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Gatsby-Like Extravagance And Wealth ... In Communist China

A waiter delivers glasses of wine to guests at a luxury hotel bar near the Bund in Shanghai, on Sept. 8, 2012.
Aly Song
Reuters /Landov
A waiter delivers glasses of wine to guests at a luxury hotel bar near the Bund in Shanghai, on Sept. 8, 2012.

The Baz Luhrmann remake of The Great Gatsby hasn't opened in China yet, but the story's themes — extravagant wealth, naked ambition and corruption — have been in full force here for years.

Recently, a Shanghai publisher screened the 1974 version of the film, starring Robert Redford, to promote a new, bilingual translation of the novel. The gathering's barely hidden subtext was just how much the excesses of America in the Roaring '20s mirror those in China today.

One of the shared similarities Chinese noticed was rampant adultery among the moneyed classes. In one scene, Tom, a wealthy businessman played by Bruce Dern, gets into a fight at a party with his working-class mistress, who wants him to leave his wife, Daisy. The mistress, played by Karen Black, hollers Daisy's name over and over until Tom smacks her in the face, bloodying her nose.

"Tom, he's rich. He can do whatever he wants and buy whatever he wants," said Lily Zhu, who attended the screening, held at a Shanghai art museum. Zhu, who recently graduated from an American university with a degree in economics, said she sees Tom's reckless indulgence in many wealthy Chinese men today.

"When they get very, very rich, they may have several wives," Zhu continued, "and they don't care about their families and don't care about how their children grow up."

Parties, Fancy Cars, Girls

Another scene from the film captures the heedless extravagance of the era. Men in white tie and tails and women in flapper dresses leap into Gatsby's giant fountain and continue dancing as though there is no tomorrow.

A woman shops in a Louis Vuitton store in downtown Shanghai, on Sept. 7, 2012.
Carlos Barria / Reuters /Landov
Reuters /Landov
A woman shops in a Louis Vuitton store in downtown Shanghai, on Sept. 7, 2012.

The F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, published in 1925, was prescient. Four years later, the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression. After decades of staggering growth, many in China wonder if their economy is also headed for a crash.

When Rosemary Gong read the description of people dancing in a fountain, it reminded her of the well-publicized social life of her country's superrich.

"We have a new upper class in China who kind of live a life like Gatsby's," said Gong, who works as a management consultant in Beijing. "The parties. The fancy cars. The girls."

Gong, who has read the novel twice, compared Gatsby's parties at his Long Island mansion to a recent extravagant one on the island of Hainan, China's Hawaii. Participants posted photos of Ferraris, Maseratis and scantily clad women on yachts.

There were "a lot of girls wearing bikinis on the boats, and [drinking] those Cosmopolitan cocktails," Gong recalled. "The scandal told there was a lot of under-the-table ... prostitution."

Flaunting money is not uncommon in many advanced economies, but ordinary people in China still don't very earn much. In addition, such in-your-face opulence is harder to square in a nation where the ruling party insists — against all evidence — it's still communist. Online criticism of the Hainan party was scathing.

"I think that is the most similar thing ever in China related to the Gatsby parties," said Gong. "Most people ... they kind of hate it, I think. This is just China's reality: Rich people get way much richer than normal people."

The Indifference Of The Elite

So, just how well does Fitzgerald's novel nail modern China? So much so that everyone I talked to asked to use their English names so they'd be harder to identify, including Jim Zhang, who works in the aviation business.

"It's kind of sensitive," Zhang said, appearing a bit nervous after the screening.

He also asked that I not use the name of his employer.

One thing that struck Zhang is how consumed the rich people in the movie were with showing off their wealth and how blind they were to the struggles of most everyone else.

"They are kind of indifferent to the life of people in other classes," he said. "I think that's a similar story in China at this point."

After the screening, the audience of about 100 discussed the movie. One of the moderators, Tang Weijie, who teaches literature at Tongji University here, ducked questions about the obvious parallels between Gatsby's era and 21st century China.

"It's hard to say," said Tang, "because in socialist China, our constitution doesn't recognize that we have classes, right? Because we have eradicated classes, correct?"

Tang was being completely ironic.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.