Twenty years or more ago, I was cruising the outdoor antique market in the old part of Shanghai around Fangbang Road near the City God Temple, and found a set of posters that I still have today. One of them shows the Bund at night. The other is of the Great World or da shijie 大世界, an amusement center famous in Shanghai since the 1930s, when it was a notorious playhouse for gangsters and petty criminals. Today the Great World still stands on the corner of Xizang Road and Yan’an Road where it has been since the 1920s. Recently, as I wrote in a blog last year, the Great World was reopened after extensive renovations, and is now a fun spot to take youngsters. It features opera and other performances, folk arts, and local dishes. This article reveals the transformation of the Great World in the early 1950s under the Communist Party, from a notorious funhouse featuring gambling, prostitution and other vices, into an exemplary cultural palace with CCP-approved entertainment for the masses. Reading this article explains well the imagery that can be found in my poster of the Great World from the 1960s.Read More
In 1933, several ballrooms and nightclubs were vying for the patronage of Shanghai’s international society. These included the Cathay Ballroom located on the 8th floor of the Cathay Hotel, the Rose Room of the Plaza Hotel, the Little Club, and the Canidrome Ballroom. This article published in the China Press illustrates how these ballrooms and nightclubs used announcements about the evening program focusing on the staged performances and the performers, who were usually a cast of American and/or European entertainers. Most performances were in the form of a variety show featuring song and dance, short skits and plays. Among these establishments, it appears that the Canidrome stands out for the sheer variety of its performances. Note also the connection with Hollywood and the attempt by the clubs to keep up with the latest American hit tunes and dance fads.Read More
Freddy Kaufmann arrived in Shanghai sometime in 1935 after leaving Berlin. There were two good reasons for him to escape that city: He was Jewish, and he was homosexual. Not a good combination as the Nazi jackboots paraded on the streets of his hometown.Read More
In my previous post, I republished some news articles from the China Press that follow the story of the arrival of Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen in Shanghai, their months of performing at the Canidrome Ballroom in the French Concession, the fight that broke out between Buck and local ne’er-do-well Jack Riley, and their removal from the ballroom and eventual new job playing at the Casanova Ballroom. The newspapers tell one kind of story, while memoirs tell others.Read More
The story of Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen, and the legendary fight with Jack Riley at the Canidrome Ballroom, is a fascinating one and is part of the lore and legend of Shanghai’s Jazz Age in the 1930s. Buck Clayton is certainly the most famous American jazz musician to have played in Shanghai during the city’s “golden age”. A trumpeter hailing from Kansas, Clayton and his band were recruited by another legendary figure, stride pianist Teddy Weatherford, to sail to Shanghai from Los Angeles, and to play at the Canidrome Ballroom in 1934. The gig lasted around six months, until a fracas with the equally legendary American ex-con Jack Riley got Buck and his band booted from the ballroom. They eventually found work at Ladow’s Casanova, a lower-class ballroom that attracted a mixed crowd of soldiers, sailors, and middle-class Chinese customers.Read More
The Del Monte is a nightclub from the 1930s that I’ve known about for many years, but never found the original building, until now. Last week, Katya Kneyazeva wrote me to announce that she had found the building that once housed the Del Monte on the grounds of the Shanghai Theater Academy. I immediately cycled over there and was able to verify that this was indeed the building that contained the infamous late night club where people went to dance the night away, ending with a breakfast of ham and eggs.Read More
One of the earliest cabarets to open featuring Chinese dance hostesses or wunü (舞女）was the Black Cat Cabaret (黑猫舞厅). Opened at the end of 1927 and located across from the New World Amusment Center on Tibet Road (Xizang Lu) and present-day Nanjing West Road, this cabaret featured attractive hostesses as well as a jazz band called "Felix and his Meows". It soon proved quite popular amongst self-styled Chinese bohemians and also attracted a following amongst middle-class Chinese learning the ways of the jazz age. An article in the North China Herald gives a rather evocative description of the cabaret. Later, in 1931, the Black Cat became famous for an incident involving a certain dance hostess named Huang Baiying, who attempted suicide after engaging in a love affair with a local gentleman named Dong. The fact that she was from a well-to-do Cantonese family and that she had been a student at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai prior to joining the dance hall certainly contributed to the sensationalism surrounding this case, which was written up in both the Chinese and English newspapers of the age. Below are three news articles covering the opening of the cabaret in 1927 and the suicide case in 1930.
I found this article while researching what became my first book, Shanghai’s Dancing World. The White Russians played an enormous role in the cultural life of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Marcia Ristaino’s book Port of Last Resort is the best academic study of the Russians in Shanghai. Katya Knyazeva is also working on this fascinating topic. This article contains many fine details about the history of Russian refugees in Shanghai including their growth, their occupations, their social and financial status and earnings, and their status within the hierarchy of Shanghai society. It is a gem of an article rich in information and insights and its prediction at the end is very accurate. Indeed, the settlements were returned to Chinese sovereignty by 1943, and by the late 1940s, the bulk of the city’s Russian refugee population had left the city for other horizons.Read More
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