Courtesans, Hostesses, and Dancers in Old and New Shanghai

 One of my current students, Amber Cussen, wrote this blog in reaction to our fieldtrip to Shanghai.  The other week I had assigned them Christian Henriot's article "Chinese Courtesans in Late Qing and Early Republican Shanghai (1849-1925)" in East Asian History (Dec. 1994) 33-52 and my own article "Selling Souls in Sin City:  Shanghai Singing and Dancing Girls in Print, Film, and Politics," in Yingjin Zhang ed. Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai 99-127.  On Saturday night we went as a group to a club called Muse (see my earlier blog on our weekend fieldtrip). 



Above:  Two dancers at Muse "Prison Break" party Saturday night July 21 2007 in Shanghai, photo by Andrew Field

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Shanghai was the best place to meet courtesans. These ranged from women and girls with prolific storytelling and singing abilities and had mastered a traditional Chinese instrument to women who could solely sing or dance to women who were selling their bodies without any other skill. As time passed there was less interest in skilled courtesans as taxi dancing became popular. Prostitutes remained in demand but by the 1920’s, courtesans had to look for other work or become prostitutes or dance hostesses. Today, taxi dancers are no longer as appealing as they were in the 1920’s and 30’s. However, with the rise of modernism another role of dancing women comes which I will call club dancer. These women do just that: dance. There role may be to dance on stage, behind a bar, or to dance with customers in hopes of them spending more money at the club they work for. The reasons for pursuing this type of job appear to be the same as in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: to make money for themselves and their families. Club owners want attractive girls to work for them because sex sells. It doesn’t matter if these girls are smart as long as they attract and keep customers. Although our readings mentioned that these women may have been forced to work as courtesans or as taxi dancers, none of the readings mentioned how the girls may have felt once they had such a job. Some girls probably enjoyed dancing, but others may have hated it. This however is not present in out readings. While in Shanghai, it was noticeable that some of the girls did not enjoy what they were doing. They appears to be a strong difference between the attitude and feelings of the girls who enjoyed such work and those who did not.

       Christian Henriot writes about the changing idea and job description of a courtesan from the 1850’s to the 1920’s. The first class of courtesans consisted of girls were generally between 11 and 25 and were skilled musicians, singers and storytellers. They had to spend years training to learn how to be great hostesses. These girls often hosted business meetings and gatherings at men’s homes or in their own home. These girls did not have sexual relations with all of the customers; as they were commodities they did not have to satisfy such demands. However, if they were to do so, the man would first have to court the girl sending her small girls and tokens for over a month before she would agree to be intimate. The second class as courtesans were less skilled than the first, generally having only one skill such as hosting, singing, or performing opera. These girls did not associate with the first group as the first knew they were superior. The second class girls were more likely to have intimate relations with a client. Finally, third class courtesans were essentially prostitutes who may or may not have any other skill.       Girls were often forced to as courtesans. Some were sold by there families or given away to train to be higher class courtesans. Others lost family members and had no other way to make money. However, once girls became courtesans there is no mention of their feelings about their profession.

       As times changed in the 1920’s so did the entertainment. Courtesans lost popularity as taxi dancers and hostesses gained it. As you wrote about, taxi dancers were “bought” by male customers with tickets. If a dancer was popular, a man would have to pay several tickets to dance with her. They type of dancing varied from formal to very close and personal. These girls sometimes married their customers, but they were not always treated well. In one of our readings a man steps on the hostesses’ foot he is dancing with. She says “awww” to which he replies that she is not being paid to talk but to dance. This shows that women were not though as individuals but rather as products to be bought. This is also shown by the seating for the hostesses. This women sat in seats facing the dance floor so the men could easily see them and pick who they wanted to dance with. As already stated, none of our readings went into the personal feelings of such workers.

       Nowadays in Shanghai, girls who work in the nightlife industry generally work as club dancers. When we went to Muse, one could see two types of these dancers. The first danced behind the bar and every once in a while poured a drink for someone. The second was dressed up in costume (police officer that night) and either danced alone or with a male worker in prominent locations where so most everyone in the club could see. A third type of dancer was present at Mao. These girls danced with the customers getting them to spend more money. What I found interesting was personalities these women presented. Some of them did appear to be enjoying themselves, however others, looked less happy. In particular one of the girls at Muse looked extremely self-consciousness. Furthermore at Mao, it was obvious that the girls had set jobs they had to perform. Throughout the course of the night, the manager of Mao repeatedly approached two of the dancers at Mao. It appeared that he was telling them to one: stop dancing with each other and gossiping and two: start dancing with customers who were spending the most money. One or both of them would then go dance with various customers the manager had pointed to, then they would come right and start dancing with each other only to get chastised again. It was apparent from their facial expressions and body language that they did not want to dance with random men all night. This contrasted our readings. Although many of the women in the readings were forced into such work, there story ended there. There was never any mention of dislike of disobedient behavior after, although this probably was present. It is more likely that the women in Shanghai working today took the job voluntarily than women took such jobs in the past, but their dislike for such work was also evident. I further believe that even in more recent writings there is probably little mention of these women’s feelings as they are still thought of as commodities today.

Amber Cussen