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September 21, 2017

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Fictional cop takes to the gritty streets of Shanghai

SHANGHAI--To climb into Qiu Xiaolong's childhood home, down a narrow alley where women chop and fry lunch in shared kitchens, is to step on creaking floorboards into Shanghai's past.

But at the top of a steep, worn wooden ladder is a loft with a window revealing the silvery crown of an office tower, part of the glass-and-steel skyscape that heralds Shanghai's leap into the future.

But for a city to fully secure its place in the global culture these days, it helps to have a fictional detective taking foreign readers where the guidebooks don't go, and that's where Qiu comes in with his brainchild, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police.

In China, the communist authorities still impose boundaries on all things creative, and an author must be careful how much of the recent past to insert into a work of fiction. That particularly applies to Qiu, a Shanghai native transplanted to St. Louis, Missouri.

His seven mysteries published in English often are based on real-life corruption scandals, political intrigues and murders, and at 59, this mild-mannered poet and literary scholar has lived through tumultuous times himself.

In his teens came the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when aged revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, maneuvering against his rivals, unleashed ultra-leftist "Red Guards" to wage a reign of terror on teachers, artists and others of "bourgeois" backgrounds. Only Qiu's bronchitis spared him a stint, along with millions of others, at "re-education" camps in the countryside.

In 1989, when the military crushed the pro-democracy movement massed in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, he was on a fellowship in St. Louis, and decided it was best not to come home.

Qiu even has a fleeting connection to the man at the center of the latest convulsion in Chinese politics, Communist princeling Bo Xilai, who was ousted in an affair that includes a suspected murder. The two were graduate students at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in the late 1970s, though their only interaction, Qiu says, was when Bo borrowed his favorite pingpong paddle. He never returned it.

"One thing good about writing about China is that so many things are happening, you don't have to worry about writers' block," he remarked as he sat in a favorite Shanghai restaurant, "Laobanzhai," or the "Boss's Place."

Here, a dish described on the menu as "vegetable rice" sells for as little as 3 yuan (about 50 cents) a bowl, and penny-pinching seniors sometimes bring cheap cuts of meat in their pockets to slip into their noodles.

The very rich, on the other hand, can flaunt it on "knife fish," or Yangtze saury, an endangered species advertised by the restaurant for 4,400 yuan a kilogram (more than US$300 a pound).

Coming back to the Bo Xilai case, Qiu is forgiving about the missing pingpong paddle, but he has qualms about Bo's style during his time as party chief in the sprawling Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing, when he championed mass sing-alongs that harked back to the Cultural Revolution days.

It "speaks of the real danger of the Cultural Revolution staging a comeback," Qiu said.

The Shanghai that Qiu grew up had once been known as the "Paris of the Orient," but became a grimy shadow of its pre-communist glory— a city of workers' fatigues and shoppers lining up with ration tickets.

Qiu worked at a textile factory and buried himself in books. His translations of T.S. Eliot's work into Chinese eventually led him to a Ford Foundation fellowship and St. Louis.

His Inspector Chen series began in 2000 with "Death of a Red Heroine," in which the investigation into the murder of a young woman, a model worker, leads to high places in the Communist Party.

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