Muse: Shanghai's Toniest Nightclub?

If you want to see a slice of the Shanghai high life, go to Muse on a Friday night.  Last night an old Shanghai mate of mine named TQ invited me out to his favorite nightclub.  TQ is a haigui 海龟 “sea turtle” which is a pun for a Chinese returning from overseas.  He was originally from Beijing but spent his teenage and college years in America.

Muse is located at the corner of Yuyao Road and Xikang Road.  I headed over there around 10 pm.  Walked up a flight of concrete steps into the building, then headed into the club.  The club has a warehouse feel to it but with an upstairs loft space, the ceiling at the center of the club is low.  A long bar dominates the center of the open main floor.  Around the edges of the room are lounge spaces, some open to the main floor, others separated.  Running up the walls and along the ceiling are large round holes--reminds me of the sea of holes scene from the Yellow Submarine.  

I walked around a bit and found T hanging at a well-positioned lounge spot nearer to the dance floor, but not too close.  He was with a couple of colleagues, including a fella from Manchester named Chris.  We hung out a bit with some of T’s female friends (he seems to know everyone in the place) playing Chinese dice--the kind where you roll five dice against the other person’s five and see who comes up with the winning combination of numbers.  You start with three of a kind and work your way up to five or six, bluffing as you go.  The loser has a drink.  Great ice-breaker.

The music was funkadelic.  The sound system was good and clear and the music wasn’t too loud--you could actually chat with people at that point.  Over the night it got progressively louder, until my eardrums were ready to explode.  The music picked up pace and became more techno, with a strong and steady bass beat that reverberated through the floor and shook your bones.

At ten pm when I arrived, the place was modestly crowded.  Over the next two hours it filled up to capacity and more.  There must have been over a thousand people there at its peak.

If you want to see Shanghai’s fashionistas, the glamour girls on the nightlife circuit, come to Muse.  They were out in droves.  Tall and skinny, wearing various combinations of black or white.  Quite a few of the ladies had bobs that left the neck exposed--very sexy indeed.  There were too many of these bobs for mere coincidence.  Obviously its a trend.  Made me wonder how these styles carry through Shanghai society.  Where do they begin and where do they end?  My assumption is that nightspots like Muse are powerful transmitters of fashion and style for the city, but don’t have enough data to back it up, only a lot of personal observation and common sense.  

There is a hip hop club on the second floor.  A set of open concrete stairs in the middle of the club leads upstairs.  It wasn’t very crowded at 11, but by 1 am it was jam packed with party people.  A pair of forty-something African American gents were giving a fine live performance, one on guitar and the other on sax, backed by some recorded tracks.  They both sang.  Great rendition of Superstition by Stevie Wonder, among other songs.  I’d seen them a couple years back at Park 97.

Muse is a relatively new kid on the block--the kind that moves in and immediately dominates the neighborhood.  According to T, who was in the club industry for a while, one of the managers of Park 97 set up this club and took a few of the Park management people with him.  I noticed Thomas, formerly the floor manager at Park, now managing the hip hop club.  A lot of the Park crowd was also siphoned over to Muse.  

Though Muse has a very different atmosphere to Park, there are some similarities.  A ground floor disco and a second floor live performance venue--same as Park.  Another similarity to Park, and this is something I write about in the article I’m working on, is that there was a noticeable segmentation of Chinese and westerners, with the Chinese preferring the lounge seating of the ground floor club and the westerners heading upstairs to the  hip hop club, where casual social mixing was more encouraged by the open setup.  Of course there were plenty of Chinese and foreigners on both floors, but it was a noticeable difference.  My general observation is that Chinese male customers prefer the status of lounge seating, and strategize their engagements with the ladies by “luring” them over to their lounge tables.  Westerners like to seat themselves at the bar or hang out in open spaces, or else approach ladies on the dance floor.  Of course there’s some overlap, but this is a tendency that I’ve noticed over the years.  Also, westerners tend to order their own drinks, whereas Chinese like to drink in groups.  

The similarities to Park 97 end there though.  The setup of the place reminded me of the Chinese discos in town, with one large hall and no place to escape the noise.  Park 97 has a restaurant area that is totally separated from the disco club, plus it has Fuxing Park.  It’s a much more segmented club space.  In Muse, you’re stuck with the noise wherever you go, though it’s a bit better upstairs.  As the music got louder over the evening, the lack of escape zones became more apparent.  At one point (probably after I left the place) I realized that the music was WAY TOO LOUD.  

My ears were buzzing and ringing when I left at around 1:30 am.  My recommendation to people who want to spend a night at Muse:  BRING EARPLUGS.  At one point I danced a bit with T’s lady friend, a tall svelte girl who worked at the club as “public relations” (meaning a pretty face to attract male customers).  When we hit the dance floor, where the speakers were located around and above us, she grabbed a napkin, tore it into little pieces and stuffed them in her ears.  Smart.  Wish I’d done the same.  I think I did permanent damage to my eardrums, and my hearing is still fuzzy.  One of the many occupational hazards with nightclub research.  

The dance floor in the ground floor club was tiny.  A Chinese DJ was in the booth, spinning techno tunes.  People were getting down, but the floor could only accommodate around 20 people at most--and that was a very tight crowd.  Obviously the main purpose of the club was not to dance but to see and be seen.  And to sell drinks.  Most people at the lounge tables were drinking brand name liquors by the bottle.  Our drink of choice was Absolut and tonic.  Every now and then a waiter would walk by with a bucket full of syringes filled with colored gels and lit up by a sparkler.  Otherwise the club was quite dark.

At a couple of times during the night, Chris and I got up to dance.  We were joined by T’s other colleague, a Shanghainese guy named Mike.  The dancing crowd was small.  Girls were dancing defensively in pairs as the guys circled around them hoping to break in.  The usual scene.  I got lost in the pounding beat for a few minutes, but my ears could only take so much.  I left the club just as it was beginning to peak.