FRENCH CONCESSION by Xiao Bai with Guest Reviewer

French Concession

by Xiao Bai
On Sale: 07/07/2015
HarperCollins /Harper
On Sale: 07/07/2015
E-Book &  Hard Cover Pages: 368

 E-Galley provided by publisher for review.  No remuneration was exchanged and all opinion presented herein is mine or that of the guest reviewer except as noted.


A heart-stopping literary noir and richly atmospheric tale of espionage and international intrigue set in Shanghai in 1931—an electrifying, decadent world of love, violence, and betrayal filled with femmes fatales, criminals, revolutionaries, and spies

A boat from Hong Kong arrives in Shanghai harbor, carrying an important official in the Nationalist Party and his striking wife, Leng. Amid the raucous sound of firecrackers, gunshots ring out: an assassin has shot the official and then himself. Leng disappears in the ensuing chaos.

Hsueh, a Franco-Chinese photographer aboard the same boat, has become captivated by Leng’s beauty and unconcealed misery. Now she is missing. But Hsueh is plagued by a mystery closer to home: he suspects his White Russian lover, Therese, is unfaithful. Why else would she have disappeared so often on their recent vacation? When he’s arrested for mysterious reasons in the French Concession and forced to become a police collaborator, he realizes that in the seamy, devious world of Shanghai, no one is who they appear to be.

Coerced into spying for the authorities, Hsueh discovers that Therese is secretly an arms dealer, supplying Shanghai’s gangs with weapons. His investigation of Therese eventually leads him back to Leng, a loyal revolutionary with ties to a menacing new gang led by a charismatic Communist whose acts of violence and terrorism threaten the entire country.

His aptitude for espionage draws Hsueh into a dark underworld of mobsters, smugglers, anarchists, and assassins. Torn between Therese and Leng, he vows to protect them both.


Today’s review  of this book is by the only person in this house who has spent a lot of time in Shanghai, my husband, Don.
Offering a new point of view for the blog, Don is a careful reader and with his experience traveling and doing business in China is a good choice for reviewing a new book from Xiao Bai.


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Reading anything about pre-war 20th century Shanghai is usually a lesson in contrast for anyone who has seen the giga-state that modern Shanghai has become.

In this new work, available to the west in translation, the author describes a Shanghai the modern visitor could not even begin to imagine:

Pudong as a collection of farm hamlets.

The foreign concessions full of westerners run amok.

The criminal gangs and the communist political cells indistinguishable from one another and the Nationalist government.

And the Japanese army and diplomats slowly pressing in from all sides.

The Nationalist security forces seem indistinguishable from the gangs and the Communists when the narrative is considered at arms length.
The young man in the middle is a photographer and a dilettante, who finds himself in the middle of the chaos and the alleyways of the old city and it’s foreign concessions. I find little to sympathize with in this character, his lack of direction tugs him from one sphere of influence to another, from the White Russian lover to the French police, to the press who buy his photos, to the love interest in the communist cell that he develops an interest in by chance – but I think we as readers are meant to not particularly like him.

In fact, I only found the two female protagonists at all likable, having played the cards they were dealt with as well as they could.

A very enjoyable translation to read, I was put off at first by the list of characters at the front of the book, seemed to me to be like a line up of actors and roles or like a game of Clue, “Mustard in the Dining Room”. But once past this it became engrossing.

Another interesting read from modern China.


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