Freddy Kaufmann, Shanghai Club Impresario and Master of the Cathay Hotel Tower Club (1935-1938)

 Source: Dirk H, “ZieberBengel”, (Hamburg 2015)

Source: Dirk H, “ZieberBengel”, (Hamburg 2015)

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.

Prior to coming to Shanghai, Kaufmann had been a well-known figure in the Berlin cabaret and nightclub scene. He had been a fixture at the famed Jockey Club, and as revealed in one of the news articles below, he claimed to have been the man who first brought Hollywood director Josef Von Sternberg together with starlet Marlene Dietrich. The two would later make a film together: the legendary Shanghai Express, which was not really much about Shanghai at all as it turns out (pretty much the entire story takes place on a train somewhere in China).

Kaufmann soon established a reputation as a fine master of ceremonies in Shanghai’s nightclub circuit. He seems to have started at the Rubicon Inn, and then migrated upward to the lofty Tower Club located on the 9th floor of the Cathay Hotel. His common Judaic heritage with the hotel’s famous owner Sir Victor Sassoon may have helped him to land this position, but certainly his talents did so as well.

An article written by German scholar Dirk Heifierer, “The "ornamental Bengel": News from Freddy Kaufmann” (Hamburg 2015), reveals that Freddy Kaufmann was born Alfred Cohn. Kaufmann was his mother’s maiden name and became his stage name after he entered the world of Berlin entertainment. Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden hung out with Kaufmann in his Tower Club apparently, and in his book Journey to a War (1939) Isherwood describes Kaufmann as a handsome and charming man with a rosy complexion.

Kaufmann served as emcee of the Tower Club, which offered more refined entertainment—jazz but also classical music—for an elite dining and dancing crowd that includes figures of royalty as well as notable politicians, civic leaders, movie stars and others. The articles I’ve collected below from the China Press give us a fairly rich description of the club, its clientele and its entertainers, with Kaufmann ever on hand to keep the place rolling. He also had a stint at Sir Victor’s other exclusive club, Ciro’s on Bubbling Well Road.

These articles also reveal how the city’s nightlife continued apace even through the devastating war that the Japanese and Chinese fought in the neighboring district of Hongkou between August and October of 1937. Even though the Cathay Hotel itself was bombed (by accident, when a Chinese bomber aiming for the Japanese warship in the harbor missed its target), the ballroom and Tower Club continued to operate into 1938. By the end of 1938, we receive final news that Freddy Kaufmann had died quite suddenly of a mysterious illness. Until his premature death, Kaufmann appears as a meteor in the city’s nightlife scene, burning brightly until, at the age of 49, he burned out.

Fredy Kaufman.jpg


By Pat Patterson

The China Press Mar 30, 1936;


Well, last night we were up at the Tower, and to say that we were impressed by the quality as well as the quantity of Freddy Kaufmann's clientele is putting it stingily. We were positively stricken. We had commented upon the lovely appearance of a lady in overflowing white furs who turned out to be the Baroness De Steiner, and Freddy and Gladys Verney nonchalantly told us that we hadn’t seen nothing, yet. It seems that the place is practically infested with the elite. Just during the past week, the Tower has entertained such socialites as Princess Lichnowsky, Count Von Sternberg and Madame Du Pac, the lovely Carey Sisters and young Von Papen, son of the former German Chancellor. The blue blood of Hollywood has been represented by Anna May Wong, Walter Lange and of course, Warner Oland, in China to visit the tombs of his ancestors or something. The petite and chic Mrs. Wellington Koo is another visitor. Professor Pringsheim, the head man of Shanghai’s municipal symphony orchestra is another who is willing to ascend nine stories to get his whiskey soda. General Tzau, Percy Kwok—why the list is endless. Very impressive. Gladys Verey is scoring a greater success than she has ever had. The Tower is ideally suited to her intimate, bear down-on-the-personality type of singing and she is suiting her songs to her new style of entertainment, sophisticated, torchy sort of ballads getting the biggest play. And she sings them well. With many of the town’s best spots suffering from “empty tables,” the Tower is squeezing them in. Freddy Kaufmann has everything, good music, a good singer, a splendid atmosphere, and best of all —a gang of steady grade A customers; noting less than what was referred to some years ago as the “bon ton”. On the way down to our next port of call, the Tumble Inn, we took a gander into the cloak room to see if may be there wasn’t a few cornets-checked there. There wasn’t any, but after all its still pretty cold for a coronet.


 This is the first ad to appear for the Tower Club, in the China Press on Nov 24 1935

This is the first ad to appear for the Tower Club, in the China Press on Nov 24 1935

The Dawn Patrol

by Pat Patterson

The China Press, Apr 5, 1936

Freddy Kaufmann, the Tower's genial manager, is to be the manager of Sir Victor Sassoon's new club, the “Ciro", which, by the way, difficulties having been ironed out, is in the course of construction. 

Heads Ciro’s

 Kaufmann in 1936

Kaufmann in 1936

China Press Nov 5 1936

Freddy Kaufmann,who has already gained a host of friends as mana­ger of the Tower, will greet the hundreds of guests who are expect­ed to pack Ciro’s tonight. The new night club, which situated on Bubbling Well Road, is the latest addition to Shanghai's long list of night spots and is without doubt the latest word in modern archi­tecture. Freddy Kaufmann, who was connected for seven years with the famous Jockey Club of Berlin and who claims the honor of having introduced Marlene Dietrich to Josef von Sternberg, will guide the destinies of the new club. Henry Nathan's augmented orchestra will furnish the music, while an all-star floor show from the United States will perform nightly.

Ciro's Manager Will Have Gay New Year: Freddy Kaufmann Reminded Of Home With Sister's Visit 

The China Press Dec 30,1936

It is a far cry from the famous Jockey Club of Berlin to the most up-to-date night club in Shanghai—but for Freddy Kaufmann, the ever-popular manager of Ciro's, it is being brought very close this New Year's Eve. His sister, whom he has not seen for four years, will be here to spend it with him, and perhaps she will consider her brother's present haunt not unlike the scene of his former successes. She will have a chance to recapture that old New Year’s Eve thrill, when Berlin went riotously mad on this night of nights and audiences demanded encore after encore from the entertainers, themselves an integral part of the whole proceedings. Ciro's will be completely packed this New Year's Eve some patrons being offered double the price for their reservations by disappointed friends.

A great feature or the evening will be the favors, plentiful and amusing, and lavish enough to suit all tastes. Ciro's highly original entertainers, Wardell-Dade, Seiter and Parker, have all something new to show their audiences.

Glorious Gloria Seiter will strut a hot jazz number called “Low-down Harlem" never before given here. The gay little Faye Parker has several new songs and a distracting air of mystery, while Warden and Dade will present a special adagio dance. A radio commentator announced Wardell as "the most copied dancer in the U.S.A.” and, certainly inspiration never seems to fail him. It’s a wise man who does hs own choreography these days when he’s on a long-term contract and a thousand miles from home.

Last but not least, Ciro's will present for this one night only a “Prosperity 1937” cocktail. Apart from the fact that it contains nectar, ambrosia, and what have you, the ingredients are a secret but the rumor has it that it is a knock-out, the kind of cocktail which for richer or poorer, for better for worse, you try again.

 Source: China Press April 5 1936

Source: China Press April 5 1936

The Tower Slated To Reopen Tonight: Freddy Kaufmann To Officiate As Master Of Ceremonies

The China Press Oct 2,1937

The Tower, on the 9th floor or the Cathay Hotel, will be re-opened tonight. After a holiday of over two months the Tower will once again resound to the laughter of its gay patrons.

Freddy Kaufmann, known in two continents as one of the most popular master-of-ceremonies in the world, will officiate at the re¬opening, and will in the future manage the Tower. Eric de Reynier, celebrated “whispering pianist” and melody-maker par excellence will be at the piano, and his toe-tantalizing, heart-tingling rhythms will evoke hearty response from Shanghai’s merry-makers.

The Tower has long been known as one of the gayest and most informal rendezvous wherein to spend an enjoyable evening. The informal atmosphere, the pleasant company, the gay music . . . these were the great attractions which drew large throngs to the Tower in the past.

The Tower is a night club that is different. There is a subtleness in the entertainment which appeals particularly to the discriminating.

With the re-opening of the Tower, the Restaurant will be open as usual for luncheon, but will be closed in the evening. Dinner will be served in the Tower commencing 6.30 p.m., concert music being provided by Joseph Ullstein’s Cathay orchestra. Dancing commences at 9 p.m. with Eric de Reynier at the piano.



The China Press Jan 19, 1938

Borrowing an espression that a book critic once used in reference to the late Cyril McNeil “Sapper" patrons of the Tower Night Club are now saying “Thank the Powers that be for Kaufmann!", and with a reason. Had it not been for the indefatigable Freddy, times would not have been so gay at the Tower during the past year.

It will be recalled that the “Tower" was among the first of the night clubs in this city to open shortly after the scene of the hostilities had shifted from the immediate vicinity, proving that the management of the Tower was fully cognisant of the necessity for providing the war-weary Shanghai public with suitable entertainment to help forget the previous turmoil.

Now, though the recent turbulence is scarcely erased from the memory of Shanghai's entertainment-seekers, the “Tower" continues to present evening after evening of welcome pleasure, maintaining its well-known “atmosphere of informality."

Even so recently as during the Christmas and New Year's Eve holidays, Freddy Kaufmann sought to make easier the lot of the Tower's patrons by not increasing the prices on Christmas Eve at all, and on New Year's Eve but slightly.

Freddy is confident that the coming year will not be as difficult as some depressed spirits strive to make out, and that better, gayer times are ahead. Freddy has been in Shanghai long enough to fully appreciate the city's capacity for recuperation, and he expresses the belief that Shanghailanders have already accomplished much on the road to recovery, as far as gay times are concerned. Christmas and New Year's Eves at the Tower were scenes of much revelry and enjoyment. and comparable with the gaiety of previous years.

Each evening at the Tower, Freddy presents Joseph Ullstein's Classical Trio, Eric de Reyuler and Gene Kirker.



The China Press Apr 23, 1937

Nothing gives Gabriel Comte so much pleasure as the words of congratulation, conveyed by Freddy Kaufmann, extended to him by patrons of the Tower Night Club.

Though he is never in the night club itself during the dinner hour, it is through him that a dinner at the Tower is made so pleasant.

As the Tower’s expert French chef, Gabriel Comte finds life singularly pleasant for his work is to prepare the fine foods which make the menus so attractive each evening, for the delectation of the patrons of that well-patronized entertainment center.

An artist in many ways, he is not only Shanghai’s leader in the preparation of succulent dishes but he also specializes in the beautifying of food. Sculpturing from ice and ice-cream, icing-sugar and other comestibles, Gabriel Comte creates talented figurines, to adorn the tables of the Tower on special occasions.

From a simple replica of Cupid or a sturgeon to an elaborate escutcheon Gabriel Comte’s creations are masterpieces of skill and endeavor. As Freddy Kaufmann once jocularly remained, “We must, one day, hold an exhibition for Gabriel Comte’s work at the Tower.” And the suggestion is not as implausible as it may sound, for Gabriel Comte’s work is of a high standard, and covers a variety of diverse subjects.


Entertainment Galore Found At The Tower

The China Press Oct 17, 1937

With the coming of winter, evenings take on a duller aspect, but it is claimed that patrons of the Tower need never fear boredom, for on that popular 9th floor Cathay Hotel pleasure spot is found entertainment that will make the hours pass by swiftly and pleasantly.

Commencing at 7.30 each evening dinner is served at the Tower with musical accompaniment by Joseph Ullstein's Cathay Orchestra, whose specialty is Concert Music. After dinner, exquisitely served, dancing commences with Eric de Reynier at the piano accompanied by Jean Kirk the drummer. Their musical divertissements have been found to be most pleasing by many of Shanghai's entertainment seekers.

Those who prefer the joys of mulling over a drink instead of the more strenuous recreation of dancing may, perhaps, wish to avail themselves of the facilities of The Tower's luxuriously apointed cocktail bar, which is believed to be the only one In the city with a gold lacquered top. Two charming bar maids are on hand to dispense the various beverages which have found favor with the patrons of The Tower.

Freddy Kaufmann is the manager of this popular night club and he is always on hand to welcome new patrons, who once having visited The Tower usully make it a point to attend it regularly thereafter.



The China Press Feb 13, 1938

Within the brief period of a few months the Cathay Ballroom, since its reopening, has achieved a new height of popularity. Though open only on Saturday nights it has achieved a popularity equal or even greater than the pre-war days.

Among the reasons contributing to its amazing rise to new heights of popularity is the music of Nick Korin's orchestra. This talented group of swing musicians have rivalled the reputation which the well-known Henry Nathan's orchestra once had before he left these shores. New Nick Korin’s orchestra is acknowledged in many quarters as the lending dance band in the city.

Other reasons include the pleasant surroundings, the smooth service and the extraordinarily good dinner served, commencing at 7.30 each Saturday night, at a low price.

Open every night of the week the Tower Night Club, on the 9th floor of the Cathay Hotel, maitains its reputation for informal entertainment. The wizardry of Eric de Reynier and Gene Kirker charms the patrons each evening.

As in the Ballroom, dinner is served commencing at 7.30 p.m. Joseph Ullstein's Cathay orchestra provides fitting musical accompaniment during the dinner hour. Entertainment commences at 9 p.m. with Eric de Reynier at the piano and Gene Kirker at the drums.

The management of the Tower— which means Freddy Kaufmann— announces that dress is optional and patrons are invited to attend “dressed as they please."


Manager Of Night Club Passes; Dies

The China Press, Dec 27 1938

 The last image of Kaufmann to appear in the press at the time of his death

The last image of Kaufmann to appear in the press at the time of his death

Mr. Freddie Kaufmann, well known manager of the Tower Night Club, died at 3.00 a.m. yesterday morning at the Cathay Hotel. The deceased was 49 years old. Mr. Kaufmann had been in the Country Hospital suffering from a stomach ailment. About a week before his death, however, he asked to be returned to the Cathay Hotel.

He was well known to tourists and local residents alike. When he first came to Shanghai four years ago he was manager of the Rubicon Inn. Shortly afterward he linked himself with the Tower. The deceased was a native of Berlin and managed some of Germany's best known night clubs. No arrangements for the funeral have been announced yet.

Shanghai’s White Russians (1937)

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. 

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The Chinese Theatres of Shanghai:  A Universal Art on the Other Side of the Globe (1925)

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.

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The Americans in Shanghai: Journalist Edgar Snow’s Take on Western Imperialism in China (1930)

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 people

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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.

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The Rise and Fall of Jack aka "Jackpot" Riley in Shanghai's Gambling World (1941)

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.

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A Good Summary Account of Shanghai’s Dance Hall Industry in 1937

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. 


 Shanghai dance hostesses from a dance hall magazine of the 1930s

Shanghai dance hostesses from a dance hall magazine of the 1930s

(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