A Week in Shanghai with Dr. Nightlife and Dr. Sex Life


I'm still recovering from a visit by Dr. James Farrer, otherwise known as Dr. Sex Life (I'm Dr. Nightlife). James is the author of Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai. I met James through a mutual friend in 1996 when he was still researching his dissertation which would become this book. He was doing a lot of research in social dance halls. I was researching dance halls in 1920s-30s Shanghai for my own dissertation and forthcoming book. We became good friends over the years and mused over the idea of co-writing a book on nightlife in Shanghai, a "then and now" book covering both the early 20th century and more recent times. That project has become a reality, and we are now working on a book covering a century of nightlife in Shanghai. We've done most of the work, but we needed to do some follow-up research and check out the latest hot clubs. Here's a brief rundown of our week:

James arrived on Thurs night, March 13. We decided to jump right into the thick of it, and headed to Bon Bon, where a thousand horny teenagers are hopping around to the sounds of hip-hop and techno. Compared to the crowd, average age 20, we looked the part of frumpy old academics, and/or dirty old men. The crowd was packed onto the dance floor, but James trundled his hefty 40-sthg frame onto the floor anyhow, stomping on a few teenyboppers along the way.

On Friday night, I had dinner with the NYU in Shanghai crew at Lost Heaven, a "Yunnanese" fusion restaurant on Gaoyou Lu. Afterwards I met up with James at the Cotton Club, where the usual suspects had gathered to hear our fine local blues guitarist Greg Smith (the man with the perma-smile). Upon the arrival of a couple of old friends from out of town, we walked down Fuxing Lu to a new underground club called The Shelter. After walking down a long tunnel we arrived in the club, which did look just like a bomb shelter from the 2nd World War. It had a sort of Cavern Club feel to it. DJ Wang was spinning records and showing off his considerable skills to the pleasure of the crowd. Students mostly, but plenty of 20 and some 30-sthgs, making it easier for us to fit in. Lo and behold, a bunch of CIEE and NYU in Shanghai students showed up and got to see Dr. Nightlife in action as he spun a poor young local waif on the dance floor. James busied himself interviewing a local young lady about her nightlife habits.

Saturday I was a complete wreck. After visiting my wife's grandfather in his nursing home, we had dinner at Ruifuyuan on Jinxian Lu, one of the city's best kept (or not so kept) secrets. If you like local Shanghai cuisine, this is the place. After that I went home and crashed.


On Sunday arvo Mency and I attended James' talk at the Shanghai Literary Festival, where he spewed out stats about Chinese people's sex lives to a captivated audience. The best part of his talk was his use of contemporary literature to illustrate the sexual culture of today's China.

On Sunday night we were back in action. James and I joined a couple of other mates for a tour of the nightlife on Shanghai's least busy night. We started at Logo, a live music club on Xingfu Lu (it used to be called Tang Hui), then moved on to Windows at Jing'an Park, where we spent a few hours, mostly observing the scene. Windows is known for its cheap drinks--hence the large number of impoverished students. There was a core group of Chinese hip-hoppers (see photos below), who stuck close to the DJ booth, and a fair number of Filipinas, as well as some spillover from the nearby Tongren Lu bar street scene. Later that night, some extremely beautiful Latina women arrived and started propositioning us. A shady looking fella with long, greasy hair stood outside the club and occasionally chatted with the ladies. Was he a customer or a pimp? We weren't sure. But we left the club around 3 am without finding out (James remarked that the guy bore a remarkable resemblance to the killer in No Country for Old Men) and headed to Tongren Lu, but didn't stay long, avoiding the temptation of being sucked in by the bar girls to spend money on drinks. The whole scene at Tongren reminds me of Blood Alley or the Trenches in Hongkew in the 1920s and '30s.


The following week it was business as unusual. On Wednesday James gave a talk to our NYU in Shanghai students, pretty much the same talk he gave at the Glamour Bar on Sunday but with powerpoint slides--mostly stats, but a few images as well. The students mostly seemed to enjoy it, though a few of them nodded off.  That evening we had dinner with Lisa Movius and friends at her favorite Shanghai restaurant, Kongyiji in the Old Town.  After getting pretty rocked on Chinese rice wine, James stole a ride on the boss's Russian motorcycle.


Sufficiently potted with local brew, we then headed on to Zapatas for Ladies Night.  The animal zoo was in action that night, and they'd all been let out of their cages and were hopping on the bartop, hopped up on tequila and '80s pop tunes.  James played the role of disinterested observer while I worked on my Shanghainese linguistic skills.


I'd been promising James all week that I'd take him to Babyface before he left town, and on Friday night I made good on my word. But before heading to this happening club on Jinling Lu, we started off at Xintiandi, first hitting Sugar, a sweets-themed bar, then over to DR, a tiny "minimalist-themed bar" designed by Ben Wood, the same guy who designed the trendy bar-restaurant neighborhood in which it's found. My wife Mency joined us and we also were enlightened by the company of a traveling American architect. After downing a couple of STRONG martinis, we strolled over to Babyface, where James was sucked into the dancing crowd. Mency and I left him on the dance floor around 1 am and headed home.

Presumably some of this will make it into our book, albeit with an academic spin ; )

Finally, on Saturday night, we joined a haigui (overseas Chinese returnees) party hosted in a posh private club by our old friend Tony Zhang. The party was on the theme of Old Shanghai and the guys were dressed in old changshan, the ladies in revealing qipaos. Tony had invited me to come give a talk about Old Shanghai, but when the time came, I found it a tough task since half the crowd was too busy talking to listen. Ah well, Chinese manners ; )

Sex seems to follow Dr. Farrer wherever he roams.  To get the crowd in the Ol' Shanghai mood, they were playing the film Lust/Caution on several screens around the room. I imagined that they'd either fast forward through the sex scenes or that it would be censored, but lo and behold, the sex scenes came on full blast as the party went on its merry way through the night. There were a few titters but mostly people took it in stride. Finally somebody intervened and fast-forwarded through the final sex scene, presumably because it was taking people's attention away from the lady singing Old Shanghai tunes on the stage.  Finally they held a beauty contest for girls and guys, which got a lot more attention from the crowd than a talk by old Doc Nightlife.  As James knows well, just give 'em sex and they'll beat your door down.


Following that strange and wonderful gathering, we walked on down the road to the Ruijin Guesthouse, where we had a drink at Face. I then took James over to the Melting Pot on Taikang Road, one of Shanghai's few live music houses that features rock bands. There was a band on stage, a couple of Chinese guys, but they were nothing to write home about. In between sets they had an MC and arm-wrestling contests. That would definitely not be cool in the Beijing scene.

I was glad to see James head back to Tokyo on Sunday, so that I could get some well needed rest and re-energize for his next visit. Hope it's soon.