A young woman has 50 minutes to move a massive bomb away from a packed city center. But she has two little problems to contend with. 1. The city of Shanghai is gridlocked in the biggest traffic jam the world has ever seen. 2. The bomb is inside an elephant.
Vittachi's most ambitious novel yet is long, literary and filled with priceless insights into life in modern China.
CHINA IS THE HAPPENING PLACE. And the latest volume in the Feng Shui Detective novel series confirms it, with its action set over three frantic days in Shanghai. The new book, The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics, is the most blatantly commercial of the four-book novel series, and plays off a number of hot news stories. It shows clear evidence of Vittachi weaving elements from his previous career as a journalist on the Far Eastern Economic Review into his fiction. The complex plot centres on an attempt to assassinate the US President as he meets China's leader at a summit in Shanghai.
A major theme of the story is how the use of the phrase 'war on terror' has been used to repress the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, which Vittachi describes 'the secret Tibet that no one knows about'. He says that Xinjiang is as big as Tibet, the Muslim population is even less Chinese than the Tibetans, and what's happening there is even more scandalous than what has happened in Tibet.
There's also geopolitical intrigue in the story. Key characters include a senior agent of the US Secret Service and his counterpart in the Chinese leader's service. The wealth of detail shows that solid research has been done into the Chinese secret police.
Yet the political and news-related themes are clearly secondary to the purpose of the book, which is to entertain. And certainly, early reviewers have express their pleasure at reading about modern life in China from an author who does not make every Chinese communist official into a stereotypical bad guy and every Chinese citizen into a cone-hatted peasant standing in a paddy field.
The book also introduces readers to vaastu shastra, the Indian equivalent of Chinese feng shui.
Much in evidence in this volume are Vittachi's fabled ear for Asian English. Characters communicate in Hong Kong English, Indian English, Australian English and so on -- or try to do so and fail. And the story is littered with absurd-but-true details of life in China.
Critics have reacted enthusiastically to the offbeat detective, who has a deliciously wicked streak, and seems to get more wily in every book. 'Wong hated extortion -- unless he was doing it himself,' Vittachi writes in the latest volume. Despite having an ethically-challenged hero, the books have strongly moralistic underpinnings. The main character Wong seems to represent Asia, while the other protagonist (Wong's well-intentioned but naive British-Australian assistant Joyce) represents the West. Only when East and West work together do they solve the world's problems: it's a moral we can all learn from.
The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics is published in 2006 in Asia Pacific, and 2007 in the West.