The halcyon days of Shanghai’s 1920s and ‘30s are en vogue with an explosion of Great Gatsby-themed parties, speakeasy-style bars and homemade flapper costumes. In their new books, Andrew Field and Spencer Dodington delve deep into this period, immortalizing two underexplored figures that left an indelible mark on the city: writer Mu Shiying and architect Paul Veysseyre.
Although Mu and Veyssyre’s contributions reverberate in the look and culture of Shanghai, the two couldn’t be more different.
Mu was a literary wunderkind who came to Shanghai from Ningbo to study at Aurora College in the 1930s. Stories like ‘Shanghai Fox-trot’ and ‘The Man Who Was Treated as a Plaything’ immortalize the city’s cabaret culture, marking a shift in style and subject matter in Chinese modernism from the harsh realism of May 4 literary giants Lu Xun and Lao She.
“He was a pioneer of exploring cabaret as it was becoming popular among Chinese in the city,” says Field. “It was like stepping into an exotic foreign world for him because it had nothing to do with Chinese culture.”
Veysseyre, on the other hand, was a family man who spent his weekends dressing up in his fanciest for shooting expeditions in the countryside. The French architect’s greatest gift to Shanghai was spreading his native Art Deco style with buildings like the Dauphine Apartments on Jianguo Lu, the Gascogne on Huaihai Lu and what is now the Okura Garden Hotel.
“He and his firm [Leonard, Veysseyre & Kruze] were the most prolific architects in that period,” Dodington declares. “Between 85-90 percent of his stuff is left because there’s been a conscious effort of the government to preserve buildings like his fancy Art Deco blocks.”
Over 100 Veysseyre buildings remain in the city, but little is known about the architect. His family kept a tight lid on his archives – rendering him virtually ungoogleable – before allowing Dodington and co-author Charles LaGrange to spend two summers at their French home to prepare Shanghai’s Art Deco Master.
The 30x30cm coffee-style book is split into three sections: a Veysseyre biography, detailed descriptions of his work and a concise history of the former French Concession.
Although Veysseyre influenced Shanghai’s unique look, it wasn’t a reciprocal relationship. “He didn’t even obey feng shui things at first,” Dodington notes with a laugh. The thoroughly French architect lived in Shanghai from 1921 to 1937, before decamping to Vietnam for 17 years to contribute to Ho Chi Minh City’s Art Deco heritage.
It was a better fate than Mu’s, who was gunned down in a rickshaw on Fujian Lu in 1940 due to his work as a writer in Wang Jingwei’s puppet regime’s sponsored newspaper, Guomin Ribao.
Mu’s reputation would be repaired in the late 1980s as scholars like Yan Jiayan rediscovered and republished his work. Field’s book Mu Shiying: China’s Lost Modernist is the first English compilation of Mu’s short stories and is the latest in the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) Monograph series.
“Each of the stories uses nightlife as a backdrop or centerpiece,” Field explains. “They’re full of people seeking fulfillment, erotic or emotional, that’s eluding them. As a contemporary resident of Shanghai, there’s a lot of resonance. It’s a very familiar world even if some of the details have changed.”
The two are unsurprised by the current sway that this period has over the city. “The 1920s and 30s was such a unique period in world history,” Fields says, crediting the advent of film and radio for creating “a truly global creative conversation on art, literature and architecture for the first time.”
“It was also colorful and vibrant,” Dodington adds. “Today you can choose to live in a certain way from a certain time. The 1920s and 30s will always be a part of modern culture no matter where and when in the future.”
// Spencer Dodington will give an RAS lecture on June 3. For more information about their books and upcoming events, visit www.andrewdavidfield.com and www.spencerdodington.com.
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