Today I lay my claim to Shanghai Noir. You could use the term for a film genre, a literary tradition or a thriller set in Old Shanghai. Sounds like my debut novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.
My novel tells the story of Song Anyi. She’s a rebellious young woman. Soldiers rape and leave her for dead on the road to Shanghai. She recovers but pays a high price to survive the silence and shame she meets. Anyi becomes a dancer in the glittering world of ballrooms and casinos, jazz bars and opium dens. Meanwhile, China goes to war with Japan.
So what does this all have to do with noir?
The term noir originally comes from the film world. It once referred solely to American crime films released in France after WWII. French film critics, noticing the dark themes and ditto lighting, coined the phrase film noir or black cinema.
The hero could be a criminal or a man of law who’s seen too much. His counterpart is always a beautiful woman, a femme fatale, who survives this world by her wits. The conflicts portrayed in film noir are emblematic of the evils that plagued society at the time. As film critic Tim Dirks put it:
There were rarely happy or optimistic endings in noirs.
Think of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944). Check out this top 10 list culled by the film critics at The Guardian and The Observer and you’ll see what I mean. Of course, I fully endorse the placement of The Big Sleep and Chinatown right at the top, though that may be the Angeleno in me.
In addition to film noir, there’s a book version, too. Noir fiction is defined as a literary genre
closely related to hardboiled genre with a distinction that the protagonist is not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator.
The protagonist often battles a legal system or government that is as corrupt and morally damaged as himself. James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is the textbook example of noir fiction.
For a novel about Shanghai when it was a treaty port, you tend to run into the usual suspects:
- Empire of the Sun: book by J.G. Ballard (1984) and film by Steven Spielberg (1987)
- Lust, Caution: novella by Eileen Chang (1979) and film by Ang Lee (2007)
- Shanghai Express: film by Josef Von Sternberg (1932)
- Man’s Fate: book by Andre Malraux (1933)
- When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro (2000)
- The Blue Lotus (Tin Tin) by Herge (1946)
Lust, Caution and Man’s Fate take the Chinese perspective. The remaining works look at Old Shanghai through foreign eyes. Since non-Chinese wrote these books, that’s fair enough.
Yet they can skew the way we look at Shanghai. Until I started researching The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I had assumed that the foreign population in Shanghai was quite significant. And that being a prostitute in those days was a glamorous thing to do.
In the immortal words of Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express:
It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.
lost in translation
As I got deeper into my research for The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I started reading contemporary Chinese fiction. Novels like The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangqing, Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi and the collected works of Eileen Chang.
With the exception of Chang, I found Chinese literature hard to digest. The pacing was slow by Western standards and the cultural references impenetrable for an American-Born Chinese like me.
Modern Chinese writers are having greater luck in finding Western readers. Qiu Xioalong, author of the Inspector Chen series, is now
the undisputed king of Shanghai crime.
Qiu, however, writes from the relative safety of St. Louis in the US. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, crime fiction has become a touchy subject under the current Chinese government.
The truth is crime in China is a problematic genre—it all too often raises tricky political issues, when it appears the censors axe falls swiftly; local politicians are powerful and prickly.
China claims a 99.9% conviction rate in murder cases. That doesn’t leave a lot of crime for novelists.
my kind of novel
Which leads me back to my novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. My aim was to write a novel of Shanghai. I wanted characters that would walk straight off the pages and on to Nanking Road. I wanted to be true to the real men and women of Shanghai. Those who struggled and died in the pursuit of a roof or food or the comfort of another human being. My novel would be for the Chinese of Shanghai: the glamorous ones and the not-so glittering denizens of the Whore of the Orient.
Of course my novel is Shanghai Noir.
Don’t believe me yet? Here’s an excerpt from The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.
The Japanese political attache Tanizaki has just arrived in Shanghai. He has an itch to scratch. Song Anyi has caught his eye. This is him talking.
The city amazed and disgusted him. Perversion was available on any street corner of Shanghai: girls and boys of every age, size and shape. But Tanizaki had a peculiar taste, one that few could appreciate, let alone share, something he would not be able to find on his own. So he sent Kokoro, his best agent, to reconnoitre. She was as well trained as any man and had followed Tanizaki from Kyoto to Tokyo to Peking and now to Shanghai for his current assignment. Her cover here was that of a housemaid. It took Kokoro three days to return with an answer.
‘The person you’re looking for is a blind masseuse,’ she said. ‘Though you must be wary of her. She’s had dealings with our people in the past.’
But Auntie Wen said, ‘You’re too rough. I can’t afford any more of your accidents. The police won’t turn a blind eye forever, no matter who you are.’
‘I want her,’ Tanizaki said.
An earlier version of this article appeared as a guest post on If In Doubt Read during my book blog tour.