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Monday, 18 April 2016

‘French Concession' by Xiao Bai

Translated by Chenxin Jiang
Published by Point Blank,
8 February 2016.
 ISBN: 978-1-78074-902-0
As  soon as this book begins the reader sinks into the febrile atmosphere of Shanghai in Year 20 of the Chinese Republic which had replaced the Qing dynasty to rule over China.  For the rest of the world the year is called 1931.  Inside Shanghai's European controlled areas the complexities of life for Chinese and foreigners alike need to be  appreciated.  The protagonist of the tale is Hsueh Wei-Shih, a French-Chinese photojournalist who becomes involved with the French Concession Police.  The concessions of territory and, even more seriously, of extraterritorial jurisdiction had been made by a weakened China in the 19th century.  The Western powers therefore were administering their own law in Shanghai's International Settlement (under British and US control) and in the independent French Concession.
There  is a sizeable cast so the author has prefaced the book with a list of characters, giving some detail on each one.  The major problem, as always, for the Western reader is to distinguish the different Chinese names and the ability to refer back to this list does make this task easier.
The story is exciting and fast moving.  The themes are often violent and also raunchy. Communists organise assassinations while the criminal Green Gang pursues its interests and the French political police try to establish some order.  White Russians trade in guns and with French functionaries and other Europeans  involved in land speculations enjoy life at elaborate parties  such as one with the theme of the Sinking of the Titanic.  Outside  Chinese prowl rat-infested alleys or enjoy nightclubs and brothels while the Japanese provide a potential threat.   This feels like a very decadent world.
Hsueh gets into precarious situations particularly with women, as he tries to find out about the sinister goings on.  His involvement with the White Russian Therese and the Chinese Communist Leng complicates his life enormously but his readiness to spin  stories helps him to escape some predicaments as various groups attempt  to use him to pursue their aims.  
The story uses multiple viewpoints - the communist cell leader, various policemen, French and English governing functionaries, women in different levels of society, the women in Hsueh's life and, of course, Hsueh himself.  The action  gets faster and more furious as the story progresses with quite a death toll mounting up.
Xiao Bai obviously loves words and has superb knowledge of little details of life in 1930s Shanghai so the book has a rich depth of imagery.  He has even used some genuine characters of the time.
Reviewer: Jennifer S. Palmer
This is the first novel by Xiao Bai to be translated into English
Xiao Bai was born in 1968 in Shanghai. He is the author of Horny Hamlet, a prize-winning collection of essays, and the novel Game Point. In 2013 his novella, Xu Xiangbi the Spy, won the tenth annual Shanghai Literary Prize. French Concession is his first novel to be translated into English. He lives in Shanghai.
Jennifer Palmer Throughout my reading life crime fiction has been a constant interest; I really enjoyed my 15 years as an expatriate in the Far East, the Netherlands & the USA but occasionally the solace of closing my door to the outside world and sitting reading was highly therapeutic. I now lecture to adults on historical topics including Famous Historical Mysteries.

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