Here's another gem, the kind of story I used to delight in discovering while in the early stages of researching my dissertation and eventual book on Shanghai's nightlife industry in the 1920s-1930s, Shanghai's Dancing World. Taking place in 1932, this would be just after the war between Japanese and Chinese forces in the northern districts of the city, and soon after that there was a boom in the nightlife business. The well-known music director in the nightclub mentioned in the story may just be Whitey Smith and his club Cinderella, which was opened around that time but didn't last long. Altogether this is one of the richest and most evocative "night on the town" news pieces I've come across in my research.
Shanghai’s Highly Touted Night Life Described By Writer Who Goes Behind The Scenes For Real “Inside Stuff"
The Whirl Of The Dance, The Flash Of A Beautiful Gown, Hurrying Table Boys, Syncopating Music, All Vividly Described
“The cymbals crash and the dancers walk,
With long silk stockings and arms of chalk;
Butterfly skirts and white breasts bare,
And shadows of dead men watching them there.”
Shanghai’s far-famed, much heralded, tinseled, guay and bespangled night life beckoned—and the veteran of the late World War, visiting the city after an absence of 14 years, responded.
Not in a spirit of resentment, not in criticism, but in a sincere effort to get at the bottom of this night life business, to peep behind the scenes, to hob-nob with the lights and shadows of Night Life-land and to determine whether or not Shanghai’s reputation abroad as a “wicked nocturnal city where night is turned into day” is justified.
The moving finger writes: Let us see:
The hire car came to a sudden stop in Avenue Joffre there where the flaming Neon light of one of the city’s most pretentious cabarets is located. An over-solitious coatroom boy pounced upon all headgear and overcoats, surrendering in return a small white card, numbered. Up one flight, a right turn—and the cabaret proper was reached.
Women of All Moods
Along one side of the rather large room, seated at small tables, were two score or more of girls. Smiling girls. Sad-looking girls. Eager-eyed girls. Lifeless girls. But all with more than a passing claim to good looks. And, to their credit, be it said that some of them were garbed in gowns of startling beauty.
Three or four smiled in a friendly manner as the war veteran and his party entered. Bright idea, that smiling. Usually means more customers for dancing. And dancing means the livelihood of the girls. The more dances the better the livelihood.
At one end of the room was the orchestra stand. Dark Filipino youths dispensing snappy music. The music began, a lively foxtrot. Young and middle-aged men rose and hurried to the girl of their choice.
"Shadows of dead men stand by the wall,
Watching the fun at the Shanghai ball.
They do not reproach because they know,
If they're forgotten it’s better, so."
Have Business Instincts
Business Instincts of the feminine partners were evident. Questioning glances, coquettish glances, coy glances, bold and Inviting glances, often accompanied by a warm smile, were cast at various males seated at the tables. Some responded: others did not. The war veteran smiled: softly hummed "Madamoiselle from Anmentieres."
His eyes swiftly roamed the dance floor. Here an elderly man holding his partner close, there a young man of the "sheik” type executing a fancy step, certainly more fantastic than light. Over there a sedate gent stiffly emulating other dancers.
Snatches of laughter and conversation from the dance floor and tables…..a shrill call for "Olga”…..a man and an non-dance partner doing a bit of heavy though not objectionable "necking” at a corner table……table boys hurrying to and fro……a cigarette boy hopefutily waiting for a tip…..new arrivals attracting attention…..a feminine plea for “vun small bottle vine"….and conversations in three or four different languages.
"Not Bad At All”
The war veteran, who during the past generation has roamed the great cities of Europe, South and North America, rose and danced with a tall, slender blonde, not so young, perhaps, but a graceful dancer,.They conversed.
“Not bad at all," was his comment after the dance. "A sensible and intelligent girl. She had a good laugh when I suggested that perhaps she was the daughter or widow of a former duke, genera!, or high official of the old Russian government.”
“Were you asked to buy a small bottle of wine?”
"Not at all. She seemed mildly interested when I mentioned that I had just come to Shanghai and thanked me when I remarked that she was wearing a beautiful gown.”
On A Higher Plane
After a time the veteran grew restless. The place, he declared,
offered nothing which he had net seen in Europe and elsewhere, in fact, he asserted, the local institution seemed to be on a higher plane than the average dance cabaret of other cities.
The scene shifted to a ballroom, one of the best in Shanghai. No dancing partners here. A cover charge, a famous orchestra, excellent entertainment. Men and women in evening dress. A refined atmosphere.
"Under the dancing feet are the graves.
Dazzle and motley, in long bright waves,
Brushed by the palm fronds, grapple and whirl,
Ox-eyed matron and slim white girl."
Here the males outnumbered the women. It was a scene of polite gaiety, of hurrying table boys, officious but efficient captains, prominent persons of the foreign and Chinese community and young clerks and their fair companions having a night out.
"Fat wet bodies go waddling by.
Girded with satin, though God knows why;
Gripped by satyrs in white and black,
With a fat wet hand on a fat wet back."
A pleasant hour of it and the veteran evinced a desire for new fields. The hire car sped to the Central district where a petite but cosy dining and dancing establishment, made popular by a young, personable American whose famed orchestra and engaging smile has done much toward bringing the crowds.
The veteran smiled in a pleased manner. He shook hands with the director of the orchestra, was announced over the radio as being present—and settled back to note the much-talked-of wickedness supposedly found in Shanghai cabarets. And failed to find It. He found, instead, respectable men and women of varying ages, dining, dancing and conversing. Possibly, now and then on the smooth, darkened dance floor, two lips met, two hands clung together tightly, or a male arm encircled a willing feminine waist a bit closer than neces-sary.
'"See, there is one girl fresh from school,
learning the ropes as the old hands rule,
God, how that dead boy gapes and grins;
As the saxophone moans and the dance begins."
The music ceased, rhe light flared up, then were lowered, and two men and a girl dashed upon the floor. Artists. They intrigued the war vdteran with their beautiful acrobatic dancing.
"I've seldom seen better anywhere In Europe or the United Slates." he commented, adding "why don't they go to America?"
He was told. They came to Shanghaion a Soviet Russia passport. They now are unable to do much traveling.
"What did you think we should find," asked a Shade,
When the last shot echoed and peace was made?"
"Christ," laughed the fleshless jaws of his friend:
"I thought they'd be praying for worlds to mend."
"Making earth better, or something silly.
Like whitewashing hell or Piece-dam-dilly.
They’ve a sense of humor, these women of ours,
These exquisite lilies, these fresh young flowers."
The Army Shift
The hire car again moved. Out North Szechuen Road, one-time the dancing paradise of seafaring men, now out of bounds to service men. Darkened shops en route, the darkness broken here and there by the stab of a cabaret light. Hi..a dozen or more dancing places in full swing. No sailors. No soldiers. No marines. Little Japanese dancing partners. Slender, graceful Chinese girls. Here and there an Eurasian or a foreign girl.
Filipino bands of usually not more than five or six musicians. Dim lights. An occasional seaman, in civilian clothes, fast asleep at a table, the "bouncer" smiling indulgently for the man, very likely, had spent freely.
“Ah. now, perhaps, we shall see something," commented the veteran.
The band struck up a lively foxtrot. Nondescript males hurriedly sought partners. The dance began. And what a dance!
Here and there males gripping their partners In an embrace sort of between a clutch and a clinch; a goodbye-mother-I'm- off-to-war embrace calculated to make the Siamese twins look like distant relatives. There wasn't enough space between some of the couples to afford a flea the breath of life for the duration of one moan of the saxophone. And how they enjoyed it—or seemed to.
Swaying, whirling bodies, fantastic steps, perilous bending, shuffle, tap step, tango, charleston and the foxtrot blended in one.
"Pish," said a stateman, standing near,
"I'm glad they can busy their thought elsewhere!
We mustn’t reproach them, they’re young, you see"
"Ah," said the dead men, “so were we!"
Crash! The music ended. The dance was over. Males handed their girl a dance ticket, which had cost one dollar for three. A pause of about two minutes and the music resumed.
Musicians in the cabarets of Shanghai earn their money.
“What do you think of it?” the war veteran was aksed after a lapse of 30 minutes.
“If this is the worst Shanghai has to offer,” he said, “then all this talk about immorality, indecent dancing, wickedness, fearful dives and sin is wasted.
“The ten-cents-a-dance establishments in many cities of America are worse; in fact, they are training schools for prostitutes. And in Paris, Vienna, Berlin and elsewhere I have seen worse places. Let’s go.”
And so, on through the night, now at a cabaret on Avenue Haig, then at a resort slyly keeping open long after hours. A long procession of dancing girls, a panorama of lurching, swaying dancers, blaring orchestras, loud laughter, open love-making, kisses, red lips, and flashing eyes.
The veteran again spoke:
“In my opinion your dancing partners fill a want in Shanghai. Yours is a city much visited by strangers. And how contended the stranger must feel to enter a cabaret, have no trouble in finding a warm, friendly feminine soul willing to dance with him for the paltry prices demanded for dance tickets; willing to listen to his often tiresome story of the big deal he put across in Veal Loaf, Arkansas in 1922, and of the great future deals he will transact. If what I have seen tonight may be regarded as typical of the nightlife of Shangahi, then I shall go my way singing its praises.”
--Hal P Mills China Press Staff Writer, The China Press, May 1, 1932