Around the corner from the old Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai's historic French Concession stands a row of dressmakers. At first glance, the stores look like they're hawking a Suzie Wong fantasy to foreign visitors. But on closer inspection, the tailors are not selling tourist tat. They're part of a once dying breed Shanghai artisans skilled in sewing qipao, the alluring dresses based on the traditional garb of the Manchus who ruled China's final imperial dynasty.
One of these clothing boutiques is owned by a relative of Qiu Xiaolong, the Shanghai-born author of the popular Inspector Chen mystery novels. (Qiu now lives in St. Louis, Mo., and he writes the books in English.) The fifth installment, Red Mandarin Dress, follows Chen as he tracks down a serial killer who dresses his victims in luxurious qipao. As the silk-clad bodies mount, the classical poetry quoting chief inspector contemplates how the wearing of a qipao was even more dangerous during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when the dress was equated with all that was bad about Shanghai: money, class and a good dose of sex.
The serial killer has, if nothing else, an impeccable sense of history, dumping his victims in some of Shanghai's most famous spots. One woman is lured to her death at what Qiu calls the Joy Gate, a dancing hall modeled after the real-life Paramount. In a city swimming in sin, the Paramount was literally that, its dancing girls known as Shanghai's comeliest and naughtiest. After the communists marched into town in 1949, the Paramount was turned into the Red Capital Cinema, where propaganda films were dutifully screened. But in 2002, Asia's most famous dancing hall was renovated. It may now exude more than a little kitsch, but well-heeled customers can still take their pick of Chinese or Russian dancing partners.
Chen's search for the killer also takes him to one of the city's finest eateries, located in the former villa of a so-called "capitalist roader." During the height of communist fervor, restaurants if they were allowed to open at all dished up only the most basic food for the masses. But the reform era has unleashed a culinary revolution. At Yongfoo Elite, an Art Deco antique-filled restaurant housed in the former British consulate, customers can indulge in updated renditions of bean curd with hairy-crab roe, as well as drunken chicken poached in Shaoxing wine. Yongfoo, though, is more about ambiance than food. For true Shanghainese home cooking, Chen heads to a local dive devoid of atmosphere a place like Ruifu Yuan on Jinxian Road, which offers superlative soy-braised pork belly and creamy fish soup with pork wontons, along with the requisite fluorescent lights and brusque wait staff.
When Inspector Chen seeks inspiration to solve his case, he worships at a place based on Jing'an Temple. Nestled next to a shopping mall, Jing'an, the city's oldest temple, captures Shanghai's most flagrant contradictions. It's gaudy. The monks are apt to sidle up for a donation, stating with worldly aplomb that credit cards are accepted. Yet the temple still manages to exude a sense of peace. And if the Buddhist mantras don't ease the soul, worshippers can try jeweler Tiffany & Co. just down the street. It's just the kind of place where a damsel in a red mandarin dress might find salvation.
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