The Case of the Shanghai Shamus

A shy St. Louis poet pens subversive detective stories set in his communist homeland.

Qiu no longer struggles with his loyalty to the Communist Party. But he remains devoted to the city he left two decades ago. Qiu makes frequent trips to Shanghai and other Chinese cities. Thanks to a satellite dish perched on his deck, he also watches several official Chinese news channels at home, and he reads Chinese newspapers on the Internet.

Qiu says it's possible to know more about what's happening inside of China as an expatriate: "There may be a lot of information on the Web, but in China if you key in a person's name, it's often blocked — and you cannot really learn much from the official publications. So in a way I know more about what's wrong with a Shanghai political boss than my friends in China." He's not afraid to use recent events in China as fodder, either. Death of a Red Heroine was based in part on an actual sex and drug scandal from the early 1990s.

Such intrigue makes for page-turning novels. But Chinese government censors have greeted his tales less enthusiastically. Qiu recalls what happened when it came time to translate his first book into Chinese. "I asked them: 'Are you sure you won't have any problems with this?' And they assured me there wouldn't be a problem. Then one or two months later they phoned me and said they had a problem. They said a censorship official had said this could not have happened in Shanghai, so they had to change it. They ended up using the English letter 'H' instead of the name 'Shanghai.' Whenever some sentence offends a censor, they'll just cut it out."

photoillustration by sarah norwood, portrait by je
Poet Qiu Xiaolong has found success in St. Louis and beyond as a mystery novelist.
Jennifer Silverberg
Poet Qiu Xiaolong has found success in St. Louis and beyond as a mystery novelist.

That comes as no surprise to Keith Kahla, Qiu's American editor. Says Kahla: "He's not consciously trying to put forth a political point of view, but in a society that is dominated by politics, everything is political."

Just behind Qiu's St. Louis County home is a pond where, at the end of the workday, he likes to go fishing for crappie and bluegill. Although you can hear the rumble of nearby Interstate 270, it's a placid little pond, ringed by houses and dotted by the occasional dinghy. Casting a line into the water, Qiu notes that it's not so easy to go fishing in Shanghai — you generally need a car, which very few Shanghaiese possess.

At times like these, Qiu can't help but reflect on the historical flukes that have guided him to literary success in the middle of America. What if he'd never begun studying English in a park so many years ago? Would he have scored high enough to attend college? Would he have been able to study T.S. Eliot, the man who ultimately led him to St. Louis? What if he'd simply stayed in China?

"I try to think what I would have been doing myself. Maybe I would have been like Chen, still working in China. Not as a cop. But maybe I would have been like him, working within the system," Qiu says. "If that's the case, what he does — is that enough for my idealistic standards? Would I be satisfied?"

He makes another cast into the pond. When his shiny red bobber dives beneath the surface, he yanks hard on the rod. Sometimes he comes up with a bluegill. Other times, like now, he simply recasts.

"The problem with that life is if you stay in the system for really long, then you will no longer be you," Qiu says softly. "You'll just see yourself as part of the party system. That's what's happening to some of my friends.

"I hope it doesn't happen to Chen anytime soon."

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