Both Mao Dun’s canonical Shanghai novel 子夜 from 1933, translated as Midnight by Hsu Meng-hsiung, and Chen Danyan’s 成为和平饭店 from 2012, translated by Liu Haiming as The Peace Hotel, begin with an old man dying.
In Midnight the head of the Wu family, a pious country gentleman, expires on his very first day in Shanghai from sheer shock of its depravity. The city itself seems to him monstrous, while at the same time curiously ephemeral, and intent upon wrecking moral havoc on all who enter: “Good heavens! the towering skyscrapers, their countless lighted windows gleaming like eyes of devils, seemed to be rushing down on him like an avalanche at one moment and vanishing the next.” (15)
Signifying the quick demise of old traditions and values in the new world of the 1930s, with its unpredictable civil war and its extreme financial instability, the scene is set for a dramatization of a historical changes in China. The natural stage for such a scene is Shanghai, enabling professor Yu-ting, when a young lady asks him to describe contemporary society, to answer:
“It’s a tall order your question. But you can find the answer in the next room. There you have the successful financier and a captain of industry. That little drawing-room is Chinese society in miniature [中国社会的缩影].”
“But there is also a pious old man – a believer in the Book of Rewards and Punishments [太上感应篇].”
“Yes, but the old man is – he’s dying fast.” (29)
The dead man in Chen Danyan’s story (though true to a certain type of character in recent Shanghai history, being a dispossessed factory owner with children educated abroad) is more important for the sense of emotional loss his death induces. The loss of one personal version of the past.
Though saturated with nostalgia, the novel acknowledges that the object of nostalgia is itself elusive and highly subjective. To the dead man and his mourning family, the Peace Hotel witnessed the transformation of their family fortunes as the place where capitalists were to hand over their ill-gotten gains during the five antis campaign in 1952. To other characters in the novel, it signifies the colonial splendor of the 1930s, the international ties of socialism in the 1970s or the first glimpses of the dawning Shanghai nostalgia craze of the 1990s.
Chen Danyan’s somewhat eclectic “non-fiction novel” is a testament to the plurality of personal and emotional ties to the Shanghai of yore as well as to one of its most spectacular iconic spaces, the Peace Hotel: “Regret for it’s being ‘unlike how it was in the past’ welled up inside me, yet, interestingly; I found it hard to pin down the ‘past.’ The people I had interviewed and I myself couldn’t help talking about the hotel’s past, which often meant our respective first encounter with it.” (252)
Written 80 years apart, the two novels convey an image of Shanghai as a city of tremendous change tinted with loss. For those of you feeling nostalgic, Christian Henriot and co.’s amazing Virtual Shanghai project with photographs from the late 19th century till today is always worth a visit. .