In the 1930s, a new industry arose to cater to men seeking female companionship for a price. In a city notorious for prostitution and sex work of all kinds, the Girl Guides was another industry that blurred the lines between sex work and sociability. Like the cabaret hostesses, who are also mentioned in this article. the Girl Guides were young women who served as companions for hire, only they were more mobile than their cabaret sisters who worked in the confines of the city's ballroom dance halls. To be sure, cabaret hostesses could also go out on dates with men, but this was informal, whereas the Girl Guide agencies formalized and monetized the pleasure of taking girls out on the town. This tongue-and-cheek article, clearly written by a Chinese gentleman, satirizes and criticizes the city's obsession for female entertainment.Read More
This article published in the Herald and later in the American journal Living Age provides a welter of details on the theater industry in Shanghai which supported the performance of Chinese regional operas. I confess not to be an expert in this area of urban entertainment but the article is full of rich details on this more traditional side of entertainment culture in Old Shanghai.Read More
This article gives a broad overview of the tourist attractions of the city, highlighting a few features--but then makes the claim at the end that no feature is as notorious or memorable as its night life. Keep in mind this was in 1926, before the nightlife of the city was transformed and galvanized by the Chinese interest in ballroom dancing and taxi-dance halls. The clubs alluded to in this article probably include the Del Monte, which was known as a late-night haunt where people could enjoy the wee hours and finish off the long night with a breakfast of ham and eggs. I will post more tourist/visitor accounts of the city's nightlife anon.Read More
This is an extraordinarily rich piece of journalism on the city of Shanghai. The author, Edgar Snow, would later earn great fame for his coverage of the Communist Party in their stronghold in Yan’an, resulting in the classic Red Star Over China. Whether or not one views that work as fatally flawed, obviously Snow was deeply skeptical and critical about the colonial enterprise of the treaty port system in China, and also deeply sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese peopleRead More
This article is interesting for many reasons, not least of which is that it covers the origins of the Foreign Y.M.C.A. It also mentions the cleanup of brothels owing to the presence of American women in them, as well as hinting at a potential campaign (which never materialized) to clean up the Russian-staffed cabarets in the outskirts of the city. Above all it shows how Americanization was equated with business efficiency and how the American model of business was outpacing and replacing the sleepy European colonial model where the compradores did all the work and the taipans lazed and dazed about with their gin and tonics at the Shanghai Club. The article precipitates another which I will post, by the famous journalist Edgar Snow.Read More
In my research on old Shanghai nightlife I encountered many firsthand descriptions in memoirs of the era written by British, Americans, and other nationalities. Here is one interesting account that appears in the memoir of Shanghai Municipal Police officer named E. W. Peters. This book has been republished more recently (by Graham Earnshaw's Earnshaw Books), but I found it in the original publication so the page number may be different. The author contrasts the singsong girls to the cabaret hostesses and provides a rare account of a night in one of the earliest Chinese cabarets--the Black Cat on Tibet Road. The transactional nature of both cultures is highlighted in this account.Read More
This piece appeared in Time Magazine soon after the Jack Riley trial ended in 1941. It gives a nice brief summary account of the rise and fall of "Jackpot Riley" in the gambling world of Shanghai in the 1930s. Of course you have to read Paul French's book City of Devils for a more detailed, if somewhat speculative historical account of his rise and his relationship with dance impresario Joe Farren.Read More
This piece is in the strain of travel accounts of exotic faraway places written for a homeland audience. In this case the author is Henry Albert Phillips, a writer and publisher based in New York City who wrote extensively about his travels abroad. He later covered Eastern Europe and Italy during WWII. Clearly he had access to the most elite spaces in the city including the American Club and the Shanghai Club on the Bund, home to the famed Long Bar of Shanghai legend, and now part of the Waldorf Astoria hotel.Read More
This is another article I discovered during my earliest phase of research in English-language magazines and newspapers of the 1930s about Shanghai’s dance craze. It accurately summarizes the history of the dance hall industry starting with Russians and then moving to Chinese dance halls and hostesses after 1926. It also offers some interesting insights such as men taking their wives to the dance halls and the consumption habits of Chinese customers.
(Current History Oct. 1937 p. 100-101)
Of the many evidences of Western influence to be found in Shanghai nothing is more remarkable than the dancing craze, which in the past few years has won an increasingly large number of followers amongst Chinese of all ages and of all stations except the very lowest. Shanghai has more than one hundred dance halls and cabarets, large and small, which provide employment for some five thousand professional dance partners, and the most popular of these establishments are crowded night after night. Some are open for business during the afternoons and even in one or more cases during the luncheon interval.
Nowadays the largest proportion by far of the dance partners are Chinese girls whose ages range from fifteen to twenty-five; most of them are in their late teens. This is a relatively new development, for ten years ago the partners to be found in Shanghai's dance halls, then much fewer in number and less pretentious in appearance, were virtually all Russian girls, coming for the most part from Harbin. About 1926, however, the first Chinese-owned dance hall, known as the Peach Blossom Place, was established with Chinese girls as partners, and since then numerous Chinese dance halls have come into existence. The latest addition, which, with a swimming pool and restaurant, covers several acres of ground, has more than one hundred dance partners, chiefly Chinese, but with a sprinkling of Russians and Eurasians.
All of the dance halls work on much the same basis, the girls receiving a fixed commission on dance tickets and drinks. In the better-class halls, which usually offer an occasional vaudeville turn between dances, a dollar will not buy more than two or three dance tickets, whereas in the "dives" of Hongkew it can be stretched to buy ten. Usually the management allows the girls to keep half of their earnings in the matter of dance tickets, paying a rather lower commission on drinks consumed either by the customer or by the girl at the customer's expense. In most of the better-class Chinese establishments, however, little liquor is consumed, the majority of the patrons limiting their indulgence to tea or some variety of soft drink. These places are usually conducted with a degree of decorum which would do credit to a church social. Family parties, ranging from toothless old grandmothers tottering along on bound feet to infants asleep in their mothers' arms, occupy tables by the hour, sipping tea and munching sweetmeats as they watch the dancing.
Although elegantly gowned and groomed and unquestionably attractive, a good 80 percent of the Chinese dancing partners are illiterate. Yet many who can neither write nor read their own language often speak English remarkably well and reveal a surprising amount of general knowledge, picked up in the course of conversation with their clients.
Most of the girls come from poor families in the hinterland of Shanghai, and in some cases have either been bought body and soul or else temporarily acquired under contract by older women, to whom they are obliged to give their earnings in return for food, clothes and lodging. The majority earn barely enough to live, but a few who enjoy the patronage of wealthy Chinese are said to make as much as £100 a month. In the larger dance halls the average girl probably earns about £10, the minimum anywhere about £2 a month, which is considerably higher than the average wage paid to factory girls. However, it must be remembered that a dancing girl is obliged to spend a considerable proportion of her earnings on cosmetics, clothes, and other feminine allurements.
The jazz craze has brought with it a number of social problems which are giving the Chinese authorities in Shanghai some cause for uneasiness. Many of the less reputable dance halls make a special point of catering to high school and university students, who tend increasingly to spend their leisure as well as their pocket money in these resorts. But it is not only the younger generation that is affected. Middle-aged fathers of families are to be found in the dance halls, and home life is apt to suffer in consequence. Occasionally this particular aspect of the problem is solved in a rather piquant fashion by the husband taking his wife with him when goes to the dance hall. It is now not uncommon, states a Shanghai newspaper, to see wives "patiently sitting on the sidelines whilst their husbands disport themselves upon the classy dance floors of Shanghai's palaces of pleasure. In order to pass the time more pleasantly some wives bring along books or other reading material, nor is knitting taboo in such cases."
-The Manchester Guardian
This was another interesting piece I found while researching in the Columbia University newspaper and magazine indexes back in the 1990s. The author describes the transformations of Russian women, refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution, into cabaret girls, who indeed transformed the nightlife industry of Shanghai between 1910s and 1920s.Read More
This is one of the most evocative articles about the city's night scenes in the 1930s that I found. Ironically the story takes place about the same time that the Japanese were gearing up to invade China, launching what became the eight-year war that ended in 1945. This is perhaps the last glimpse at a more innocent period of nighttime fun in the city before the Japanese started taking it over beginning with the Hongkew district where the story ends.Read More
During my research into Shanghai's nightlife industries in the 1920s-30s, I came across plenty of materials describing nudity in the cabarets. Some of these were likely exaggerated. However, by the wartime era, anything went and certainly there were plenty of what the press and authorities described as "obscene" performances, which tarnished the reputation of the city government.Read More
I discovered this article while researching the history of Shanghai nightlife at Columbia University in the 1990s. It gives the reader of the age an evocative if somewhat orientalist account of Chinese life in the city in the early 1920s, before the jazz age hit the Chinese population of the city like a firestorm.Read More
This is one of the most interesting articles I found during my research on Shanghai's music scene during the height of the Pacific War. It not only highlights the importance of Filipino bandleaders, profiling Jose Contreras, but also shows how the era was giving rise to popularity of Asian as opposed to Western musicians.Read More
I'm taking a short break from nightlife-related posts to post this article I found during my years of research on Old Shanghai. Everyone familiar with the apocryphal "No Dogs and Chinese" sign (that message didn't exist though many Shanghai parks did ban Chinese attendees into the 1920s) will understand the background to this article. Jessfield Park is now known as Zhongshan Park.
found this account in the scrapbook of a US Marine while researching my doctoral dissertation on Shanghai nightlife back in the 1990s. There is a ton of material in the collection of the US Navy Yard left by Marines in their scrapbooks. They provide a fascinating window into the nightlife of the city in its heyday.Read More
In previous posts I covered the Trenches, an infamous bar and vice district in the northern part of the city, north of Settlement boundaries. Another was Blood Alley, located on the boundary between the French Concession and International Settlement near the Bund. Here is one of many articles describing this bar street and arguing that it ought to be converted into retail stores.Read More
In 1940, soon after taking the post of Shanghai Mayor under the Wang Jingwei government, Chen Gongbo (Kung-po below) declared that one of his goals was to "clean up" the badlands and rid Shanghai of some of the vices that had plagued the city including gambling.Read More
In the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai was notorious worldwide for its vices. While the cabarets and ballroom dance halls that I wrote about in my books were relatively tame, the city abounded with all sorts of establishments catering to the carnal pleasures of men, staffed by women often recruited from the hinterlands.Read More
This article provides the back story to the rise of Joe Farren in Shanghai's nightlife industry, noting his involvement in the floor shows of some of Shanghai's most famous ballrooms including the Majestic and the Paramount. Yet as Paul French's new book City of Devils suggests, there is a lot more to the story of Joe than revealed in this cheerful article published in the American newspaper Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury...Read More