Books and Films by Andrew Field

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Entries in shanghai (72)


Canned Fun: An Evening at the Phebe 3D Dance Club in Shanghai

(a photo of Phebe 3D which I ripped from City Weekend)

March 3, 2011

Last night I joined my NYU Global Nightlife students for the first of three field trips into the world of Shanghai nightlife.  We met around 9:30 pm at 滴水洞 (Di Shui Dong), a popular Hunanese restaurant on Dongping Road.  From there it is an easy walk to dozens of clubs and bars clustered in that neighborhood.  

At 10:30 we wrapped up our dinner and moved down the street to a club called Zapatas, housed in an old Shanghai mansion.  This club attracts a mixed clientele of Chinese and foreigners, and on certain nights, particularly Wednesday “ladies nights” it can get pretty wild and crazy with ladies dancing on the bartop as the bartenders pour tequila shots down willing customers’ throats.  Unfortunately this was not one of those nights.  We settled in a booth upstairs.  The tables were full of small groups of mostly foreigners, but also several Chinese and mixed couples as well.  As the students ordered drinks, I went over to the balcony to look down on the dance floor.

Downstairs there were a few Chinese customers dancing on the floor to a set of tunes played by a European DJ in the booth upstairs.  My students recognized a string of popular club songs such as “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz and the overplayed “I’ve Got a Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas.  A Chinese man, looking to be in his 50s, was holding court on the dance floor, surrounded by a group of several Chinese women who were on the verge of middle age.  At first they were jumping from foot to foot like it was an aerobics class, but later they loosened up and their dancing became more funky and experimental.  We speculated whether the man had invited these women to accompany him to the club, but one student thought it was the other way round.  We didn’t get the opportunity to find out though.  

Since the club wasn’t very active, we decided to move on to our next destination.  This was the Phebe 3D dance club on Hengshan Road.  It’s a ten-minute stroll from Zapatas to Phebe.  We remarked on the long line of cabs stretching down the road, waiting to pick up customers staggering from the entrance to the building housing the club.  I chose to show my students this club because it is typical of a fairly new wave of “provincial” style clubs, i.e. chain clubs that have been introduced into Shanghai from other cities and provinces in China.  It is the sort of club that can now be found in nearly every large city in China today.  I won’t go into detail about the club’s design and décor, which in a nutshell is loud, brash, and extremely kitschy.  One of my students noticed that the main chandelier hanging in the huge bathroom area (which itself is as big as the dance floor area in Zapatas) is decorated with pink high heel shoes.   I won’t even tell you about the men’s urinals, but suffice it to say that their design breaks just about every taboo you could imagine in the categories of both style and sexism. 

The main club space is filled with tables and lounge spaces and dominated by a large central bar, which is attached to a high stage in the center of the club.  The impression I get of this space is that it is intentionally designed to foster heavy drinking and to limit people’s mobility—most people just stay put at their tables or at the bar, though the small dance floor is usually active.  In the main club, everywhere around you, video screens are blasting your visual cortex with music videos that coincide with the incredibly loud top-40 club music, which ranged from Lady Gaga to Michael Jackson.  And Michael himself showed up to perform on the center stage of the club, dressed in his ‘80s duds and doing his signature dance to his hit “Smooth Criminal.”  After that, some of my students got up on the stage along with other customers and danced for about an hour while I watched over their clothing and bags.  For me this was a good opportunity to check out the scene and survey the crowd.

As usual, the club was 90 percent Chinese, with a few foreigners clustered on the dance floor and around the bar.  Most of the tables and lounge spaces were full of drunken Chinese men playing dice and flirting with very attractive Chinese ladies, who were waiting in gaggles by the bar for the men to pick them up.  Even without investigating the scene it was obvious these women were hired by the club to provide company for men or to just provide the illusion of an endless supply of attractive and available women.  Managers dressed in black and sporting walkie-talkies choreographed these women around the club, making sure they were providing a “fun” atmosphere by filling up the empty spaces.  But despite the slick dresses and make-up, most of these young women looked bored, and I imagine that was how the dance hostesses of the 1920s and ‘30s must have appeared on a typical night in a Shanghai ballroom. 

After another hour (it must have been around 1 am by that time), a pair of male workers cleared the stage, shooing off two Caucasian girls who kept popping up defiantly to dance, and prepped the club for another floor show.  The spectacle began with a tall svelte Chinese lady in a nurse’s uniform performing a pole dance in the middle of the club, stripped down to a pair of tight black panties.  After this sexual show reminiscent of a strip club (though no nudity), a threesome involving a foreign man and two foreign women performed a mock ménage-a-trois on a “bed” in the elevated lounge space above the main dance floor (see my previous post on Muse 2 where I discuss the role that foreigners play in eroticizing the nightlife of the city).  Then a Chinese girl performed a belly dance on the main stage, dressed in an Arabian Nights-style outfit.  Some of my students caught the show while others were lost in the crowd.  Afterwards we all gathered together and decided to call it a night.  We’d seen what we’d come for and the students had a taste of contemporary Chinese-style clubbing.

Earlier that evening I had given the students a brief lecture on the cabarets of Montmartre, ending with a discussion of the Moulin Rouge, followed by a doco film featuring Toulouse-Lautrec and his images of Montmartre.  It occurred to me last night that Toulouse-Lautrec might have chosen this club for some of his paintings had he lived in Shanghai today.  If Henri de T-L were dropped into this scene, I’m sure he would have found it reassuringly familiar, and he would have probably befriended many of the men and women who frequent Phebe 3D.  He would enjoy painting the drunken businessmen literally pissing away thousands of dollars on alcohol and the ruse of false intimacy with those attractive demi-mondaines occupying that ambiguous grey zone between entertainers, prostitutes, and customers. 

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's most famous painting of the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre Paris, 1892

Of course, Shanghai itself has a long and rich history of this sort of nighttime entertainment spectacle, as I demonstrate in my own book Shanghai’s Dancing World and as many other scholars of Old Shanghai have also covered in great detail—witness Catherine Yeh’s book Shanghai Love about the courtesans of the late 19th century for example.  Not to mention Tokyo, whose Edo period lithographs known as Ukiyo-E exposed the brothel culture of Yoshiwara to a mass audience hungry for titillation.  It is even likely that Paris was inspired by the nightlife cultures of the Far East in the same way that Toulouse-Lautrec and his idol Edgar Degas were inspired by Japanese art to paint the nightlife scenes of their own city, and to paint them in a style that was already deeply familiar to Japanese artists.  So while one could claim that this style of urban nightlife is “Western” in many respects, it does have its deep roots in East Asian traditions as well.  And clubs like Phebe 3D were just one more step in the long process of fusion between Western and Eastern style clubbing cultures over the past century.


Dancing at the Majestic Hotel to "Nightime in Old Shanghai" by Whitey Smith

Yesterday I noticed a blog that referenced my book Shanghai's Dancing World along with some other clips and images of 1920s-30s Shanghai (the blogger also had some nice things to say about an  interview podcast I participated in for the Shanghai Lit Fest in March 2010, which I greatly appreciated).  Among them was a British Movietone Newsreel from 1929 showing elegantly dressed Chinese couples in a garden cafe dancing to a Western jazz orchestra.  I immediately recognized it as the Majestic Hotel outdoor garden (I am not quite 100 percent sure of this, but sure enough to make that claim) and the orchestra would be Whitey Smith's, even though the conductor's head is cut off in the clip (you can see his body and up to his neck, but I couldn't identify him as Smith).  Whitey features prominently in my book, and most of the information I found about him comes from his own memoir, I Didn't Make a Million.  

Here is a photo of the clover-leaf-shaped Majestic Hotel Ballroom, where Whitey Smith and his orchestra performed in the late 1920s.  It was considered by many to be the finest ballroom in all of Asia.  Unfortunately the hotel was closed for business and eventually torn down along with its ballroom in the early 1930s.  The space it occupied is where the Westgate Mall (meilongzhen guangchang) is today, on the corner of Jiangning and Nanjing West Roads.

Whitey Smith came to Shanghai in 1922 after being recruited by Louis Ladow, an American nightclub owner who was building the Carlton Cafe, then touted as the finest ballroom in the city.  It was soon surpassed by both the Astor House Hotel, which renovated its ballroom in the early 1920s in light of the Jazz Age, and by the Majestic Hotel Ballroom which opened in 1925-6.  Whitey was one of the earliest American jazz musicians to play in Shanghai, and he eventually played in all three of these ballrooms, as well as the famed Paramount Ballroom in the 1930s.  He was one of the most loved jazz musicians in China between the 1920s and 1930s, as both his own book and many other records from the era attest.  

Here is a photo of Whitey Smith (fourth from left) and his all-American jazz orchestra, from the back cover inset of his book I Didn't Make a Million

The music that accompanied the British Movietone Newsreel posted on youtube was completely inappropriate for the clip, so I downloaded the video and cut a new one over Whitey Smith's song "Nightime in Old Shanghai."  

You can watch this clip on my youtube site.

This is the same clip (I think--would have to check on this) that appears in a documentary film on old Shanghai called "The Dragon and the Eagle", where you can actually see Whitey Smith singing this song.  I got the recording from an album called Oriental Illusions, a collection of old jazz tunes about the Far East.  Smith made several recordings, though only this one survives (not entirely true actually, I also have one more song of his on tape which I got from a private collector).

Anyhow, I hope people can enjoy Whitey's song and by listening to it over the clip (which I had to repeat a few times as it was much shorter than the song) they will see how well it goes with the dancing.


An A-Muse-ing Weekend in Shanghai or Sexing the Foreigner in the Nightlife Scene

Astute readers of my blog (if there are any) may recall an entry I posted a few years ago about a visit to the Muse Nightclub in Shanghai.  That was back in 2007.  Today there are three Muses operating in the city.  In our book Shanghai Nightscapes:  Nightlife, Globalization, and Sexuality in the Chinese Metropolis 1920-2010 (currently under review by a major university press) James Farrer and I write about the city's nightlife over the past century and how nightlife has come to play a central and defining role in the cosmopolitan identity of the city.  While we don't have time or space to cover all the multifarious twists and turns that nightlife has made over the past few years of explosive growth, nor all the clubs that have ebbed and flowed over the city's nighttime landscape, Muse is definitely central to our story of nightlife's revival since the 1990s.  In the book we discuss the Muse epic in some detail--I'll leave it at that for now, not wanting to spoil a good story.  

Last weekend, I paid my first visit to the new Muse 2.  The former Muse 2 was located on the sixth floor of Plaza 66 on Nanjing West Road.  It was a favorite bastion of young clubbers and boasted a prime location in the city.  But according to my key informant Big T (also known as Beijing Tony or just BT), the club decided to switch locations after a certain male clubber launched himself from the club's entrance into the atrium of the building and plummeted six floors to his death.  I haven't heard any other accounts or corroborations of this story but would appreciate if anybody else knows something about this.  Otherwise I take it as one of many rumors and myths swirling around the city's nightlife scene.  In any case, the club did move last year to a new location in the growing clubbing matrix around the area of Xintiandi.  

On Saturday night a group of us gathered together to celebrate the visit of our old and dear friend KK, who was back in town for a short spell.  After a dinner at Xin Jishi, a popular Shanghainese restaurant in the Xintiandi complex, BT took us over to the Muse 2 nightclub to continue the celebration in usual BT style.  He had booked us a prime spot near between the dance floor and the bar, where we spent most of the night.  Our group consisted of four couples (unusually, my wife joined us and had a blast).  Our lounge table was well-attended by service people who hovered about waiting to replace empty bottles.  In typical Chinese-clubbing style, we hung around chatting (yelling at the top of our lungs is more like it, since the music got deafening and one of the speakers was located right at the edge of our table), playing dice games and dancing around the table, and snapping endless photos of each other, most of which will never see the light of day beyond the screen of my desktop computer.  

Once in a while I got up to check out the scene and drifted into the sea of clubbers that had gathered in the laser-light saturated darkness of the club.  As usual, most of the foreigners were "ghettoized" in the bar area, while the tables and lounges were occupied by Chinese clubbers who had booked them in advance.  There were two elevated stages, one at the far edge of the dance floor and one in the middle of the club. We were seated on the main floor.  In a style typical of clubs in Shanghai since the 1920s, there was a second floor overlooking the main floor with private baofang rooms where elite clubbers could look over the crowd.  Such an assemblage is also reminiscent in some respects of opera houses in 18th century Europe or, more tellingly perhaps given the location, of kabuki theaters in Edo Japan.

Every now and then, groups of stage performers mounted the stage and performed exotic song-and-dance routines.  Most of these performers were foreigners, and their features were exoticized by their dress and hairstyles.  One blond-haired couple performed an acrobatic dance routine with some gymnastics thrown in for good measure (the man held the girl's legs while she performed cartwheels).  Later that evening some girls got on stage in skimpy costumes and did a loosely choreographed dance routine, their bodies moving roughly in unison to the beat.  There was also a hip-hop routine on the other stage at the edge of the dance floor.  The floor guards prevented me from taking photos but I did capture a few clandestine ones, one of which might go into our book in a section where we talk about how foreigners are sexualized in the city's nightlife scene.  

The presence of foreigners performing sexy acts onstage for the delectation of Chinese clubbers is very common now in the city's nightlife scene, and reminiscent of the sorts of stage performances that were taking place in nightclubs in the city during the "golden age" 1930s, such as the famed Paramount ballroom.  Then, the colonial racial hierarchy so painstakingly maintained by the British (less so by the French and Americans, the other two groups that ruled the city back in the Treaty Port era) was being flouted by the presence of Russians who had arrived destitute and stateless after their country had experienced Lenin's revolution in 1917.  Since Russian women were willing to sleep with Chinese men for money, and Russian men to serve as the bodyguards of wealthy Chinese, their service to the "yellow race" was a direct affront to the racial colonial order of the day.  In the 1920s, as my first book Shanghai's Dancing World describes, newspapers were full of scathing articles about these Russians.  But by the 1930s, their presence was no longer as controversial and they had been accepted as part of the exotic aura of the city.  

One vast difference between today's nightlife culture and that of the 1920s and '30s is that there are no longer any major taboos about white people fraternizing with Asians.  Back in the 1920s and '30s interracial dating in Shanghai was very rare and interracial marriage even moreso. Eurasians were considered a social pathology by some, and the practice of interracial breeding was labeled "miscegenation."  It was considered low-class for white foreign men to indulge their carnal pleasures with the Asiatic race, and such indulgences, though carried out by nearly all classes of society, were generally associated with the sailors and soldiers who kept up the imperial interests of the Western world in the Far East (again, all of this is discussed or at least mentioned in my first book).  Today, it is very common to see white (or black, or whatever color you wish to apply to them) foreign men dating and marrying Chinese women (this is less true for foreign women and Chinese men, for a number of reasons I can't go into here), and mixed couples can be seen strolling about in public with their Eurasian kids in nearly all neighborhoods of the city.  

Certainly this permissive cultural of interracial sexuality carries into the nightlife scene as well.  In our book, James and I discuss how foreigners have played a key role in the development of the city's nightlife culture since the 1990s by serving as icons and catalysts of a sexual revolution that was then taking place in China (and still is today).  Today, nouveau-riche Chinese clubbers can go to any one of dozens of nightclubs where they can watch foreigners, both men and women, prancing about on the dance floor and on the stage and showing off their animal sexuality.  

In the 1920s, black people played a similar role in American and European society as the world experienced the Jazz Age.  Affluent whites from midtown Manhattan went on "safaris" to Harlem led by folks such as Carl Van Vechten (who wrote a famous if poorly named book called "Nigger Heaven" though he was certainly not a racist in the classic sense, and actually he was one of the leading advocates and supporters of black writers and poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance), where they visited the Cotton Club, a whites only club featuring black performers such as Duke Ellington and his orchestra.  Meanwhile in Paris, a black American woman named Josephine Baker was enjoying her heyday as the city's most celebrated performer, known for her exotic and highly sexualized dance routines in the city's cabarets and music halls.  Negrophilia was the name given to the spirit of the age--love of blackness, with its mythicized raw and primitive sexuality.  Picasso had discovered African masks (apparently his friend Apollinaire had stolen a few for him out of the Louvre, which he eventually returned) and incorporated them into one of his most famous paintings, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which sat for decades in his studio only to be shown to the rare and privileged guest.  Sexuality masked and veiled as the Exotic and Primitive Other.  


To what degree this relates to Shanghai's nightlife culture today is explored further in our book, and in the course I am now teaching for NYU Shanghai called "Global Nightlife."  Muse will definitely be one of the places that I encourage my students to visit while they conduct their field research on the city's nightlife scene.



Xu Jilin on Arts and Culture in Shanghai

Today the MCLC list announced the publication of a special journal issue on Shanghai:

‘China Heritage Quarterly’, Issue 22 (June 2010) Launched  ‘
The Heritage of Shanghai’

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

It’s my pleasure to announce the publication of Issue 22 of ‘China Heritage Quarterly’. This issue takes advantage of the 2010 Expo Shanghai to discuss the heritage of China’s most famous port city. 

The advent of the ‘2010 Expo Shanghai China’, which opened on 1 May and continues until 30 October, has rivaled the 2008 Beijing Olympics as an event designed for national display and the celebration of Chinese acumen in everything from industry to culture. In this issue of ‘China Heritage Quarterly’ we consider the heritage both of the obloquy suffered and the reputation enjoyed by Shanghai in the context of the official exuberance of the 2010 Expo.

Features include a recent essay by the historian Xu Jilin on the paucity of Shanghai’s culture, Jonathan Hutt on attempts to revisit the Republican era, Gloria Davies on Lu Xun in Shanghai, as well as other work on writers, artists and thinkers closely involved with the city.

This issue was produced with the assistance of Daniel Sanderson. The September 2010 issue of ‘China Heritage Quarterly’ will focus on Matteo Ricci who died in May 400 years ago. Our guest editor will be Dr Jeremy Clarke, SJ.

As ever,

Geremie Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, ‘China Heritage Quarterly’


As an "Old Shanghai" expert and a long-term resident of New Shanghai I was intrigued by the articles in this special issue.  I just finished reading Xu Jilin's article on Shanghai culture (or lack thereof) and found it very interesting (thanks to Geremie Barme for his excellent translation of Xu's article).  Over the years I too have participated in many discussions about the paucity of Shanghai's arts and cultural scene compared to Beijing, and share many of Professor Xu's complaints.  I was a bit surprised however that he didn't delve more into the history of why Shanghai had such a burgeoning, independent cultural scene back in the pre-Liberation era.  The condition of extrality, which allowed foreigners to live under their own national laws, was in fact a principal reason behind the freedoms enjoyed by Shanghai's media.  It was this same condition that Chinese nationalists, who ironically benefitted greatly from the freedoms enjoyed in the concessions, rallied to struggle against and defeat in the nationalist movements of the early twentieth century.  In other words, the very special type of colonialism that Shanghai experienced through the "treaty port system" both paved the way for the freedom of expression of early twentieth century Chinese artists and for the political movements that ultimately gave birth to the Communist Revolution of 1949 (although the treaty ports themselves were returned to Chinese sovereignty during the Pacific War era).

Since then, as Professor Xu remarks, Shanghai has been more or less under the yoke of Beijing, certainly in economic terms until the 1990s, and in cultural terms til the present day.  It has even been remarked that the Expo is Shanghai's way of showing its obedience to the political center, Beijing. 

In addition to the reasons laid out by Xu Jilin in his article, I would also venture the opinion that Shanghai's urban geography and real estate market serves as a limitation to its arts and cultural scene.  In Beijing, where things are spread out very widely, it is not as difficult to set up an arts district or a live music club in the city.  In Shanghai, where the population is densely concentrated and stacked in multi-story buildings, it is much more difficult to do so.

These are just some thoughts and I'd be interested to hear what others have to say about this issue as well.




Shanghai Journal back online

After a 15 month hiatus, I've decided to revive this site.  The main reason is because Squarespace is no longer blocked in China.  It was simply too cumbersome to post and edit my site using a vpn, and most of my readership, i.e. folks living in the PRC, couldn't access it, plus I had lost sight of the purpose of this blog.  Now I'm coming back with (hopefully) a more coherent vision about what this is about.  More to follow soon.

Andrew Field

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