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August 29, 2014

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Feline detective scours the streets of old Shanghai

IN late 1920s Shanghai, anthropomorphic cat detective Constable Khang is sent out to investigate what lies behind a mysterious kitten that is tattooed with mousha, the Chinese characters for murder.

Khang is the main character in “The Cat With the Telltale Tattoo!”

It’s the first of a planned 5-book series called “Constable Khang’s Mysteries of Old Shanghai.” The graphic novel has been written and illustrated by Nathaniel Scobie and recently published by China Foreign Language Press in both Chinese and English.

Each book has a separate plot but also includes a story arc that plays out over the series. The English edition highlights common or interesting Chinese phrases used in the story, marks the pronunciation and explains its meaning and usage. The Chinese version expresses these Chinese phrases in English.

Looking for truth behind the tattooed kitten, Khang, who works for the Chinese police, shuttles among the different jurisdictions that are managed by various Chinese and foreign powers. Khang’s investigation brings him into contact with everybody from flower market vendors to the big boss behind a powerful gang.

Aside from Khang, all the other characters are human and illustrated in a rather realistic way. The backgrounds pack in tons of details and recreate the ambience and complexity of Shanghai at that time. Nobody says anything about why Khang is a cat.

This is what Samuel Porteous, the Shanghai-based Canadian expat behind the pen name Nathaniel Scobie, calls “a historically accurate noir-style mystery with elements of magic realism and Tintin set in old Shanghai of the late 1920s and 30s.”

“We have strived to make the storyline as historically and visually accurate as possible without getting in the way of the plot,” Porteous tells Shanghai Daily. “It is a similar approach to what we believe Herge followed with the Tintin series.”

Porteous, who formerly worked in risk management, has always been fascinated by graphic novels. He is also intrigued by the sophistication of old Shanghai; he’s been living here since 2001.

Four years ago, Porteous founded the studio Drowsy Emperor — the name is a reference to Irish poet William Yeats. In the poem “Sailing to Byzantine,” Yeats wrote “to keep a drowsy Emperor awake.”

Porteous has since reviewed thousands of Shanghai archival notes, photographs and films from that period as well as academic works, fiction, non-fiction and online resources for the Khang series.

Inspired by these materials, the Canadian has managed to capture the architecture, fashion and ambience of the late 1920s to achieve the magic realism style.

For example, an old Ewo beer advert features in one sequence. He says it was inspired by a real advertisement he found during his research.

Khang’s next adventure will be in “Constable Khang and the Black Angel,” featuring the angel statue that was once a city landmark along the Bund.

The statue was made to commemorate the expatriates who left the city to fight in World War I and were killed. The names of all Shanghai expats who died in WWI were carved on the statue. It was destroyed in 1941 by Japanese troops when they captured the city.

In “Black Angel,” to be published later this year, Porteous carefully recreated the statue and made it an integral part of the mystery.

“The Cat with the Telltale Tattoo!” is now available at Garden Books, Shanghai Book City, Hongqiao International Airport, as well as online shops like Amazon.


Q: What is your inspiration for the Constable Khang character?

A: It was my own cat. He always struck me as a very noble fellow in the best “Puss in Boots” manner. He tends to hang around my drafting table while I am working and one day while I was sketching, I drew his head, humanizing it a bit. And then for some reason, I put him in the dark blue jacket with white piping that Khang now wears.

I thought he needed to be doing something and he looked contemplative in the sketch, so I thought of Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull, and instead of a skull, I sketched him contemplating a younger non-anthropomorphized version of himself as a kitten.

That original image struck me as having a noir-style mystery set in old Shanghai behind it. From that grew the Constable Khang character and the story line.

That first image of Khang now serves as the cover for the first book.


Q: How is Khang special and different from other cat characters like “Puss in Boots” or “Pink Panther?”

A: In the Constable Khang stories, there tends to be one exceptionally odd thing we ask the audience to accept as normal, but having done so then they are pretty much finished with the fantasy and events continue on in a world operating very much like our own.

On this basis, the character Khang is most like Puss in Boots in the French folktale, not the Disney movie. Khang shares with him the concept of a cat character as a “familiar,” assisting humans in an otherwise natural setting.

That is key for understanding the genre. He is unique and special but at the same time Khang is essentially operating as an accepted and unremarkable element of his world.

Khang, with his innocence, fatalism, sense of duty and fearlessness in the face of evil has a “god of small things” element to him. He moves through the 5-book story arc with the confidence of a sleepwalker walking toward his inevitable confrontation with the mysterious syndicate. In this way he is somewhat similar to Frodo in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.


Q: The plot and background are both rather sophisticated, so it isn’t really a children’s book, is it?

A: We are looking at a Tintin-style audience, according to the feedback we have received from the recent Shanghai Book Fair and other sources. That includes everyone from intellectually curious children to adults tilting toward a more sophisticated audience with different age groups.

Younger readers liked the pictures and the cat and read the story on one level. Older readers appreciate a good noir mystery set in an exotic locale told in graphic novel style. They also like the historically accurate storyline and depiction of old Shanghai.


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