Mara Hvistendahl, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Unnatural Selection, recently spoke to us about her new short ebook, And the City Swallowed Them, an excerpt of which we published on Shanghaiist last week. And the City Swallowed Them tells the story of Canadian model Diana O’Brien, who was murdered in Shanghai in 2008.
The book is about a murder that happened in 2008. Was Diana O’Brien’s story one that you’ve wanted to tell for a long time?
Yes. At the time that Diana was murdered, I was living not far away on Panyu Lu. (The murder happened on Zhaohua Lu.) I was a single woman living alone, and I’d never thought of Shanghai as a dangerous place. The news left a deep impression on me, as it did on many expats in Shanghai then. But no one really knew what had happened at first. The police didn’t make much information available, and rumors were flying. A lot of people remained suspicious even after the police announced they had a suspect.
I didn’t join the pack of reporters looking into it then — I’ve never really liked being part of a media circus — but I kept thinking about it and wondering whether justice had been served. Because a few years had passed by the time I started my reporting, I was able to find out a lot more about the case than if I had reported on it in 2008. And taking time to really reconstruct what had happened gave me the chance to deeply research both crime in China and the modeling scene here. What I found overturned assumptions I’d had about both of those areas.
Do you think that justice was ultimately served? You write that Diana O’Brien’s parents were initially skeptical, but later found the evidence the Shanghai police presented convincing.
This probably goes without saying, but there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of the criminal justice system here. Police can detain suspects for up to 37 days without formally charging them, and during that time they have a lot of leeway. Suspects don’t necessarily have the right to see a lawyer, and they don’t have the right to remain silent. Convictions are often based on confessions, which are sometimes extracted through torture, and wrongful convictions are common. In this case, police apprehended a suspect named Chen Jun five days after Diana O’Brien was killed. The man was a migrant from Anhui, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he confessed.
But then police did something surprising. Over several days, they brought Diana’s mother and stepfather in on the details of the investigation. They showed them the crime scene and the autopsy report. They showed her parents evidence that they probably would not have seen had the murder happened in Canada. Her mother and stepfather went to China highly skeptical of the police, but by the time they left they were convinced that the right guy was found.
Do you feel similarly?
My own feeling is that it’s hard to ever really know for certain in China. I can see both sides, and I now think that if the police did create a story around what happened, it was an extremely elaborate story. I did run into a few people inside the system – criminologists and lawyers working in China – who say that the police do regularly concoct stories. But I also think that the authorities were under huge pressure because the Beijing Olympics was a just a month away, and the government was trying to present a glowing image of China to the world. They put 70 officers on the case. So it’s also very possible that they caught the right guy.
When I visited Chen Jun’s family in Anhui, I learned that he’d had a rough childhood. His parents split up when he was very young, and then both left to work in the city. His father was an alcoholic when he was around, which was not often, and Chen Jun was mostly raised by his grandfather. He had a pretty lonely childhood, like many so-called “left-behind children,” and when he reached adolescence he dropped out of school to work in the city. In Shanghai he spent most of his time at Internet cafes, presumably playing World of Warcraft, and he likely lived in a dingy dormitory surrounded by other young men. So he fits the profile of someone who might commit a violent crime.
You say that your research about crime and the modeling industry in China overturned your assumptions. How so? What were your assumptions?
As I mentioned, before the murder happened, I thought of China as a pretty safe place. I think many expats here had the same impression. I’ve seen enough fistfights and domestic violence incidents for a lifetime, and I can imagine the power of a village mob, but violent murder is just something I didn’t figure was common. In fact, violent crime is fairly common in China, but it’s concentrated in migrant areas – migrants are usually both the perpetrators and victims in crimes. In Shanghai those areas are on the outskirts of the city, so many people just don’t see them.
The modeling industry, meanwhile, is also driven by migration. I never imagined modeling in China to be extremely glamorous, but it also never occurred to me that models from countries like the U.S. and Canada would come here and end up living in squalid conditions. And many do. I spoke with models who have been housed ten or twelve to an apartment. Often women have to share beds. Diana’s living situation was a bit better, but the lock on her door didn’t work properly, and her agency didn’t give her her own key. The police found no sign that the lock on the door had been broken. And the killer wouldn’t have had to break in. The door was unlocked.
Is the modelling industry in China today as murky and unprincipled as it was when Diana O’Brien’s murder took place in 2008?
There are some very good agencies in Shanghai – Esee and PT are the two that are always mentioned – and models who work with these agencies tend to have pretty good experiences. But since 2008, the number of small, fly-by-night agencies has only grown. Wages have gone down, meanwhile, as the market has seen an influx of models from all over the world. There are still models living in horrible conditions. And in general, China is a place where models work very long hours. Often the agencies deduct time for bathroom breaks. And sometimes they’re asked to do jobs that aren’t at all modeling. That’s what happened in Diana’s case. She was hired out as a Ballantine’s “whiskey girl” – which meant that she had to wear an ugly gown and display bottles of whiskey in second-tier clubs. Needless to say, that’s not what she came to China to do.
Mara Hvistendahl will be attending a book launch for And the City Swallowed Them at Glamour Bar in Shanghai at 4 pm tomorrow, Sunday, June 22. You can reserve your place here.
You can buy And the City Swallowed Them by Mara Hvistendahl as a Kindle Single through Amazon. Or, you get it as part of a subscription to Deca Stories, the newly launched writers’ collective publishing the story, by backing their Kickstarter campaign.