Saturday, May 05, 2007

A loyal character dancer by Qiu XiaoLong

Interesting, but not life-changing. Don't read this if you are looking for a page-turning, spine-tingling mystery. Read this if you looking for a snapshot of life in modern-day Shanghai. Not the tall-buildings-luxury-brands Shanghai, but a living, breathing China in transition as seen though the eyes of average Shanghai residents.

You know when you watch old kung-fu movies (think Drunken Master) and the subtitles are always dodgy? Or even better, when the speech has been dubbed into English and it's always worth laughing at the character's mouth movements that don't match the sounds (supposedly) coming out of them.

I think part of the reason the subtitles/dubbing is so unnatural is because Chinese just doesn't translate well into English. OK, kung-fu films are not a good example, but Little Fung, don't you know who I am? Your Master was a fool and I will not leave you alive to avenge him! just doesn't sound like anything anyone would ever say in English.

A loyal character dancer brought back memories of those badly dubbed films - I just got the feeling that the author was thinking in Chinese and then translating his thoughts into English. The writing is quite clunky and (dare I say it) reads like a prize-winning Form 5 English composition.

The book is set in Shanghai and follows Chief Inspector Chen, an honest, poetry-loving policeman with few political aspirations. The mystery revolves around a missing woman, Wen, the loyal character dancer of the title.

Wen's husband, Feng, has illegally emigrated to the US, leaving Wen living in poverty in a rural Fujian village. After a gang fight in New York's Chinatown, he falls into the hands of the US Marshalls office who offer him a deal if he testifies against the snakeheads, the infamous Chinese smuggling rings.

Feng agrees on one condition. His wife must join him in the US under the witness protection plan. Both China and the US are keen to crack down on smuggling rings, so the wheels are set in motion for Wen's move to the States. The US Marshalls even send a Chinese speaking agent, Catherine Rohn, to China to make sure that everything goes smoothly.

Then Wen disappears. This presents a serious glitch - especially with Catherine Rohn about to arrive from the US - so Inspector Chen is assigned to the case. Firstly to keep an eye on Rohn and make sure that she only views the "accepted" face of China and secondly to try and find the missing Wen.

The mystery itself is not that exciting and the book is actually about China, and how Chinese people fit into the new capitalist environment while the old communist structures crumble away slowly around them. The reality of Chinese people's struggles, especially the grinding poverty in the rural areas, forms the "meat" of this book.

However, Qiu has written his book with an underlying current of optimism so all is not doom and gloom. His descriptions of food also stand out; they left me hungry - where can I get Shanghai dumplings in London?

Overall verdict - Enjoyable but not outstanding. I haven't got the urge to hunt out the other books in the series, although I'm sure I'll get round to reading them one day.

More reviews here.

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