As the rough equivalent of the Gatsbies of the West, the Chinese term, “Phoenix Man”, usually refers to Chinese men who were born into poor families, but worked extremely hard in school and went to university, then stayed in the city for work and life after graduation. Their lives later pan out exactly as they had imagined, with a few minor disappointments, to usually attain the dream of marrying a pretty girl from the city, and acquiring a large family home.
These are the Gatsbies of China, the “new money” business tycoons who grew up in small, cannot-be-found-on-Baidu, countryside villages in China, and now reside in the mansions of big, metropolitan cities. One of my mother’s favourite stories to tell my brother and I is the one of how my dad, who grew up in Tangshan in the countryside of Nanjing, often sat on a small stool on the porch steps of his house in the scorching summer during the 1970s, dreaming of marrying a city girl in the future. Then after he graduated from Nanjing Normal University and acquired a job writing speech drafts for various leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, he met and married my mother, the beautiful daughter of two combat medics who served in the People’s Liberation Army. In simpler words, my mother and father were universes apart, in terms of the classes into which they were birthed during the Cultural Revolution era of China.
This was how I first heard the term “凤凰男”, or directly translated to English, the “Phoenix Man”. Everything they do in their early lives is geared towards constructing a magnificent new image; they are ready to emerge from the ashes anew, and take on the world in their glorious new armour.
The children of these Phoenix Men are dubbed the #RichKidsofChina, the “teenage hypebeasts” born with a silver spoon in their mouths, served along with a generous side of self-entitlement. Their powdered formula milk was imported from Japan, their pristine butts sat on the most expensive of toilets since potty-training age, and they were pampered by at least three nannies, daily. Their choice of school transportation is a Rolls Royce or Bentley. Their lifestyles, glitzy and gaudy, put the crazy parties thrown by Jay Gatsby to shame. And all this is meticulously displayed on their flashy, guilty-pleasure Instagram feeds. When they reach elementary school age, they attend private schools; then the useless ones have their Gatsby fathers buy them a one-way ticket into UCLA or some other “almost-Ivy” that will appreciate a sizeable donation. These rich kids fly private, and their wardrobes consist of only streetwear brands such as Supreme and Stüssy, and their vocabulary boasts the most creative string of profanity.
The way my brother and I were raised deviated slightly from the standard rearing of #RichKidofChina. We were given an incredibly privileged upbringing, but it was one imbued with high academic expectations, moral integrity and just a dash of the traditional, Chinese “anti-self-esteem-building” that is always having to prove your own worth.
This idea of self-invention for a greater purpose manifested in Gatsby is reminiscent of the characteristics of the Chinese “Phoenix Man”, whereby our protagonist undergoes a total makeover and personality overhaul in order to get out of the poor town and reclaim his personal Siren.
She is the real nightmare dressed as a daydream. However, despite the human disappointments that arise, more often than not, from the current generation of #RichKidsofChina, it is worth acknowledging that this young, elite group of Chinese citizens do possess more substance than their stereotype of being ignorant, lazy and entitled teenagers. In the “Great Gatsby”, we come to understand is that which makes Gatsby “great” is not his extravagant lifestyle and the fascinating allure of his wealth, but that, in the deepest chambers of Gatsby’s heart, he does not covet materialistic gains or social status, nor is he plagued by petty shallow things, such as his iconic suits. Instead, the soft, surprise centre of his enigmatic hard shell nurses the most human and overpowering of emotions; love. Is the ability to love (even foolishly) enough to be the ultimate redeeming quality? As humans, is not our only true obligation to love? Even if you are a self-made billionaire like Gatsby, built out of nothing but lies; if you have loved, truly, painfully, desperately, at least once in your life, you are a human.
Beyond the glossy pictures of ridiculously expensive champagne, brand-name clothing and VIP nightclubs, there is an organ behind those ribcages that does a little more than just pump blood and keep #RichKidofChina alive. It guards insecurities, fears and unspeakable chapters in their personal history. Things there is no room to feel, so they’re packaged in little boxes, locked in the back of memory banks.
Unless salvaging their soul is a complete lost cause, and blindly searching for the good in someone be absolutely futile, it is always worthwhile to look for the humanity therein. The idea of being pure, unadulterated “light” is laughable and unattainable. No one can live in the light all the time. We need to work with an awful lot of grey, as we break down their #RichKidofChina façade, lest we judge them with the scrutiny and insensitivity we are so accustomed to doing subconsciously.
Nowadays, consider it a compliment when someone calls you a human being. Love is the only thing that keeps us from falling over the edge, down the cliff, into the cold, unforgiving and irreversible unknown of the plastic world. No one is exempt from life’s inclemencies. Yet, all of us have that one motivation, one drive, one purpose for everything for which we fight that remains in the fourth chamber of our hearts and stays there, in eternal pirouettes.
We are all, at the end of the day, human on the inside.