The Toronto Star         June 23, 2008
Shanghaied into books, you could say
One visit to Chinese city led to five crime novels and, now, an 800-page historical novel
by Vit Wagner, Publishing Reporter, Toronto Star

David Rotenberg has gotten a lot more mileage than most travellers out of a single 13-week visit he made to Shanghai in 1995.

So far, that lone Chinese sojourn has yielded a five-book series of crime novels centred on the fictional Shanghai inspector Zhong Fong. And now, Rotenberg has published a sprawling, multi-generational historical novel that bears the name of that burgeoning Chinese metropolis.

Rotenberg's prodigious productivity becomes all the more impressive when you realize that writing fiction isn't even his day job.

"I can write pretty quickly when I get going," says Rotenberg, a theatre director and acting teacher.

Rotenberg is on a sabbatical from his post at York University, but maintains his position as artistic director of the Professional Actors Lab, where his students have included Rachel McAdams and Scott Speedman. He also plans to launch the New Ossington Theatre in the fall with his own adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

It was in his capacity as theatre director that Rotenberg originally visited Shanghai, having been invited there to direct the first Canadian play ever produced in the People's Republic. He worked with a group of Chinese actors on a Mandarin production of an iconic Canadian stage text, George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, a contemporary story of a young Indian woman who leaves the reservation for the big city.

It wasn't long before Rotenberg realized that much was lost in the cultural translation. "They didn't comprehend it at all," he recalls. "When the set designs arrived, there were Indians with head dresses and war paint."

Other obstacles included postponements in the rehearsal schedule and short working days, all of which left Rotenberg with ample free time to wander the streets of Shanghai at a pivotal moment in its history.

"Here was a city that was actively involved in moving from being ignored by the great powers in Beijing to becoming the centre of Asian capitalism," he says. "You could feel it all around you. Some of my actors would leave rehearsals because they were setting up kiosks to sell produce on the street."

The Shanghai Murders, the first of the Zhong Fong mysteries, was published in 1998. It was followed by The Lake Ching Murders (2001), The Hua Shan Hospital Murders (2003), The Hamlet Murders (2004) and The Golden Mountain Murders (2005). The author is working with the CBC on an adaptation of the novels for TV.

"It would have to be a co-production with either Taiwan or Hong Kong," Rotenberg says. "We'd need a big leading actor like Tony Leung (Lust, Caution) or one of those guys who has some real caché on the mainland and in Hong Kong."

Around the time the fifth Zhong Fong novel was published, Penguin Canada president and publisher David Davidar approached Rotenberg with an invitation to attempt something larger in scope.

"He wanted to know if I could do for Shanghai what James Clavell did for Hong Kong. It gave me pause because I love Clavell's writing."

At nearly 800 pages, Shanghai spans the history of the city from the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century through to the Maoist takeover roughly 100 years later. Mixing fact and fiction, the book is rooted in the story of an Iraqi Jewish family that makes its fortune in the city. Rotenberg likens his approach to a twist on Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, a "counterfactual" historical narrative that imagined a Nazi takeover of the United States in the 1930s.

"This goes the other way," he says. "These were the events of Chinese history. But it imagines that the reasons behind those events are different from the ones historians have given. The novel postulates a series of other forces at work."