and beggars, the high elegance of the Bund and the conspiratorial darkness of the foreign concessions — it lingered on under Communism as an industrial center, a vital source of taxable wealth, but symbolically something of an embarrassment, its foreignness a stain that couldn’t be washed away. Then, after Deng Xiao­ping liberalized its economy in 1991, Shanghai roared back to life and regained its place as a financial and cultural hub, a symbol of China’s dizzying emergence on the world stage.

Qiu Xiaolong’s “Years of Red Dust” is an account of those lost years and their aftermath, beginning in 1949 and ending in 2005, and one of the most striking things about it is that it doesn’t feel very, well, Shanghainese. Though it’s set in a longtang, or lane, a narrow street populated by Shanghai’s once-characteristic shikumen, courtyard houses, and though Qiu emphasizes the distinctive culture of gossip and intermingling that goes on in such close quarters, the stories that make up each episode are consumed with China’s national upheavals: the five-year plans, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao, the Tiananmen Square massacre and what came after. Shanghai itself — its language, its legends, its cuisine — appears here and there, but in the most muted fashion. Reading this book alongside Han Bang­qing’s “Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai” or Kazuo Ishiguro’s “When We Were Orphans” is an object lesson in how Communism erased China’s local histories (even the history of a great cosmopolis) and imposed a rigid new national identity in their place.

This puts “Years of Red Dust” at something of a disadvantage because many of the stories Qiu tells are already quite familiar in the West. Taking on such a wide swath of history and using as its organizing principle a location rather than a family or a single character, he can present only fragments and headlines. Literally so, because each chapter begins with the neighborhood’s final “blackboard newsletter” of the year, summing up the significant (national) events of, say, 1952, 1966 or 1980. This makes the book interesting as a historical text, but somewhat unsatisfying as a work of fiction.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t many moments of pathos and pungent humor as we witness the rise and fall of individual fortunes over the course of such turbulent times: the “(tofu) worker poet,” once exalted for his proletarian verses, reduced to selling tofu when his work goes out of style; the young army nurse, lionized as a heroic casualty of the Korean War, who later returns, under suspicion that she has been brainwashed in an American P.O.W. camp; the pensioner who would rather stop taking his heart medicine than accept money from his son, who owns a karaoke club with a sideline in prostitution. These are rich and evocative stories, but Qiu (who was born and raised in Shanghai, but now lives in Missouri) treats them sketchily, as illustrations rather than fully formed narratives. At times we have the uncomfortable sense that he may want us to see these characters as victims of history rather than independent actors.

With its almanac-like form, “Years of Red Dust,” reminded me of Han ­Shaogong’s novel “A Dictionary of Ma­qiao,” which describes how the residents of a remote village kept their eccentric folkways alive during the same four decades. But Maqiao had the great advantage of being tiny, insignificant and thus shielded from the full glare of Mao’s attention. As the saying goes, shan gao, huangdi yuan, “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” The residents of Qiu’s longtang aren’t nearly so lucky.

Jess Row is the author of a collection of stories, “The Train to Lo Wu.”
A version of this review appeared in print on October 17, 2010, on page BR21 of the Sunday Book Review.

Excerpt: ‘Years of Red Dust’ (

Welcome to Red Dust Lane
Now, as your would-be landlord—to be exact, your second landlord, nifangdong—I’ve lived in this lane for twenty years by the end of 1949. For a new college student not yet familiar with Shanghai, looking for a place characteristic of the city, a place that is convenient, that is decent, and yet inexpensive, Red Dust is the best choice for you. For the real Shanghai life, I mean.
Red Dust Lane—what a fantastic name! According to a feng shui master, there is a lot of profound learning in the choice of a name. No point in selecting insignificant words, but none in pompous words, either. The evil spirit might get envious of something too grand or good. We’re all made of dust, which is common yet essential, and the epithet red lends a world of difference to it. All of the connotations of the color: human passion, revolution, sacrifice, vanity …
You are an honest, hardworking young man, I know, so I hope you will become one of my subtenants here. Let’s take a walk along the lane, so you can really see for yourself.
The first record of the lane is from the late Qing dynasty. Look at this impressive street sign written in the magnificent calligraphy of a Qing dynasty Juren—a successful civil service examination candidate at the provincial level. After that, it was developed as part of the French concession, though not as a central part of it. Indeed, so many changes, like the white clouds in the sky—one moment, a gray dog; the next moment, a black weasel … Of course, now things are changing again. The Communists are advancing with flying colors and the Nationalists retreating helter-skelter. But the one thing under the sun that will never change, I assure you: this is a most marvelous lane.
Think about the location—at the very center of Shanghai. To the south, the City God Temple Market, no more than fifteen minutes’ walk, where you can enjoy an amazing variety of Shanghai snacks. To the north, you can stroll along to Nanjing Road, the street-long shopping center of Shanghai. If you prefer the fancier stores on Huaihai Road, it takes no more than fifteen minutes to get there. On a summer night, you may occasionally smell the characteristic twang from the Huangpu River. Strolling around those foreign buildings lined up along the Bund, like the Hong Kong Bank or the Cathay Hotel, you may feel as if the river were flowing through you, and the heart of the city beating along with you.
Our lane is medium-sized with several sublanes. Another plus, I will say. The front entrance opens onto Jinling Road. There, just a block ahead, you can see the Zhonghui Mansion—the high-rise owned by Big Brother Shen of the notorious Blue Triad, now down and out in Hong Kong. Karma. As for the back entrance of the lane, it leads into the Ninghai Food Market. In case of an unexpected visitor, you can run out in your slippers and come back with a live carp still gasping for air. In addition, there are two side entrances on Fujian Road, with a cluster of small shops and stalls. And peddlers too. Nothing can beat the location here.
This lane, or longtang, of Red Dust, may in itself tell you something of Shanghai history. After the Opium War, the city was forced open to the Western powers as a treaty port with areas selected as foreign concessions. The expatriates were then unable to tap the immense potential of the city, so some Chinese were allowed to move in. Soon the concession authorities had collective dwellings built for them in the designated lots. To make them convenient to manage, the houses were designed in the same architectural style, then arranged in lines like barracks, row after row, accessible to the main lane from sublanes. As in other lanes, most of the buildings in Red Dust belong to the shikumen style, the typical Shanghai two-storied house with a stone doorframe and a small courtyard. In the early concession days, a shikumen house was designed for one family, with rooms for different purposes—wings, hall, front room, dining room, corner room, back room, attic, dark room, and tingzijian, a cubicle above the kitchen. As a result of the city housing shortage, some of the rooms were leased. Then individually subleased, with the rooms further partitioned or subdivided, so now a “room” is practically the space for a family. You may have heard of a comedy called 72 Families in a House, which is about such an overcrowded housing situation. Red Dust is not like that. There are no more than fifteen families in our shikumen, you have my word on it.
In Red Dust, people of differing social or financial status are mixed together. Small-business owners or executives take the wing or a floor, while ordinary workers choose the back room or the attic. As for the tingzijian, it usually goes to those struggling men of letters—the tingzijian writers. They are really fantastic places for creative souls, with constant inspiration coming from the lane.
Indeed, your life is incredibly enriched with all the activity and interaction of the lane. You become part of the lane, and the lane, a part of you. Through the open black-painted door, you see this first-floor hall, don’t you? It was turned into a common kitchen area long ago, with the coal stoves of a dozen or more families all squeezed in, along with pots and pans, coal briquettes, and pigeon-house-like cabinets hung on the walls. Squeezed, but not necessarily so bad. Cooking in here, you may learn the recipes of provincial cuisines from your neighbors. Coming back soaked one rainy night, you don’t have to worry about catching a cold: a pot of ginger tea is being brewed for you on your neighbor Uncle Zhao’s stove, and Elder Sister Wu will add a spoonful of brown sugar into the steaming hot drink. Nor will you find it monotonous scrubbing your clothes on a washboard in the courtyard, where Granny Liu or Auntie Chen will keep you informed of all the latest news of the lane. Some say Shanghainese are born wheelers and dealers. That’s not true, but there may be something of that which comes out of the way people in Shanghai have always lived in a kind of miniature society, constantly handling relationships among close neighbors.
People get together a lot not only in the shikumen, but in the lane too. Their rooms being so crowded, people need to find space elsewhere. All day long, the lane is vibrant with life—informal, relaxing, and spontaneous. In the early gray light, women will come out in their pajamas, first carrying chamber pots, then later hurrying to the food market, returning with full bamboo baskets and preparing food in the common sinks of the lane while spreading the gossip heard overnight. Men will stretch out, practicing Tai Chi outside, brewing the first pot of Dragon Well tea, singing snatches of Beijing opera, and exchanging a few words about the weather or the political weather. For lunchtime, those people at home will step out again, holding rice bowls, chatting, laughing, or exchanging a slice of fried pork for a nugget of steamed belt fish. In the evening, Red Dust gets even more exciting—men playing chess or cards or mahjong under the lane lamp, women chatting or knitting or washing. In summer, it is so hot inside that some will take out bamboo recliners or mats. And a few even choose to sleep out in the lane—
Let’s take a turn here. Watch out for the droplets from the laundry on these bamboo poles across the sky of the lane. An American journalist once said that the colorful clothing festooned on a network of bamboo poles presents an Impressionist scene. But according to a folk belief, walking under women’s underwear may bring bad luck. Whether you believe it or not, it can’t hurt to take a detour. And that’s another convenience of those sublanes. You can move through the lane a number of different ways. Here we are, coming to the front entrance of the lane.
Oh, look at those people gathered here, sitting on bamboo chairs, wooden stools, and holding teas, cigarettes, and paper fans. This is another special thing about the lane. The evening talk of Red Dust Lane—Red Dust talk.
You may well find chess and card games and talk among neighbors in other lanes of the city. But what is going on here is truly one of a kind. Some people have moved away but still come back to Red Dust for the evening talk. It is a time-honored tradition here. Except in bad weather, a group of people always turns out for the evening conversation of the lane and about the lane.
Now what’s special, you may say, about neighbors talking? Well, what makes it unique is the way they make a story out of everything, a way of seeing the world in a grain of sand. Of course, the lane residents don’t invent stories with real heroes or heroines—certainly not the type of “the talented scholar and beautiful girl” or “un-rivaled kung fu master.” Nor stories with conflicts or climaxes as in books. Still, our storytellers try all kinds of experiments, traditional or avant-garde, flashing back and forth, showing but not telling, sometimes narrating from a special point of view, and sometimes from all points of view.
Since the characters are real people, the evening talk is enhanced through its interaction with the real Red Dust life. While listening to a story, we offer interpretations from our own perspectives, and contributions too, if we happen to know something the narrator knows not. After all, a narrator is not always that reliable, what with their told or untold reasons for making an omission or alteration. The audience knows better and is capable of pulling a story to pieces and retelling it in different ways.
A written story inevitably comes to an end at the last page of a book, whether happily ever after or not. Nothing is like that in real life. You can put an end to your narrative one intoxicated evening, but in a few years, there will be some new development or unexpected twist. A comedy turns into a tragedy, or vice versa, which changes the meaning of the earlier story. Needless to say, sometimes we also play a part, however inadvertent or insignificant, in the stories of others, which, in turn, come to affect ours.
Now look at this young man sitting in the center of the group. He’s called Old Root—his surname is Geng, a homonym for “root,” and he invented the nickname for himself. According to him, “old” in Chinese does not necessarily refer to one’s age; it also connotes wisdom and experience. Though in his twenties, he has an old head on his young shoulders. Self-educated, he reads books like someone swallowing dates without worrying about their pits. Like the proverb goes, the water does not have to run deep: a dragon in it will make it special. Judging from the position of his chair, he must be the storyteller for the evening.
Oh, there’s a blackboard leaning against his chair. I don’t know anything about the blackboard, but there must be something exciting about it. And sitting next to him is Four-Eyed Liu, another bookworm, who likes to give his newspaper-based interpretation to everything. And Big Hua, who is as curious as a cat. Let’s stay here and listen here for a while. Don’t worry about the time. If it gets late, I will buy you a night snack—as your second landlord in Red Dust Lane.

Do you remember the opening lines of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms? After peace comes war, and after war comes peace. Things are just like that, an endless repetition in this mundane world of ours. Time rolls up and down, waves upon waves, leaving behind, on the moon-bleached beach, stories like shells. Open it, and you may find something after your heart, but if not, don’t be too disappointed. It is only a matter of perspective that things appear to be either good or bad. In the year 1949, with the Communists in, and the Nationalists out, there are many things appearing and disappearing, like always, with the change of dynasties.
In the early spring days of 1949, the Nationalist government boasted of making Shanghai an oriental Stalin grad, a turning point in China’s civil war, but to the people here it felt unreal. Shortly after Chiang Kai-shek announced his resignation, a monstrous white snake was killed by lightning in Qingpu county—a portentous sign similar to the one at the end of the Qing dynasty. Then panic spread, after news came that the vaults of the Shanghai Bank had been emptied of their stock of bullion. My friend Cai, a waiter in Dexing Restaurant, told me something he saw with his own eyes. For several days in April, the restaurant was reserved by the top commanders of the Nationalist troops. One night, he brought a platter of sea cucumber with shrimp roe to a reserved private room, where he saw a celebrated courtesan reclining naked on the table, feeding her big toe like a fresh scallop to a four-star general, her white foot still flexing to a tune from the gramophone: “After tonight, when will you come back?” Dexing was a genuine Shanghai cuisine restaurant, and these Nationalists knew they could never enjoy a Shanghai banquet again. With high-ranking officials being so decadent and pessimistic, how could the Chiang dynasty not fall?
Well, don’t be impatient, my Red Dust fellows. I’m not going to give you a long lecture on the change of dynasties. I’m coming round to the story for the evening, and to the blackboard too. It’s just that it always takes one thing to lead to another in this world. Karma in Buddhism, or whatever you want to call it. Things are related and interrelated, though this is not so easily comprehensible to laymen like you or me.
Back to the story. Because of the negative propaganda about the Communists in those days, rich Shanghainese started fleeing the city by what ever means possible—rushing to the airport, to the train station, to the harbor. Like others, in March my boss fled to Taiwan without notice, abandoning the factory. I had to find work to support myself, so I borrowed from the food market a tricycle used for shipping frozen fish bars in its trunk. With the war raging near Ningbo, the market hadn’t had a supply of fish for days.
My idea was simple. As people were frantically leaving with all their belongings, transportation within the city had become a huge problem. For some, a tricycle could be the very means they needed, and that presented an opportunity for me. Also, some were getting rid of their things very cheaply. A heavy mahogany Ming-style cabinet of exquisite craftsmanship sold for a silver dollar, I heard. In fact, I myself got a radio for practically nothing. It was the chance of a lifetime—if you had a way to carry what you found.

Excerpted from Years of Red Dust by Qiu Xiaolong.
Copyright © 2010 by Qiu Xiaolong.
Published in October 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

QIU XIAOLONG is a poet, professor and author of five previous novels featuring Inspector Chen. Born and raised in Shanghai, where he was a renowned poet and translator, Qiu lives with his family in St. Louis, Missouri.
Qui Xialong's Website

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