Late one night in July 2008, a 22-year-old Canadian model named Diana O’Brien died in the stairwell of her Shanghai apartment building after being stabbed more than 20 times. O’Brien’s assailant was Chen Jun, an 18-year-old migrant worker from impoverished Anhui Province. Like O’Brien, Chen had traveled to Shanghai without proper papers, hoping to wedge himself into the city’s vibrant economy, make some money, and establish himself.
It didn’t work: neither O’Brien nor Chen found what they had hoped for in Shanghai. In the 12 days since she had landed in China, O’Brien had discovered that her fly-by-night local modeling agency wasn’t getting her modeling jobs, but instead hiring her out as a “whiskey girl,” sent to second-tier cities where she dressed up in a cheap gown and circulated among bar-goers while displaying a bottle of Ballantine’s. Chen had arrived in Shanghai only a month before O’Brien and obtained a job at the Huazhilin Teahouse next door to her apartment building, but he was soon fired. Alone in the city, broke, and searching for money to buy a bus ticket home to Anhui, Chen Jun slipped into the adjacent building and found an open door, offering him a glimpse of an Apple laptop sitting in the living room of the apartment O’Brien shared with another model. When he entered the home to steal the computer, however, O’Brien heard him from her bedroom and tried to stop the robbery. In a panic, Chen stabbed her to death.
Who were Diana O’Brien and Chen Jun, and did he really murder her on that hot July night? We’ll likely never know the answer to the latter question—Chinese police procedures are too opaque—but the former lies at the core of Shanghai-based journalist Mara Hvistendahl’s compelling new short e-book, And the City Swallowed Them. Hvistendahl traveled to O’Brien’s idyllic hometown in Canada’s remote Gulf Islands and explains how a free-spirited bohemian island girl wound up an aspiring international model in Shanghai. She also visited Chen Jun’s village, exploring the lonely, alienated life of a “left-behind child” whose parents had gone to the city to find work. Hvistendahl skillfully and subtly suggests the parallels between O’Brien and Chen; though in many ways they could not have been more different, they both occupied semi-legal perches on the fringes of Shanghai society.
Did the Shanghai police, eager to solve a case making international headlines only a month before the Beijing Olympics, frame Chen Jun for Diana O’Brien’s murder? Stories of misconduct in the Chinese justice system—where the courts have a 99.9 percent conviction rate—make it easy to assume that. But I came away from Hvistendahl’s book genuinely unsure. As she says in this interview with Shanghaiist, “If the police did create a story around what happened, it was an extremely elaborate story.”
And the City Swallowed Them is the first e-book released by Deca, a new cooperative of nine international journalists who have come together to produce long-form nonfiction stories (more than a magazine article, less than a full-blown book). Launched only a week ago, Deca has already raised over $21,000 on Kickstarter to support its future publications—the latest proof that people will indeed pay for quality journalism, dire predictions to the contrary notwithstanding. (For an extensive explanation of what Deca is, how it came about, and what its members plan to do, see this group interview with Nieman Storyboard.)
Hvistendahl takes a fair and balanced look at Diana O’Brien’s tragic death, presenting the facts as best they can be determined and allowing the reader to make his/her own judgment about whether or not justice has been served. It’s an impressive debut for Deca, and sets a high bar for the cooperative’s other writers to meet.