Shanghai Escapist grabs the faint-of-heart right from the get-go and serves up an ultimatum: What would you do if caught in the same circumstances? From the opening scene, the reader is tossed into the maze of daily intrigue as it existed in 1960s-70s China -- with all its trappings, taking the reader to the end of the road. This novel is not suppertime reading but rather hits at the heart of what it would be like to make a move on "the system" where hourly survival is all that would occupy one's mind.
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All Barry Lee wants is to leave Shanghai and join his father in British colony, Hong Kong. But soon he finds that's exactly why he is in endless trouble. His attempt to escape to Hong Kong lands him in prison. He faces torture and interrogation.
After his release, he becomes aware that almost all the people he has met in the past are now either dead or in trouble. Times are bad, but he keeps hoping for a better future. In the meantime, he seeks escape from the harsh reality of life under totalitarianism by reading, by playing jazz, by loving, by having sex.... Is he doing the right thing?
He turned round and left the grocery store through the front door, which opened onto Nanking Road. But almost immediately he retreated back inside -- Red Guards were stopping pedestrians in the main street. From his vantage point in the grocery store, Barry could see that the Red Guards had stopped a fashionable woman on the opposite side of the street. He saw them actually cut her long wavy hair and force her to take off her leather shoes. Even then they didn't let her go. Next they ripped the legs of her pants lengthwise -- apparently they were too tight, too fashionable, and therefore too bourgeois to be tolerated....
The room contained only one small desk and a single wooden chair. Two naked bulbs hanging from the ceiling provided the only dim light. It was midnight, but the port police station was in full operation. The chief sat in the wooden chair against a boarded-up window, while his staff and some militiamen popped in and out from time to time to pass on information or instructions.... Now untied, Barry stood in front of the desk with his head hung down.... He looked at the stolid faces of the policemen and militiamen, wondering what they were thinking. He shuddered as he realized that these people lived in a world totally different from his.... One impatient militiaman walked up to Barry and delivered a powerful punch to his left side.... The same eager militiaman stepped up and punched Barry again, this time in the back. The blow threw Barry off balance.... The militiaman fished a pair of handcuffs from a drawer in the desk and clanked them in his hands for a brief moment. Then he grabbed Barry and roughly twisted his arms behind his back, snapping the handcuffs around Barry's wrists to keep his arms in place.... Then the militiaman forced him to kneel on the cement by tugging the short chain between the handcuffs upward and pressing a foot on the small of Barry's back.... The pain in his wrists and arms caused Barry to break out in a sweat.... For a moment he blacked out.