By Shuang Xuetao
Translated by Jeremy Tiang
A swindler in northeast China is called a “porcelain chipper.” The term comes from an age-old trick in the antique trade: Put fragile items on teetering display and let an unsuspecting shopper’s clumsy reach knock them over. The scam — you break it, you buy it — clears shelves faster than waiting for a collector with a fat wallet.
Few characters in “Rouge Street,” a suite of three novellas by the Chinese writer Shuang Xuetao, have any illusion that the daily hustle gets much better than a good confidence trick. Such is life for them on the outskirts of Shenyang, an industrial hub of 7.5 million people in what is sometimes called China’s Rust Belt. The region was dealt a rough hand during the economic restructuring in the 1990s, as its Soviet-style, state-owned enterprises from the ’50s — coal, textile and steel factories — were made over. For many workers, the change was its own kind of swindle, breaking the so-called Iron Rice Bowl of lifetime employment under Communism.
Shuang’s book, his first to be translated into English — and nimbly so by Jeremy Tiang — is named after the dilapidated neighborhood he knows well. He gives voice to an intriguing cast of characters left behind by China’s economic miracle. They struggle to emerge from their bleak reality in search of light, efforts that sometimes have a religious overtone: A woman finds a way to pay back the good will of a stranger who saved her father’s life during the Cultural Revolution; a young protagonist follows a madman’s prophecy and unravels a murder mystery; a washed-up worker helps a young idealist fulfill his dream.
Rouge Street is otherwise not a particularly polite or hopeful place. It runs on personal vendettas and blood feuds instead of fair trials. Women and children get beaten up regularly, and their husbands and fathers are just as often victims of violence as they are initiators. Shuang pulls no punches, and the reader has much to gain by stepping into this world of matter-of-fact brutality, mystery and intrigue, unexpected humor and small but meaningful acts of personal honor.
Those paltry acts are the only way the powerless can rebalance the world for themselves. In the third novella, “Moses on the Plain,” a tutor invokes the reprisals of Exodus to comfort her student: “As long as what’s in your heart is genuine and sincere, the mountains and oceans will part for you, and the people coming after you, the ones who didn’t make space for you, will all get punished.” These words take on greater significance by the end of the story, after the student becomes a person of interest in a serial-murder case. Shuang once said that he tore a clump of hair off a girl’s scalp in a childhood fight, and that the 10-year-old retaliated by dismantling his family’s front door overnight, in the dead of winter. You’re never too young or old to fight for what’s yours, his stories remind us. “Rouge Street” offers modest hope and a fleeting sense of restored harmony, while avoiding any moral high ground or grand narrative. Instead of taking a bird’s-eye view, Shuang places his gaze at the level of his characters.
China’s Rust Belt is a distant reality even for most Chinese. With his candid but intriguing portrayals of the northeast, the 38-year-old Shuang belongs to a small cohort of writers in the region who emerged from decades of breathless growth feeling more force-fed than nourished. His work has captivated readers for this reason, not to mention the distinctive use of a northeastern dialect and its colloquialisms (not easy to capture in translation); the oil reek of factory floors and chimney stacks maintained by workers who built Mao’s China; the unrelenting, icy winters in which tales of vengeance and murder abound; the less-than-nostalgic recall of the Sino-Soviet friendship in the 1950s; and the eclipse of that past as China pushed for market reforms in the 1990s and 2000s.
Shuang explores these elements in stories of outcasts, killers and everyday people who still want meaning — and sometimes religious salvation — despite it all. From start to finish, his scope is close to the ground, his language sparingly emotive and unobtrusive. He never flinches. As a result, we don’t look away either.