Life and Death in Shanghai

By Nian Cheng.

Because Nian Cheng (properly, Zheng Nian) had worked for Shell in Shanghai, her house was ransacked and vandalised before she was eventually hauled off to prison where she was detained without trial in terrible conditions and frequently berated to confess to being a spy for the British. Throughout this time, she steadfastly refused to admit to some crime she’d never committed, and often pointed out how absurd the arguments and claims of her interrogators were.

After six years, Zheng was released, although because she wanted to be exonerated, she initially refused to leave prison, but had no choice in the matter. Even outside prison, she was still under surveillance from her neighbours and her student, Da De. She also discovered, as she had feared, that her daughter, Meiping, had died. Officially, the girl was supposed to have committed suicide, but this, it became clear, was a lie. She had, in fact, been murdered when the extremists were trying to force her to denounce her mother.

Her daughter’s killer only received a nominal sentence.

After the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Mao, life gradually started returning to normal, and Zheng was eventually able to leave China, first for Canada and then the US where she died at the age of 94.

Unlike Jung Chang, whose parents were part of the Party elite until they were brought down by the Cultural Revolution, Zheng was from a wealthy, privileged background, which made her a class enemy. Although life in China was different after 1949, she still had a nice house with servants and a collection of some clearly very expensive objets d’art. Even when she left prison, she still behaved very much like a 太太, partitioning off her accommodation and having a garden. Her attitude seems to have been that her case should be dealt with immediately in much the same way that people in China barge up to the counter in a bank and expect the teller to deal with them even though someone else is standing at the window.

The dialogue in the book is often a weak point. Early on when Mr Hu first turns up, he fires off a staccato outburst of unconvincing clichés. When Zheng is summoned to the first meeting for Shell’s former employees, the conversation with Chi (Ji? Qi?) has a rather stilted quality to it. The “reconstructed” dialogue works better in the interrogation scenes where Zheng can skewer the warped logic of her interrogators.

Why do Zheng’s friends, Winnie and Henry, have English names (and ridiculous ones at that) and not Chinese ones? Does cook not have a name? And Ah-yee, who is Zheng’s servant after her release from prison is, er, 阿姨 [āyí] which means “nurse; nanny; housemaid”.

At the start of the book the Cultural Revolution is meant to be new and unknown, but in one passage Zheng says “Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the number of slogans everywhere had multiplied by the thousand”, and yet this implies that it’d been in progress somewhat longer. The incident with the cat, where Fluffy leaps to Zheng’s defence against the Red Guards, is pure feline theatre.

I finished the book with a feeling of ambivalence. On the one hand, this is yet another tale of human rights abuse from China from a period the Party barely acknowledges and doesn’t want to talk about; it’s a historical document of a sort that needs to exist even if professional historians might not find it so useful; on the other hand, I never entirely warmed to Zheng or found her a sympathetic figure, and I wonder what sort of character she might have been if this book had been written by some neutral third party.

Time for a new bike?

Watch where you’re going, peasant.

I was on my way back to school from lunch, and had stopped at the junction where 香榭街 meets 人民西路 when some inattentive geriatric peasant on an electric scooter rear-ended me. It was just a nudge, but it was sufficient to break the rear mudguard of my bike.

As I correctly guessed, the service centre didn’t have a replacement mudguard for a Giant Hunter 3.0, and my thought was to replace it.

The bike still works, but the issue is the parts. I’ve replaced the drive train twice now (quite recently), which is an expensive proposition, and I’d decided that if that needed replacing again, I really would buy a new machine.

I went to the Giant bike shop nearby in the hope they might have a Hunter 3.0, but they didn’t, and they have such a plethora of bikes (which all seemed to be aimed at teenagers who are too stupid to appreciate the value of a decent set of mudguards) that I wasn’t really certain what might suit me, or what compromises I might have to make (e.g. stupid mudguards and no carrier).

I went over to the shop on 广瑞路 because I knew they’d had a Hunter 3.0, but that had gone. Sigh. I got them to use a tie to hold the remains of the mudguard in place.

When I went to the service centre, the boys didn’t have a mudguard, but they wanted to replace the rims instead. Yes, that would be cheaper than buying a new bike, but unlike the Chinese, I don’t believe in hanging onto something forever when it should’ve been retired long ago. I’ve seen a lot of bikes and electric scooters in the most dire state of repair because the owners have been too cheap to maintain them properly.

Giant no longer appears to do the sort of steel-framed bikes that I had when I first lived here, although I want something lightweight and with gears; and disc brakes. The Giant Escape is one possible replacement or the FCR 3100, although the Giant China website is coy about prices, which, I suspect, won’t be cheap. One of the Escape models appears to be carbon fibre, and the model I saw on the Giant UK website, which had mudguards and a carrier was £499. Eek! Or perhaps I’m just being cheap.

Later. I bought myself a Giant XCR 3700, which is the most expensive bike I’ve ever bought, and a bit bigger than the Hunter 3.0. It’s another bike with an aluminium frame, but this time black with orange highlights, and disc brakes (about time). The gears are a bit of a mystery, but I seem to have found about the right range for my particular tastes. The levers both hang downwards so that at the moment, I keep raising my finger to change up a gear only to waggle it ineffectively in thin air.

I had mudguards, a stand and a carrier added, although the lock is a liability because the carrier doesn’t hold it firmly in place, and it bounces and flips over if I hit any bumps, or rattles alarmingly (especially on the fake cobblestones on the lanes throughout Jinma). I don’t have an answer to that, and a bracket isn’t an option because instead of the lock being inline with the frame, it stuck out to one side, which would cause me to bash my knee against it unless I rode my bike in some ungainly, splay-legged style.

I seem to be able to push this machine along at a slightly faster pace than the old Hunter 3.0, although it seems less good at turning when I’m at speed.

Overall, I generally like the feel of the XCR 3700.

The Final Count

By H.C. “Sapper” O’Neille.

Following up work he began during World War I, John Gaunt perfects a means of delivering an utterly lethal contact poison, and before you can say “Jack Robinson”, Carl Peterson, this time in the guise of the wealthy Mr Wilmot, gets his hands on him and starts to manufacture the poison, and the antidote (well, a barrier cream which prevents the active agent from coming in contact with the skin).

Before you can say “Jack Robinson” a second time, Hugh Drummond is on the case, along with his chums, to thwart Peterson’s nefarious plan to load up a dirigible with the poison and spray the unwitting and unprotected British public.

Drummond soon discovers the safe house where Gaunt had been being held and where the man had left clue about the poison and the antidote. But the raiding party gets trapped in the cellar of the house until one of Inspector McIver’s men believes that it is his superior on the other side of the door.

Our heroes eventually find their way to the Black Mine where Peterson has been manufacturing the poison, and where it traps them for a time until Gaunt himself, already one isotope short of a chemical element, saves them, and they go after Wilmot’s dirigible.

That is the location for a very exclusive party for which Drummond already has tickets (which confirms in his mind that Wilmot is Peterson, who is trying to kill his nemesis once and for all). When the boys get on board the vessel, the rank smell of flowers later subconsciously alerts Drummond to the plot. When Wilmot asks him to give the loyal toast, he realises the poison is in the supposedly exclusive Chinese liqueur that Wilmot has had served to his guests. The poison has a particularly pungent smell which is being masked by the scent of the flowers.

Drummond shouts a warning to the guests, and then forces the poison on Peterson, who gets it spilt on his wrist. The antidote only gives him some protection before the toxin kills him.

The final volume of the Carl Peterson quartet ends with his girlfriend, Irma, appearing at Drummond’s side as he surveys the wreckage of the dirigible and claiming, as Peterson claimed at the end of the previous volumes, that this is not the end, although according to the narrator, Drummond never sees her again.

Unlike the other books in the series, this is told in the first person from the perspective of John Stockton, a friend of Robin Gaunt’s who gets caught up in the affair and becomes part of Drummond’s circle. Like other books in the series, it tends to be waffly. There are long chapters devoted to Robin Gaunt’s story whereas the conclusion to the novel is comparatively abrupt. The encounter with Peterson on board the airship and his demise is, perhaps thankfully, not recounted at unnecessary length, but it does seem to be a little anticlimactic after four novels. Somehow, of course, he had to be hoisted by his own petard and the circumstances prior to his death (i.e., a formal dinner) didn’t lend themselves to, say, a prolonged chase.

And so ends the career of the notorious supervillain, Carl Peterson.