Crime And Consequences In Beijing's Back Alleys

A view of the hutong of Qianmen District on May 11, 2011 in Beijing, China. In Diane Wi Liang's Paper Butterfly, fictional detective Mei Wang's latest case begins in Beijing's alleys.

hide captionA view of the hutong of Qianmen District on May 11, 2011 in Beijing, China. In Diane Wi Liang's Paper Butterfly, fictional detective Mei Wang's latest case begins in Beijing's alleys.

Feng Li/Getty Images
'Paper Butterfly' cover

A native of Beijing, author Diane Wei Liang now lives in London, where she writes her mystery novels in English. But though she simplifies some of the Chinese names and details in her books for the benefit of her foreign audience, Liang's fiction is still steeped in the sights and sounds of her homeland.

On a recent visit, we wandered through Beijing's maze of alleyways, known as hutongs, where Liang's fictional detective, Mei Wang, hunts down leads — and avoids becoming hunted herself, as was the case in Liang's second novel, Paper Butterfly.

In Paper Butterfly, Wang attends the wake of an old hutong dweller who died under mysterious circumstances, then finds herself lost — and being followed — in the alleyways.

"The way that she could find her way around [the hutong] was actually by looking up right here, at the drum tower," says Liang, referring to the structure that hutong residents used for centuries to tell time.

Before becoming a private investigator, Wang was a policewoman in China's Ministry of Public Security. But she abandoned the position when her boss asked her to perform a personal favor that she disagreed with. Instead, detective Wang did what many other people did in the early 1990s — she decided to xiahai — jump into the sea of private enterprise. For Wang, it meant throwing away the key to the elite life for which she was groomed.

"[The job with the Ministry] was absolutely a springboard for a better marriage and a better life," says Liang. "By giving that up, she really had turned her back on the privilege and the luxury that her old job could provide."

Paper Butterfly
By Diane Wei Liang
Hardcover, 240 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $24

Read An Excerpt.

China in the early 1990s was caught up in a headlong race toward a market economy. Private investigation firms were technically illegal, but Chinese needed PIs to shadow unfaithful spouses, extract debts and provide protection that the state couldn't. As a result, Liang's detective often has to navigate through moral and legal gray areas.

"She's constantly in danger of being discovered, being found out and being turned in by someone who's against her," says Liang. "And there's a huge sense of danger and suspense in terms of her as a private detective, without even stepping into a crime scene."

When Wang is not searching for facts and solving crimes, she's often acting as amateur historian, tracing people and events from the Cultural Revolution. In The Eye of Jade, Liang's first novel featuring the detective, Wang tries to understand her relationship with her father by remembering the year she spent with him in a labor camp in the early 1970s.

"That was the last time she saw her father, as a 6-year-old," says Liang. "Her father died in the later years, when he was further sent into prison for what he had allegedly done, and that was the dark secret — why he was sent to prison, and who played a part in it."

Author Diane Wei Liang i i

hide captionThough Diane Wei Liang left Beijing for London after the Tiananmen Square massacre, her detective novels return her to the streets of her homeland.

Xiao Kaijing
Author Diane Wei Liang

Though Diane Wei Liang left Beijing for London after the Tiananmen Square massacre, her detective novels return her to the streets of her homeland.

Xiao Kaijing

To write this part of the book, Liang drew on her own experiences as a child. The author spent time with her parents in a May 7th Cadre School, where intellectuals were forced to do manual labor. Some two decades later, as a student at Beijing University, she participated in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

Liang recalls that on the night before the Tiananmen massacre, the students were terrified that soldiers had already surrounded them, and were lurking in the buildings that surround the square.

"The security which we built was by holding hands and standing all the way around the square. It was probably not going to make much difference if there were soldiers coming out of these giant, dark buildings from behind us," says Liang.

Tiananmen was a formative experience for the fictional Wang, too. But at the time, Wang was working as a cop, on the opposite side of the author who created her.

"And she felt torn, all her friends from her university were demonstrating while she was with the police, and they cracked down on it. So for [Wang], it was a real baggage that she's been carrying," says Liang.

All the "baggage" works to make Wang a more complex and interesting character. As for Liang, she says she's now writing a third installment of the Mei Wang series, updating her character and Beijing for the new century.

Excerpt: 'Paper Butterfly'

Paper Butterfly
By Diane Wei Liang
Hardcover, 240 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $24

It was two weeks before Chinese New Year, the spring festival that marks the end of winter. It is the principal holiday of the year, with celebrations that last seven days. Red Luck Posters were stuck to the door of each home. Meat was marinated and strong rice wine, ju, bought. Families arranged visits, and banquets were prepared. In Beijing millions thronged the temple fairs to complete their holiday shopping.

The largest miaohui was in Ditan Park. There the noise was deafening. Drums thudded, cymbals clashed, and trumpets blared in the cold air. Stall holders called their wares, and customers shouted for children to keep up.

Swept along by the crowds, Mei walked beside her sister, whose mood had darkened. "Why must we come here every year?" Lu moaned. "All these people pushing each other — and where's Mama?"

"She said she wanted to buy something." Mei stood on tiptoe to search but couldn't see her. Red lanterns swayed under the white stone arch of the sacrifice altar, where the emperor would offer sacrifices to earth at the summer solstice, and behind it, more crowds and stalls.

"Fireworks! Fireworks for Spring Festival!"

"Luck Posters to welcome the spring and banish ghosts!"

Dancers on stilts appeared at the end of the lane, accompanied by trumpets and drums. The women wore red satin and waved vast pink fans. The men were in long blue robes and domed hats beneath which their faces were heavily made up with thickly lined eyes and rouge cheeks. Two children ran in front of them, causing some to wobble. At that moment Mei saw her mother pushing through the crowd with two bottle gourds.

"Hulu?" Lu frowned and uncrossed her arms to take the gourd.

"For luck — and a grandson soon," said Ling Bai.

"Mama!" Lu protested. Her blush of embarrassment was endearing.

"As for you" — Ling Bai turned to Mei — "it will protect you against demons."

"I don't need it."

Ling Bai glared at her elder daughter. "Thirty-one years old and no boyfriend? You need a lucky charm."

Lu nudged Mei with her elbow. "Just take it," she whispered.

"Hulu is very powerful. Look at the curves. It's heaven and earth in union, true harmony. Especially lucky for a woman," Ling Bai averred.

They walked up the stone steps to the sacrifice altar, where a jiaozi theater was in full swing, musicians playing in exaggerated ways, trumpets, drums, cymbals, and an erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument. As four men danced, they tossed a sedan chair — the jiaozi — with an actress inside it.

"Where are you going, young wife?" roared the men.

"Going back to my mama's house," sang the actress.

"Where is your husband?"

"At home, like a little boy, with his mother."

The audience laughed. But Lu stood rigid and glared at the spectacle. She loathed folk dancing. Mei glanced at her mother, who was smiling, enjoying the play. Her face was lined, and strands of her gray hair blew across her face in the wind. Mei shivered with cold and guilt. But how could she love if she could not forgive? She had learned the truth, which had separated her from her mother as completely as if a shutter had fallen between them.

She shook her head as if to clear it. She wished she could confide in someone, to share the burden.

"Shall we find some bingtang hulu?" asked Ling Bai. Candied hawthorn on a stick was a favorite winter delicacy that everyone munched at the miaohui.

"Not for me," said Lu. "How can you eat something that's been lying about in this dust for hours?"

The Wangs made their way to the North Gate, Ling Bai searching for a bingtang hulu stall.

"People are staring at you," Mei muttered to her sister.

"Are they?"

Lu sounded indifferent, and Mei knew why. Her sister was strikingly beautiful but never gave it a thought. It was of interest only to others.

Ling Bai bought two bingtang hulu, one for Mei and one for herself. They ate them as they walked. The path leading to the North Gate was packed with stalls. A man was pouring tea from a large copper pot with a very long spout. Smoke rose from kebab braziers, the scents of cumin and chili in the air. Colorful windmills spun, and red lanterns dangled like giant fruit from leafless branches.

An ice slide stood in the middle of North Gate Square, children and adults squeaking and laughing as they slid down. A long queue snaked around the ticket booth. Bright banners displaying miyu, riddles, hung from the trees, where a large crowd had gathered.

Ling Bai and Mei liked miyu. Some years ago, when Mei was still a girl, they had competed on National Day and won prizes.

"There's one," said Mei, reading aloud. " 'A good beginning — a foreign currency.'" She thought for a while. "The answer is U.S. dollars — mei yuan. Mei means 'beautiful,' and yuan can mean 'beginning,'" she whispered to Ling Bai.

"Oh, yes!" exclaimed her mother. "Write it down and we'll win a prize."

"One won't get us far. We'll need to solve at least ten to win something worthwhile," Lu said.

"We have plenty of time." Mei glanced at Lu.

"I'm tired of standing about in the cold," said Lu sweetly. It wasn't a complaint. "We've been out for hours."

"Perhaps you're right," Ling Bai said, clutching her shopping bag.

Lu took her mother's arm. "It's the same every year."

They heard a drum roll from the direction of the sacrifice altar, and someone shouted, "Lion Dance!" The crowd surged.

Mei, Lu, and Ling Bai walked out of the North Gate, where taxis were delivering revelers to the fair. Lu found an empty one and got in, her mother following. Mei sat next to the driver.

"Where to?" cried the driver jovially.

"The Grand Hotel," said Lu.

He started the engine and turned on the meter. "Which way shall I go? Changan Boulevard is at a standstill."

"Whichever way's the quickest," said Lu with a hint of impatience.

At the Grand Hotel, they sat at a table with a white linen cloth in the Red Wall cafe. The waitress brought tea in a silver pot, and as she set it down, the china tinkled. She went away, then returned with a cappuccino for Lu.

The cafe had a high ceiling, crystal lights, and a spiral staircase with a vine growing up the banister. Potted plants and panoramic windows gave the impression of a lush conservatory. A waiter brought Western cakes on a trolley, so perfect they might have been made of plastic.

Ling Bai eyed them. "Too beautiful to eat." Mei ordered a yellow piece with icing. She hoped it was cheesecake, which she had eaten once before and liked.

Lu stirred her coffee. "They were saying there'll be snow tomorrow."

"I'm not surprised. This is the time of Big Chill, the coldest two weeks of the year," said Ling Bai.

Sitting in the cafe, Mei found that hard to believe. They were insulated here from the outside world.

Lu took out her mobile phone. "Li-ning is having lunch at the China Club. Maybe he could join us if they've finished."

Mei and Ling Bai sipped their tea, awkward together now that Lu's attention was elsewhere. Mei gazed out of a window, her strong nose and firm mouth making her profile sharp. The sky was darker, clouds dense, and traffic thick as mud idled on Changan Boulevard. Mei stretched for a glimpse of Tiananmen Square, which was not far away, but she couldn't see it.

"Can't you come for a few minutes?" Lu said into the phone. She sounded annoyed.

"When do you leave for Canada?" Mei asked her mother, although she knew the date. She was embarrassed that Ling Bai was eavesdropping on Lu's conversation.

"In a week, I think," said Ling Bai gloomily. "Will I see you before I go?"

"You know that Gupin, my assistant, is going home for Spring Festival. I'm afraid I'll be too busy," Mei said to her teacup rather than to her mother.

Ling Bai sighed. "You should think of finding a new assistant. I thought you were doing well — why keep a migrant worker in the office, especially a man? People will talk."

"I don't care what anyone says. Gupin is good at his job. Unlike some, he has a high school diploma and is taking evening classes at the university." Suddenly, Mei was picturing Gupin's chiseled face and muscular shoulders in her mind's eye. She wondered what he was doing this weekend. Perhaps he was still at work on the case of the boy who had died in the hospital during a routine operation. Perhaps he had been shopping for his sick mother — he could even have been at the miaohui, buying Beijing treats to take home. The thought made her smile.

Lu shut her phone. "I'm sorry. Li-ning won't be able to come, even though he wants to. They're going to the driving range with Big Boss Dong."

"He's always busy." Mei remembered the last dinner Li-ning couldn't make.

"Everyone wants to collaborate with him on their projects or persuade him to invest. It's hard to be a tycoon."

"Surely — "

"I don't mind. I know what it takes to be a success. He has to put a great deal of time and effort into networking, which means making sacrifices in our personal life. I have to do the same for my show," Lu said. She hosted a program on Beijing TV in which she interviewed and offered counseling to people who had problems such as adulterous affairs or difficult mothers-in-law. It had proved popular, and for a time there had been talk about broadcasting it nationally.

"You both work so hard I hardly see you," Ling Bai said, looking first at Lu, then at Mei. "Especially you."

"Mama, you know everyone wants their case solved yesterday."

"Opportunity! It's everywhere these days. If you don't grab it, someone else will." Lu raised a hand to silence Mei, who had been about to interrupt. "I don't know how much you make, Mei, catching cheating husbands, but for us, lost opportunity might cost millions. So we work all the time, trying to keep up. Li-ning and I know we're being unfair to our family and friends" — she laid a hand affectionately on her mother's — "and that's why this Spring Festival, we're taking Mama with us to Vancouver to see Li-ning's family." She turned to Mei. "Mama told me you've stopped going to see her since she came out of the hospital."

"You've done no better." Mei stole an uneasy glance at Ling Bai.

"I'm busy. I have my show, I lecture, and sometimes I travel overseas with my husband. And yichuo — you can't imagine! Dinners, lunches, parties, going to the theater and the opera with business contacts. If we never said no, we'd be working twenty-four hours a day. But Mama's been to see us for dinner. We've gone shopping together." Lu glanced at Ling Bai. "We've grown closer since she had her stroke. What happened last spring made me realize that we can't take anything for granted. One day we will lose her, and then we'll wish we'd looked after her properly."

Mei couldn't contradict her, but neither could she explain. She was silent, swirling the tea in the bottom of her cup.

"Have you heard," said Ling Bai, eager to defuse the tension, "Hu Bin's been released."

"Wasn't he one of the student leaders at Tiananmen?"

Ling Bai nodded. "Mei knew him at university, didn't you?"

"I met him a couple of times on campus," said Mei. She had seen it in small print on page twenty-one of today's Beijing Daily. Hu Bin had been sentenced to twelve years for leading the student protest in 1989. His release, three years early, might mean he was ill.

Hu Bin's release had brought back uncomfortable memories. Mei had already been working at the police headquarters — the Ministry for Public Security — when the students had taken to the streets in the spring of 1989. Every day she had read avidly about the protest in the square, but unlike millions of other office and factory workers in the city, she had not gone out to join them. She had sat behind her desk at the ministry, ensconced on the other side. The side who, in the end, went against the students. To this day, she reproached herself for that. The guilt for not having being with those she cared about lodged in her heart like a stone. But how could she have known that it would end in blood? That people would die and friends like Hu Bin would be imprisoned for so long?

She could reproach herself for so much. It had been her, really, she reflected, who had stolen her father's life. Their mother had denounced him for criticizing Mao's polices during the Cultural Revolution; it had been her only way to save her children from the labor camp. Her evidence had helped send him to prison, where he died young. When Mei stumbled on the truth the year before, while uncovering an ancient jade lost since the Cultural Revolution, she had been angry at first, but then she had grieved. Hatred threatened to destroy her love for her mother. Mei wished she could forgive the woman who had made such great sacrifices and given Mei life twice.

Her mother's voice brought Mei back to the Red Wall cafe. "It's a goodwill gesture, I suppose, to release him before the holiday."

"I'm sure that's right," said Lu, finishing her coffee. "It's about time, too. Such ancient history. It's better for both sides to forget."

"It's only been nine years," retorted Mei.

"Exactly. Ancient history." Lu tossed her hair over a shoulder and laughed. "My dear sister, you live too much in the past, and everyone else has moved on. How does the old proverb go? 'The present is like gold.'"

At that moment, the waiter brought their cakes. For a while they gazed, awestruck and silent, at the art on their plates. Then Mei took a bite of hers and shuddered. It was lime, not cheesecake, and she didn't like lime.

"Lu's right," Ling Bai said to Mei through a mouthful of her napoleon. "You must forget the past and move on. Don't carry it with you. Learn to forgive."

Mei's heart jumped. Did her mother know that she had found out what had happened to her father?

"Will you go back to Ya-ping?" Ling Bai asked.

Mei sighed. "But you didn't like him — you didn't want me to marry him."

"That was years ago, when he was only a student from the provinces. He's a successful businessman now, living in Chicago."

"He's also divorced."

"So is Li-ning." Ling Bai gazed proudly at her younger daughter. "That it may make him a better husband."

Mei took another bite of her cake. "Once a cup's broken, it can't be mended."

"That's because you don't want to mend it," said Lu. "He broke your heart, yes, but that's more ancient history. Live in the present. It's the key to happiness."

"And you can let me worry about my love life." What if Mei couldn't learn to forgive and forget?

Lu gestured to the waiter for the bill, then said to Mei, "But I care about you because you're my sister. A friend of mine will call you tomorrow. His name is Mr. Peng. He's the chairman of Guanghua Record Company. He might have a case for you — could be a big one."

"Thank you," said Mei. Her sister had irritated her with unsolicited advice, but she had just redeemed herself.

Copyright 2008 by Diane Wei Liang

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by Diane Wei Liang

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