As Beijing bureau chief for The Times of London, Oliver August soon discovered something very newsworthy: that "the 'New China' known to readers had even more cliches than people." So August set out to find an unusual angle. During his seven-year stint in China, he became intrigued by the roller-coaster ride of a farmer-turned-billionaire gangster, a man variously regarded as Robin Hood, the Chinese Gatsby or an enemy of the state.
Inside the Red Mansion is a chronicle of August's steady if desultory pursuit.
Lai Changxing (賴昌星) is the outlaw. He wound up fleeing China for Vancouver, where he would prompt what August calls the longest hearing in Canadian legal history. And he based his building, sales, prostitution and smuggling empire in the boom town of Xiamen on China's southern coast. Though illiterate, Lai named his principal pleasure palace the Red Mansion after one of China's epic works of fiction.
"For him to appropriate Dream of a Red Mansion was like changing the name of Colosimo's Cafe in Chicago - where Al Capone began his career - to Great Expectations, after Charles Dickens," August explains. Although the huge novel is sometimes known as Dream of the Red Chamber, it suited both Lai's and August's purposes to make its title sound as grandiose as possible. After all, August would make Lai and his lair the focus of a seven-year investigation.
As investigative journalists go, August sounds more fun-loving than dogged. He proudly describes having roller-skated his way through the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and being thrilled to have a security officer complain about him. ("This is too unserious.") And he undertook the search for Lai in a similar spirit of mischief.
While writing newspaper articles on the kinds of feature-story topics that run through the book (eg., how Xiamen Airlines conducted an onboard auction for airline merchandise and seats on future flights), he returned periodically to his roundabout hunt for Lai. Inside the Red Mansion winds up a colorfully digressive book capitalizing on the thought that understanding the new China is essential to understanding a criminal who could so successfully exploit it.
Early in the book, August encounters a men's room attendant eager to parlay that work into something, anything, that qualifies as a bigger business opportunity. Somebody else suggests combining a plastic surgery practice with a tailor shop to adjust patients' clothes. This seems to have been the enterprising spirit of Lai's gaudy rise to the top.
Although Lai is present through most of the book strictly as a reason to make others suddenly turn silent while being grilled by August, the economic atmosphere that proved so fertile for him is well evoked. From handing out a slew of bogus business cards as signs of status to playing golf by moonlight with multiple female caddies, Xiamen's rogue would-be entrepreneurs are nothing if not creative. The idea of night golf not only enhances the golf course's income but is said to protect farmers-turned-tycoons from the damaging sun.
In the circles that August wound up infiltrating, "Rich like Lai" was a toast, not a condemnation. The book describes how Lai's great success as a self-made man, who must have borrowed the Red Mansion conceit from a television miniseries since he could not read, has been imitated by many others.