These 23 stories, first published in Le Monde, by Shanghai native Qiu Xiaolong (The Mao Case, 2009, etc.) follow China’s political evolution from 1949 to 2006 as it impacts the socio-economically diverse characters who reside on the Shanghai street of the title.
In 1949, with Mao’s forces approaching, a young man helps an opera singer escape Shanghai. In payment the singer gives him a portable blackboard on which he begins a newsletter for his neighbors. In the stories that follow, each year’s primary political event is recorded on the blackboard and followed by a personal if sometimes pointedly symbolic story that demonstrates the private upheavals determined by public policy. Food is a central motif. In 1952, a crab dinner takes on both erotic and political significance as the hosts, a young “workshop” owner and his wife, grow depressingly aware that their lives as capitalists are about to change. A man’s birth during the starvation years of land reform gives him a rapacious appetite but eventually leads to his success as a salesman who can dine with capitalist clients to gross excess in 2003. Another basic need, housing, also serves as both cause and effect. In 1988, an office worker marries to get an apartment. By 2000, a young entrepreneur buys the factory that his father once managed and plans to tear it down for a housing project. As the Communist Party switches directions economically, individuals submissively follow. In 1958, during “The Great Leap Forward” period, a tofu-maker works in a steel factory where he becomes a prominent worker poet. By 1996, worker poetry is out, private enterprise is in and he’s again selling tofu for his living. The final 2006 story concerns a lottery winner, chance being as good an explanation as any for these characters’ vicissitudes of fortune.
Although he depends too heavily on aphorisms and plot switchbacks, Qiu Xiaolong follows in the tradition of Naguib Mahfouz, writing about a changing world with both affection and a skeptic’s sense of irony.