A concession to translated Chinese novels
An American fugitive escaped to 1930s Shanghai, burned off his fingerprints with acid and made his first fortune by leasing slot machines to the city's many coffee shops.
If you keep asking, Xiao Bai could go on with details of the law in the former French concession relevant to how the fugitive was later caught, the possible charges he faced in the United States, the type of acid he used to burn off the fingerprints and the types of slot machines available in Shanghai back then ... and on and on and on.
None of these details are in his espionage thriller "French Concession," available in various languages. The author only borrowed the fugitive's name for a character in the novel – one of the many Chinese, foreign and mixed-race characters with hidden real-life stories.
It's a little game he enjoys in order to bring some fun into the tiring daily writing process. Such hidden references re-create 1930s Shanghai from a distance with historical accuracy, familiar yet unique ambiance and the potential for curious readers to explore more on their own.
It might explain why many critics say the real protagonist of the thrilling tale containing complicated character relations is the year 1931.
"Before I wrote some of the chapters, I would revisit lots of archive materials in English and French, all kinds of letters and memoirs, news reports and police reports," Xiao Bai said. "When I wrote some other chapters, I would revisit Chinese fiction written in the 1930s. 'French Concession' is like a 3,000-piece puzzle about 1930s China and former concessions."
Puzzles are one of Xiao Bai's favorite games, and he once solved one with 1,000 pieces.
The author and the novel made headlines in 2013 when HarperCollins paid US$60,000 to buy the English copyright. It was just after Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and before Liu Cixin won Hugo Awards and his science-fiction novel "The Three-Body Problem" swept the globe.
Translated versions of Chinese novels were a hard sell, and the average copyright price was only a few thousand dollars, even for some top-tier authors.
Xiao Bai was a relatively new name even to Chinese readers, and the novel had modest success domestically. However, few in the industry doubted the American publisher's decision.
The book's American editor, HarperCollins Executive Editor Terry Karten, said he was impressed by the story as well as "the way it is told, the narrative pacing and rhythm, the setting, the characters and the historical detail. I couldn't think of another 'literary noir' novel set in Shanghai at this particular time."
Famed Chinese writer Li Jingze, among the first who championed the novel, called Xiao Bai a rare Chinese author with real international perspective and storytelling, rooted in his mastery of English and Western culture and literature.
The novel has since been translated into multiple languages and reprinted with scores of positive reviews. Many find the historical details and the recreated ambiance particularly intriguing. Some compared it to other works of fiction written in or about 1930s Shanghai, such as Eileen Chang's "Lust, Caution."
Chang's 1979 novella, set in 1930s and 1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong, was adapted to the silver screen by Ang Lee, winning the renowned director his second Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival on the heels of "Brokeback Mountain."
Emmanuelle Pechenart, the French translator of "French Concession," also translated "Lust, Caution."
Since then, mysteries surrounded Xiao Bai. Even his literary friends knew little about his private life, and he became "that author who never went abroad but mastered English."
"To be more accurate, I never studied abroad, but of course I traveled, and more in recent years like many Chinese," Xiao Bai said.
He taught himself English, rooted in years of research in subjects he found interesting, which was also how his creative writing career and first book came about.
In 2005, a Chinese journal's chief editor was attracted to a netizen on Tianya, China's most popular online forum at the time. The same person was writing about art history from both seriously academic and erotic perspectives.
The posts were later rewritten and titled "Hamlet Libertine" under the pen name Xiao Bai – a common netizen name – and published in the journal. It has remained one of his signature works, critically acclaimed as "an in-depth cultural piece wrapped with eroticism."
Born in 1970s Shanghai, Xiao Bai's youth coincided with the city's rapid development, including noticeably more symbols of a modern, cosmopolitan city like coffee shops.
"There were many coffee shops in 1930s Shanghai, so common that if you look in the police archives, all kinds of incidents happened in coffee shops. But when I was a college student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were only starting to re-emerge in the city," he said.
"If you think about it, it is such a common scene in the West that you can't really think of any literary masterpieces, even by coffee lovers, that have significant plots taking place in a coffee shop. That's similar to Shanghai today. It has become so common that it is easily ignored."
But not in 1990s Shanghai, according to the writer.
"At that time, coffee shops carried some sort of special meaning – commercial and imported. Only certain types of people, like young college students or white-collar workers, would go to coffee shops, and I can well imagine something strange and unique took place in one of those coffee shops."