It Takes a (Chinese) Village (by SJ Rozan and John Shen Yen Nee)

EQMM’s current issue (January/February 2023) contains a collaboration between Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony Award-winning writer SJ Rozan, the author of eighteen novels and more than eighty short stories, and entrepreneur, producer, former Senior Vice President at DC Comics, and former Publisher at Marvel Comics John Shen Yen Nee. John was born in Knoxville, Tennessee to a Chinese father and a Scottish-American mother, an ancestry that probably had a role in his coming up with the concept for his collaboration with SJ. I will let them tell the story of the process by which their contribution to our current issue, “The Killing of Henry Davenport,” and the novel that will follow in 2024 came about. I feel certain you won’t want to miss this intriguing new series.  —Janet Hutchings

SJ: In Nov. 2020 I got a call from my agent, Josh Getzler. He’d just spent an hour on the phone with a man named John Shen Yen Nee, who was looking for a couple of writers for collaborative projects. One project sounded perfect for me; would I talk to John? Now, this was six months into the pandemic, quite awhile pre-vaccine. I was talking to the walls. A live person with a project? Of course I’d talk to him!

What John said, in a conversation that lasted more than an hour, changed my life. We started a collaboration, which has so far resulted in the short story “The Killing of Henry Davenport” in the January EQMM, and the novel The Murder of Mr. Ma, coming in spring 2024. There’ll be more of both. The essence of John’s idea is here, in John’s words (though the conversation, as you can imagine, was wild, circling, and far-reaching).

John: Chinese Americans can be faced with a cultural double life. Many learn the history of China through stories, people, myths, and anecdotes. But non-Chinese Americans often only know China as a rival power or as an exotic faraway land.

Encountering the unfamiliar, people can try to frame it in familiar references. In relation to Chinese culture, we hear “so and so is the (insert famous comparison) of China.” Naturally, then, the very real seventh century magistrate Di Ren Jie is known in the West—when he’s known at all(—as “the Sherlock Holmes of China.” Likewise, Chinese author Lao She emerges as “the Charles Dickens of China.”

These shorthand labels create immediate comprehension, but strip away cultural context and diminish their subjects. The individual is posited as a mere Chinese shadow of a luminary Westerner. There is even an implicit sense of derivation, despite the Chinese figure often predating the comparison by an era or three.

Both Lao She and Judge Dee were real people, who lived 1200 years apart. Each is worth engaging with as more than mirrored Westerners.

Judge Dee is based on Di Ren Jie, who lived from 630-700 CE—the early Tang Dynasty—and served as a magistrate. In the West, Judge Dee was popularized by Robert van Gulik, a Dutch sinologist and diplomat. He translated classic works about Judge Dee from Chinese, and expanded the canon of Judge Dee through a series of original novels in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Fans of the mystery genre are long familiar with van Gulik’s two dozen Judge Dee titles. Recently, Hong Kong director Tsui Hark rekindled interest in Judge Dee through his Detective Dee film series.

Lao She was the pen name of Shu Qing Chun, a Manchu Chinese intellectual who navigated wildly turbulent times. Born during the Boxer Rebellion, he died in the Cultural Revolution. He was an active member of the May Fourth movement (not the Star Wars meme, but the Chinese anti-imperialist, anti-colonial movement born on May 4, 1919). In 1924, Lao She was teaching in London when he wrote Mr. Ma and Son, the story of an immigrant father and son who, at every step, wrestle with an England simultaneously gripped by fascination with Chinese cultural artifacts, and fear of a yellow peril.

Despite living centuries apart, Judge Dee and Lao She arrived in Western literature within the same twenty years.

So let’s consider for a moment Sherlock Holmes as the Judge Dee of the West, and Dr. Watson as his Lao She, and turn our attention to the “originals.”

SJ: I mean, Wowee, right? Was there any possible way I could resist this? Or any reason to?

John’s thought was to co-write a novel—the start of a series—set in London in 1924. He’d provide plot and cultural context. I’d do the actual writing. Dee and Lao would investigate, eat, dash around London, meet all kinds of Britons, and do a lot of Kung Fu fighting. (Holmes and Watson, though they appear in “Henry Davenport,” have no part in The Murder or Mr. Ma.) I loved the thing. But—London, 1924? Luckily I knew my van Gulik, but Lao She, whom I’d heard of but never read, and in whose voice, as the chronicler, the book was to be written? Plus, John’s plot involved the Chinese Labour Corps in France during WWI. The what? And Bertrand Russell. And Ezra Pound. And opium. For me to get up to speed required huge amounts of research.

Good thing I love research.

And good thing my collaborator knew just what I needed. A flood of books poured in, sent by John. History, novels, biography. A few of Lao She’s books, not easy to find in translation these days. I read like crazy.

I also told a couple of people what I was doing and they had help to offer. My cousin Dick, with his encyclopedic film knowledge, made me a list of London-set sound and silent British films of the twenties and thirties. I streamed them all. Laurie King sent a box of maps and photo books. Another friend suggested reproductions of old Sears catalogs for furniture and clothes, so I ordered some. And all on my own I discovered coloring books. Rabbit holes presented themselves right and left, and I went down all of them. I watched Season 3 of “Peaky Blinders,” and all seasons of “Frankie Drake,” and the Downton Abbey movie, for the cars and clothes.

We also needed a Kung Fu consultant. Many readers know how I hate to write action scenes and how long each one takes me; but even someone who loves it would have a hard time with an art as specialized as Kung Fu. I was complaining about this shortcoming of mine at a party to a friend, and another friend said he didn’t mean to interrupt but he’d studied Kung Fu and he thought maybe his Master, Sifu Paul Koh, would be interested in the project. So I got in touch with Sifu Koh and boy, was he! He teaches here in NYC Chinatown, and he got what we were trying to do right away. He choreographed some wonderful fights.

If we hadn’t been in the middle of a pandemic I’d have zipped off to London. But you know, it might be better that I didn’t. What’s left from 1924 is something here, another thing there, and a few more in other places—buildings and streets embedded in a changed landscape. The Depression, the Blitz, post-war redevelopment, the more recent real estate scramble . . .

The 1924 London of Dee and Lao is a London of the mind.

My mind, and John Shen Yen Nee’s.

And the minds of everyone in the village.

Thank you all.

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1 Response to It Takes a (Chinese) Village (by SJ Rozan and John Shen Yen Nee)

  1. This was such a fun post to read! Exploration of different cultures and research both fascinate me. I’m looking forward to reading the results.

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