Glitz and Glamour, Desire, and Danger: A Field Trip to Xintiandi

Xintiandi by Day

On Thursday night I took my students out on their third and final class field trip for the Global Nightlife course.  Little did we know that the trip would end up in a nearby hospital after one of my female students was injured in an accident involving a drunken American "raging bull."

 This time we visited the neighborhood known as "New Heaven and Earth" or Xintiandi 新天地.  Built in the late 1990s out of a longtang neighborhood that was emptied of its residents, gutted, then carefully restored brick by brick, this is one of the leading tourist sites in Shanghai and one of its most prominent nightlife zones.  With its open plaza linking a warren of restored townhouses featuring cafes, restaurants, boutique shops, bars, and music clubs, Xintiandi attracts thousands of tourists and local residents on a daily basis.  There is a constant flow of humanity through the main walkway that runs from north to south.  Now that spring has arrived, many of the restaurants and cafes provide outdoor seating for customers.  By day or by night, customers can sit and drink their beverage of choice while watching the flow of people passing by.  This reminds me of Walter Benjamin's famous essay "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" where he discusses the phenomenon of the crowd.  In modern urban life, particularly in the city of Paris with its cafe-lined boulevards, people could sit and watch the crowds of people as they made their way past the window or outdoor seat of a cafe.  According to Benjamin, "no subject was more entitled to the attention of nineteenth-century writers" than the urban crowd (Illuminations, 1968, p. 166).  He goes on to discuss how both Poe and Baudelaire write about what it was like to be caught amongst the flow of people in the big city.  Benjamin ends his essay with a story by Baudelaire about an angel who while crossing a busy thoroughfare loses his halo and leaves it on the muddy street to be trampled by horses and carriages.  He ends up in a "house of disrepute."  When confronted by another man who recognizes his angelic qualities, and asks him if he might try to recover his halo, he replies to the contrary, "Now I can go about incognito, do bad things, and indulge in vulgar behavior like ordinary mortals."  Perhaps the angel was Baudelaire himself, whose poetry had dared to explore the vulgar world of everyday and everynight urban life, paving the way for a revolution in the arts that led to the great artists of the Belle Epoque and beyond.

Poe, Baudelaire, and Benjamin would have found plenty to write about in Shanghai, and Xintiandi might be a good focus for their discussion of the crowd.  In Xintiandi the crowd grows bigger at night and is one of the central foci of the visual experience of being here.  The outdoor cafes and lamps provide illumination for the tourists and local residents who watch each other pass by.  Most of the crowd ambles around the central plaza, but some choose to visit the cafes, restaurants, bars, and clubs, thus giving way to the impulse to mix and mingle with other like-minded people.  In doing so one courts the ever-present danger of mixing with strangers.  Who knows what people are capable of doing?  But Xintiandi markets itself as a very well-regulated environment with a security apparatus and a higher quality of clientele who can afford the high-priced food and drinks.

After having dinner at a Shanghainese restaurant in Xintiandi called Jesse's (新吉士)I took my students on a brief tour of the neighborhood.  We passed by the DR bar owned by Ben Wood, the Boston-based architect who designed this entertainment complex.  Ben is often there, sitting at his favorite spot at the corner of the bar, and is very approachable when he isn't involved in a business discussion with colleagues.  However, our focus of the night was live music halls, so we moved on into the warren of alleyways with old Chinese names on their arches, such as the "Abode of eternal celebration" (永庆坊).  We made our way through the alleys to the main plaza and headed over to the southern part of the complex, which is less charming than its northern counterpart.  This area features a cinema and the famous Taiwanese chain restaurant Ding Tai Fung (鼎泰丰) with its now global reach.  There is also a jazz club called Cigar Jazz Wine and a few more cafes and restaurants.  But this area has the feeling of a shopping mall rather than the cozy Old European feel of northern XTD.

Quaffing Brews at a German Brauhaus:  The Paulaner

Returning to the northern section, we then visited the chain pub called Paulaner.  This is a German-style beer hall with German food and freshly made beer.  The beer is expensive--78 RMB for a half-liter glass or 148 for a full liter.  Many men order the full liter, and amidst the crowd of people seated at tables and the bar lifting their glasses, I counted dozens of liter-sized ones.  While most people prefer to remain at their seats consuming large quantities of beer and wolfing down plates of schnitzel, sauerkraut, potatoes, and Wieners, there is a collective merriment here akin to a real German brauhaus.  However, instead of collective toasts and cheers, the crowd is dispersed and caught up in their own conversations and experiences.  The one thing that brings people together into a common focus is the Filipino band that plays on a center stage.  In front of the band amidst a clutter of tables is a small area for dancing.  There was little of that as the first band played a tepid round of pop tunes, but when the second band of the night came on (this was around 10 pm), and started playing rhythmic salsas and meringues, several ladies got up to dance with each other, contributing to the spectacle of the evening.  I told the students that in addition to watching the scene each one should find a way to talk to a person who was there.  Since most of my students this semester are young and quite shy, I helped out by introducing them to my friend Beijing Tony or BT (you might remember him from previous blogs I wrote about Muse), who knows the city's nightlife scene better than most.  Tony was in the back courtyard having dinner with some friends from Northern and Western China and Shanghai, but he happily obliged and regaled them with stories and opinions about the scene.  Returning to the main hall and watching middle aged men and slightly younger women flirting at the bar and dancing on the floor, I was struck by how this beer hall operates as a singles scene for an older crowd than the flashy club scene of Shanghai.  Even I felt like a youngster, and you can imagine how my twenty-year old students felt as they absorbed the scene.

Raging Bulls and Asian Belles:  A Brush with Danger at the Brown Sugar live music hall

Looking down at the main area of Brown Sugar, you can see the bar in foreground and the stage in background.  I borrowed this image from City Weekend.

At around 10:30 pm we moved on to another live music hall called Brown Sugar.  This used to be called Ark and it was designed as a performance hall with a central focus around the stage.  At the end of 2008, it was taken over by a Taiwanese chain of the same name, and instead of rock musicians as originally intended by Ark, Brown Sugar now features black American soul music and the singers (at least those that I have seen over the years) are invariably African Americans.  Thursday night was no exception.  Onstage as we entered was a band featuring a black American female singer who was doing a set of upbeat soul from the 1960s and 70s, Donna Summer style.  We took a quick walk around the square bar where several young Chinese women sat waiting to be picked up or just enjoying the music, and lined up in the area fronting the stage, sequestered behind a cluster of tables that were all filled with a combination of Chinese and foreign customers drinking the night away.  On the dance floor was a group of what I took immediately to be Americans.  Some of the men were huge hulking masses of body weight, and they were careening around the dance floor like maniacs.  One guy especially--he must have been about 130 kilos and 1.9 meters tall.  He looked like a former linebacker who had let himself go over the years in an overindulgence on whiskey and beer.  This man was obviously trying to dominate the dance floor, and though he was clearly enjoying himself greatly, he was intimidating some of the other dancers, including a young Asian man who he put his arm around and almost kicked off the floor.  

After this group left the floor, I figured that the coast was clear and encouraged my students, who by now had been joined by their friends, to get on the floor and dance for a spell.  With some coaxing we all got onto the floor.  By now the band had left the stage and a set of '70s disco tunes was playing.  The floor was quite dark.  It took a few minutes for all the students to warm up but they were beginning to enjoy themselves, when the big drunk American bull returned with a vengeance.  After dancing up close to some of my female Asian students in an uber-friendly way, he suddenly mounted the stage, where he seemed to lose his balance and perhaps his consciousness, and tumbled headlong onto the floor, landing on his back and doing serious damage to himself.  Like a wounded bear he retreated to an office at the edge of the dance floor, apparently with a head wound that was bleeding profusely--I saw several attendants bring him napkins.  Unfortunately on the way down he had also hit one of my students in the arm, and soon she had a swollen hard patch near her shoulder.  Clearly we were done for the night.  

With the other students there for moral support, I brought her to a nearby international health clinic called Parkway, where a doctor saw her and examined her arm and had x-rays taken.  Fortunately there was no bone damage and hopefully she will be fully recovered soon, but the incident reminded us all that the dance floor can be a dangerous space if not properly regulated.  In this case, I was shocked that the management of Brown Sugar and their security team had done nothing about this man prior to his accident, but let him run around like a raging bull.  Xintiandi is known for being a nighttime safe zone.  I know of other places in Shanghai that I would definitely not feel comfortable taking my students to, but XTD was the last place I would imagine having an incident like this.  So the pleasures of the night always have to be reconciled by the potential dangers of mixing and mingling with strangers in an environment where heavy drinking is tacitly encouraged, since it brings great profit to the establishments and the liquor companies that sustain them.