Inside the Red Mansion

Format: Hardcover
Pub. Date: 2007-07-18
Publisher(s): Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List Price: $26.00

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Due to a mix-up, Oliver August stumbles onto the hunt for China's most wanted man, Lai Changxing, an illiterate tycoon on the run from corruption charges. Sensing something emblematic in this outsized tale of rise and fall, August sets out tofind the self-made billionaire, in the hope that if he can understand how Lai reinvented himself, he will also better understand the tectonic forces transforming modern China. Lai Changxing is a Chinese businessman who has been described by the official Xinhua news agency as "China's most wanted fugitive". He fled to Canada in 1999 with his wife Zeng Mingna and their children. He was recently been denied refugee statusin Canada. China accuses him of smuggling and seeks his deportation. Lai embodies the story of China's recent success as well as its Achilles' heel: the blending of its command economy with the free market is riddled with corruption. Moving ever closer to the elusive tycoon, August introduces us to a people in the midst of head-spinning self-transformation. We meet a nightclub hostess and her gaggle of "Miss Temporaries"; powerful businessmen on a debt-settling round of nocturnal golf; and a foie gras king who markets his goose liver by the ton and prefers it deep fried. This is a China seething with desire, engaged in a slap-stick fight with its past, and hell bent on the future. Inside the Red Mansion is the first book to capture the giddy vibe of contemporary China and its darker vulnerabilities.

Author Biography

Oliver August spent seven years in China as the Beijing bureau chief for the Times of London. He was previously the paper’s youngest-ever New York correspondent. He now reports from the Middle East.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 1
Writersp. 11
Petits Bourgeoisp. 21
The Landlordp. 38
Boatmenp. 56
Dancing Girlsp. 73
Three Handsp. 84
Villagersp. 97
Believersp. 109
The Goose Liver kingp. 117
Banditsp. 125
The Madamp. 138
Fugitivesp. 156
Night tradersp. 172
Rocket Cadresp. 180
The Vice-Ministerp. 192
Lawyersp. 203
The Gamblerp. 214
The Gambler IIp. 233
The Officerp. 245
Epiloguep. 256
Acknowledgmentsp. 265
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.


Prologue The Shaoshan, Lakeside Drive, Xiamen City, Fujian Province Eleven o'clock on a Friday night, and the madam, or mami, at a private nightclub is waiting for the police. She straightens the nametag on her gray suit-it says "Lili" in Chinese and English-to avoid even the hint of impropriety. Dancers in sequined mermaid outfits are hidden away in a room to which only Lili has a key. She carefully counted in all seventy-six and ordered them dishes of five-spiced smoked fish and crushed cucumber with chili before locking the door from the outside. In a few minutes, blue uniforms with white rimmed caps will surround the klieg-lit stage where she has just turned off the last few bars of "Girl Across, Look My Way." Lili started telling me the story of the raid right where it had happened. We were sitting below the same glittering stage where patrons had watched uniformed men wash in and then out again. "They will be back," she said, meaning the police, "don't worry, you'll get a chance to see for yourself." I hoped she'd be right, banishing worries I might get her in trouble. The nightclub occupied a vast auditorium with blackened walls and distant rafters. It was large enough to accommodate a game of tennis, but guests expected nothing so predictable. They were seated on sofas of loamy upholstery like drivers of German luxury sedans. In front of them, waiters in tuxedos with elastic waistbands cowered on the carpeted floor, refilling glasses perched on low wooden tables. Beyond the tables was the vast spotlit stage that dominated the room. Flocks of sequinned mermaids waltzed past in merry circles, followed by operatic massifs of rouged Red Guards goose-stepping to "The Sound of Music." Willowy silk-clad maidens came next, kowtowing demurely then morphing defiantly into head- tossing, stiletto-strutting mannequins. The club's nightly variety show was an elaborate homage to collective aspirations, equally indebted to China's past and sundry models of its future. More remarkable still were the waiters who could occasionally be seen dashing onto the stage like kamikaze pilots. They would lunge forward, dodging dancers, swerving around formations of arms and legs swirling and flailing, accompanied by an offstage band. Near misses, last-minute course corrections, and blinding spotlights worthy of anti-aircraft batteries could not put them off, though their harried faces and sweat-stained uniforms hinted at the human cost of the endeavor. Eventually they would home in on one of the dancers and unload the cargo carried in their arms: bombastic garlands of plastic flowers, rings of green wire decorated with yellow, purple, and azure bulbs. The waiters, hardly slowing down, would throw the flowers around the dancer's neck and exit. Helpless in the face of unceasing floral strangulation, some dancers could barely continue. "Anymore and she won't be able to see," said a guest sitting behind me. The garland ritual did not seem to be part of the regular stage program. The waiters were fiercely determined and lacked any sense of comedy or rhythm. The stage was a hostile high ground, to be stormed anew every few minutes. I wondered, could this be a promotion for a flower company? Chinese commercialism knew no bounds, I thought when Lili came back from her frequent rounds through the club, chatting at tables and settling bills. Sitting down, she tossed her black hair over her strong shoulders. Next to her bone-thin dancers she was sturdy and lump-kneed, yet her eyes moved faster than their limbs ever could. I confided in Lili my guess that a flower company must be behind the garlands. She laughed

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