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From The Asian Reporter, V19, #38 (September 29, 2009), page 11.
Tunnelling into Portlandís checkered past
The Shanghai Tunnel
By Sharan Newman
Hardcover, 334 pages, $24.95
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
Sharan Newmanís informative and engaging mystery The Shanghai Tunnel takes readers back to Portlandís roots as a frontier port, where rough-hewn men came to make a living in the forests or on the sea. And the taverns along Front Street catered to these menís baser desires, providing them with liquor, opium, or ladies of the evening. Many of these saloons also turned their patrons into unwilling sailors on the ships in the harbor, in a process called "shanghaiing."
A victim would be drugged or otherwise incapacitated and delivered via trapdoor or false wall into a saloonís basement. From there, he would be transported through an underground tunnel system to the harbor, where he was sold to a shipís captain. The unwitting sailor would awake aboard ship, where he was forced to work until the next port of call, often Shanghai, China.
This faraway city gave its name to the process as well as to the secret tunnel system below Portlandís streets: the Shanghai Tunnels. In its heyday in the 1860s, Portland was the Shanghaiing capital of the world, and even today people can tour extant portions of the Shanghai Tunnels in the basements of Chinatown. This literal underground slave trade represents the contrasts of our young city, its bright future built on a much shadier past.
Into this rough-and-tumble atmosphere arrives Emily Stratton, heroine of Newmanís novel. Emily grew up in China as part of a missionary family and later married Horace Stratton, a businessman with interests in Portland and China. But Horace recently died, so Emily has come to bury him and put his affairs in order in Portland, an unfamiliar town where she knows no one, nor does she know the first thing about Horaceís business.
She sets out to discover more about her husbandís holdings and finds his business partners hiding more than just unsavory business practices. Emily wonders if theyíre connected to one of the two factions battling over the railroad thatís nearing Portland, trying to influence which side of the Willamette it will be built along. Instead, she unravels a conspiracy that goes much deeper than mere political corruption and which ties her native country to the faraway land where she was born.
The Shanghai Tunnel thus becomes about Emilyís discovery of young Portland and its politics as much as her late husbandís distasteful business practices. An intelligent and unconventional woman, she is persistent in discovering more about her new hometown and the mysteries behind her husband and his business. She is, in other words, the perfect fictional detective.
Her young son, Robert, mostly learns about the bad side of the young city following in his fatherís dissipative footsteps at the waterfront saloons and brothels, discovering more about his heritage than he ever intended. In the end, both uncover the thorns in the City of Roses. Emily isnít sure whom she can trust ó even banal social calls seem to carry malevolent import ó and Robert finds his own nocturnal activities are gathering the worst kind of attention.
Lost in the politics and culture of downtown, Emily is more at home in Chinatown, gaining many of her clues from her Cantonese conversations. As an American born in China, she becomes an excellent bridge between the two cultures, reversing typical Victorian prejudices. Unlike her neighbors, Emily finds American culture strange and primitive when compared to China, where clothing is freer and the cycles of daily life make more sense.
This Asian theme runs strongly through The Shanghai Tunnel, as it does through our city, and Newman has created an intelligent, realistic, and engaging protagonist who encompasses the many influences that come together in Portland. Itís gratifying to hear that this is but the first of Newmanís mysteries featuring Emily Stratton, and we look forward to many more.
The one disappointment of the book is that the tunnels of the title donít figure more prominently in the story. They serve as a dramatic backdrop for some of the events, but they are rarely referred to and almost never visited. Itís difficult to set a tale entirely in such a confining and depressing locale, but the title makes a promise that the book doesnít fully keep.
Fortunately, most readers will overlook this minor flaw, immersed as they will be in Newmanís gripping story and endearing main character. Portland residents new and old will enjoy this beautiful historical mystery, particularly those who have either interest or heritage in our cityís pan-Asian roots. Newmanís skill as a storyteller and diligence as a researcher are abiding strengths of The Shanghai Tunnel, no doubt enticing many others to tour the grim catacombs that still twist through both Chinatown and our cityís checkered past.