October 17, 2015 · essay travel

Gatsby in Shanghai

Burning brightly on the shores of the Huangpu River, the neon lights of the Shanghai skyline hark back to Fitzgerald’s description in The Great Gatsby of a gleaming city rising up alongside the Hudson River—New York City, the quintessentially cosmopolitan city, the embodiment of the American Dream, and with the “wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” The Dutch sailors who navigated up the Hudson to claim their own piece of the New World would scarcely believe that their tiny settlement named New Amsterdam would become what it has.

Fitzgerald’s encapsulation of the American Dream within his seminal work, inclusive of all its magnificent graces and vicious flaws, arguably has served as the definitive story for what became of the national ethos of the United States of America during the Roaring Twenties. Yet building after building adorned with Art Deco and neoclassical architecture in Shanghai reminds us that this city once lived through its own such period, and indeed just may be revisiting it again today—the American Dream of The Great Gatsby is alive, not (only) in New York, but in Shanghai as well.

Nowhere in Shanghai is its past cosmopolitanism more apparent and more centrally located than the waterfront district known as the Bund. Strolling down Zhongshan Road is to stroll down the architectural vestiges of twentieth century Shanghai history: the Fairmont Peace Hotel (née the Cathay Hotel), Customs House, the HSBC Building, and others. The New York Plaza Hotel would blend seamlessly in with this landscape. These buildings, and the sheer grandeur and feelings of excess that they still inspire, are reminders of Shanghai’s, to quote Jeffrey Wasserstrom, “anything-goes” era “that pulsated with a special kind of energy.” One can easily imagine Fitzgerald’s painting of Gatsby’s lavish Rolls Royce-transported, full orchestra-entertained, and copiously-fed and liquored parties being thrown right behind the towering granite façade of the Bund.

Today, after progressing through centuries of Chinese history and arriving now at “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”—perhaps more aptly, “Capitalism with Chinese characteristics”—in truth very little has changed. During a night out on the Bund, one notices the evolution of Rolls Royces to Lamborghinis and orchestras to electronic synthesizers, but little change else beyond these. The parties, now even themselves having been turned into commercial enterprises of nightclubs and bars within the very same historical buildings, still radiate a West Egg, nouveau riche aura of monstrous gaudiness and unrestrained excessiveness.

Despite this parallel between Fitzgerald’s New York and Shanghai, the transcendent nature of The Great Gatsby lies not in its superficial descriptions of wealth. Instead, it lies in how these came to embody the American Dream, perhaps the most famous of all national formative myths. Fitzgerald’s stirring ideal of that which has been the foundation of American cosmopolitanism—“the last and greatest of all human dreams,” the enchanting principle of freedom guaranteeing all equal opportunity for prosperity and success—stands in stark contrast to this empty pursuit of material wealth and pleasure. Jay Gatsby’s dream and wonder then, as famously epitomized by the green light he gazed at nightly from across the harbour, was never intended to resemble the material hollowness it decayed into.

Looking out across the Huangpu River at the lights of the city, this remarkable resemblance of new Shanghai to the New York of Gatsby was impossible to ignore—a city completed invested in the very ideals and values of the American Dream and cosmopolitanism, and yet somewhat anachronistically subject to and burdened with all of Fitzgerald’s criticisms. In few other cities does Gatsby’s green light burn brighter, and in few other cities is the story more one of indulgence and excess.

It is fair to say the ethos of the People’s Republic as envisioned by its founders never was meant to mesh with the American Dream. As the worn Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg stared out over the poverty-stricken slum that divided East and West Egg New York, so too does a striking statue of Chairman Mao Zedong stare out over the vista of the Bund and Pudong. And as Doctor T. J. Eckleburg is frequently interpreted to represent the eyes of the Creator judging American society as being impoverished of morals and having strayed from its noble principles, so too might one wonder how Chairman Mao would judge today’s Shanghai. How would he view Shanghai’s uncanny emulation of the cosmopolitanism of Fitzgerald’s New York? How would he judge Shanghai’s neighbourhoods of acute poverty juxtaposed with its very own East and West Eggs?

The metaphorical green light of this American Dream may seem to be the guiding beacon of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan transformation, but its true noble ideal, as it had for Gatsby, has proven elusive. The light may glow brightly when viewed from the banks of the Huangpu River or in the Bund, but from within a small and soon to be demolished dwelling cowering in the shadow of the city’s skyscrapers, can its residents see it? Standing upon the pile of ashes from a neighbouring demolition within this artificial valley, as from George the lowly gas station attendant’s vantage point in Fitzgerald’s world, one cannot imagine they can.

Yet we can be sure that Shanghai, as its old buildings are inevitably razed and progress is firmly demanded, will continue to strive towards running faster, stretching farther, and reaching higher. In a pursuit of American cosmopolitanism, it will, like the characters of The Great Gatsby, row forwards with its back turned firmly towards its problems and its past.