Canned Fun: An Evening at the Phebe 3D Dance Club in Shanghai

(a photo of Phebe 3D which I ripped from City Weekend)

March 3, 2011

Last night I joined my NYU Global Nightlife students for the first of three field trips into the world of Shanghai nightlife.  We met around 9:30 pm at 滴水洞 (Di Shui Dong), a popular Hunanese restaurant on Dongping Road.  From there it is an easy walk to dozens of clubs and bars clustered in that neighborhood.  

At 10:30 we wrapped up our dinner and moved down the street to a club called Zapatas, housed in an old Shanghai mansion.  This club attracts a mixed clientele of Chinese and foreigners, and on certain nights, particularly Wednesday “ladies nights” it can get pretty wild and crazy with ladies dancing on the bartop as the bartenders pour tequila shots down willing customers’ throats.  Unfortunately this was not one of those nights.  We settled in a booth upstairs.  The tables were full of small groups of mostly foreigners, but also several Chinese and mixed couples as well.  As the students ordered drinks, I went over to the balcony to look down on the dance floor.

Downstairs there were a few Chinese customers dancing on the floor to a set of tunes played by a European DJ in the booth upstairs.  My students recognized a string of popular club songs such as “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz and the overplayed “I’ve Got a Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas.  A Chinese man, looking to be in his 50s, was holding court on the dance floor, surrounded by a group of several Chinese women who were on the verge of middle age.  At first they were jumping from foot to foot like it was an aerobics class, but later they loosened up and their dancing became more funky and experimental.  We speculated whether the man had invited these women to accompany him to the club, but one student thought it was the other way round.  We didn’t get the opportunity to find out though.  

Since the club wasn’t very active, we decided to move on to our next destination.  This was the Phebe 3D dance club on Hengshan Road.  It’s a ten-minute stroll from Zapatas to Phebe.  We remarked on the long line of cabs stretching down the road, waiting to pick up customers staggering from the entrance to the building housing the club.  I chose to show my students this club because it is typical of a fairly new wave of “provincial” style clubs, i.e. chain clubs that have been introduced into Shanghai from other cities and provinces in China.  It is the sort of club that can now be found in nearly every large city in China today.  I won’t go into detail about the club’s design and décor, which in a nutshell is loud, brash, and extremely kitschy.  One of my students noticed that the main chandelier hanging in the huge bathroom area (which itself is as big as the dance floor area in Zapatas) is decorated with pink high heel shoes.   I won’t even tell you about the men’s urinals, but suffice it to say that their design breaks just about every taboo you could imagine in the categories of both style and sexism. 

The main club space is filled with tables and lounge spaces and dominated by a large central bar, which is attached to a high stage in the center of the club.  The impression I get of this space is that it is intentionally designed to foster heavy drinking and to limit people’s mobility—most people just stay put at their tables or at the bar, though the small dance floor is usually active.  In the main club, everywhere around you, video screens are blasting your visual cortex with music videos that coincide with the incredibly loud top-40 club music, which ranged from Lady Gaga to Michael Jackson.  And Michael himself showed up to perform on the center stage of the club, dressed in his ‘80s duds and doing his signature dance to his hit “Smooth Criminal.”  After that, some of my students got up on the stage along with other customers and danced for about an hour while I watched over their clothing and bags.  For me this was a good opportunity to check out the scene and survey the crowd.

As usual, the club was 90 percent Chinese, with a few foreigners clustered on the dance floor and around the bar.  Most of the tables and lounge spaces were full of drunken Chinese men playing dice and flirting with very attractive Chinese ladies, who were waiting in gaggles by the bar for the men to pick them up.  Even without investigating the scene it was obvious these women were hired by the club to provide company for men or to just provide the illusion of an endless supply of attractive and available women.  Managers dressed in black and sporting walkie-talkies choreographed these women around the club, making sure they were providing a “fun” atmosphere by filling up the empty spaces.  But despite the slick dresses and make-up, most of these young women looked bored, and I imagine that was how the dance hostesses of the 1920s and ‘30s must have appeared on a typical night in a Shanghai ballroom. 

After another hour (it must have been around 1 am by that time), a pair of male workers cleared the stage, shooing off two Caucasian girls who kept popping up defiantly to dance, and prepped the club for another floor show.  The spectacle began with a tall svelte Chinese lady in a nurse’s uniform performing a pole dance in the middle of the club, stripped down to a pair of tight black panties.  After this sexual show reminiscent of a strip club (though no nudity), a threesome involving a foreign man and two foreign women performed a mock ménage-a-trois on a “bed” in the elevated lounge space above the main dance floor (see my previous post on Muse 2 where I discuss the role that foreigners play in eroticizing the nightlife of the city).  Then a Chinese girl performed a belly dance on the main stage, dressed in an Arabian Nights-style outfit.  Some of my students caught the show while others were lost in the crowd.  Afterwards we all gathered together and decided to call it a night.  We’d seen what we’d come for and the students had a taste of contemporary Chinese-style clubbing.

Earlier that evening I had given the students a brief lecture on the cabarets of Montmartre, ending with a discussion of the Moulin Rouge, followed by a doco film featuring Toulouse-Lautrec and his images of Montmartre.  It occurred to me last night that Toulouse-Lautrec might have chosen this club for some of his paintings had he lived in Shanghai today.  If Henri de T-L were dropped into this scene, I’m sure he would have found it reassuringly familiar, and he would have probably befriended many of the men and women who frequent Phebe 3D.  He would enjoy painting the drunken businessmen literally pissing away thousands of dollars on alcohol and the ruse of false intimacy with those attractive demi-mondaines occupying that ambiguous grey zone between entertainers, prostitutes, and customers. 

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's most famous painting of the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre Paris, 1892

Of course, Shanghai itself has a long and rich history of this sort of nighttime entertainment spectacle, as I demonstrate in my own book Shanghai’s Dancing World and as many other scholars of Old Shanghai have also covered in great detail—witness Catherine Yeh’s book Shanghai Loveabout the courtesans of the late 19th century for example.  Not to mention Tokyo, whose Edo period lithographs known as Ukiyo-E exposed the brothel culture of Yoshiwara to a mass audience hungry for titillation.  It is even likely that Paris was inspired by the nightlife cultures of the Far East in the same way that Toulouse-Lautrec and his idol Edgar Degas were inspired by Japanese art to paint the nightlife scenes of their own city, and to paint them in a style that was already deeply familiar to Japanese artists.  So while one could claim that this style of urban nightlife is “Western” in many respects, it does have its deep roots in East Asian traditions as well.  And clubs like Phebe 3D were just one more step in the long process of fusion between Western and Eastern style clubbing cultures over the past century.