A Detailed History of the Origins of Shanghai's Cabaret Industry (1927)

The person who wrote this article obviously knew a great deal about the city's nightlife going back to the years of World War I. This is the most detailed article I have found on the early history of Shanghai's bar and cabaret business and on how the industry went from bars and bar hostesses to taxi-dance halls in the 1920s. It details the rise of the infamous area on Jukong Road in Hongkew known as the "trenches" during the 1910s, and connects them to the cabarets that arose in the foreign settlements. This is a veritable treasure trove of info on Shanghai's nightlife during its early days before the explosion of the cabaret industry in the late 1920s--an event that perhaps the author perceived just on the horizon.

Shanghai’s Cabarets, From Humble Beginnings, Now Play Big Part in Entertaining Tired Business Man; Old Resident Tells of the Days When “Trenches” of Jukong Road Ran Full Blast, Before Pretentious Dancehalls Started


(China Press, Aug 7, 1927)

Shanghai with all its splendor and wealth—with all its squalor

and hard times—still has such a multiplicity of amusement places that the griffin and tourist are prone to ask how do the people find so much time for dancing, staying up until the “larger” wee sma’ hours and spending money lavishly on wine, women and song, if one can dignify jazz music by such a name as song. But the casual visitor does not realise that Shanghai was full of cabarets when the rest of the world knew them not. We do not mean to say that the city originated this form of turning night into day, but she was at least in the forefront from many years past, with her cabarets all being supported, be it noted, by a few thousand foreigners.

The cabaret is such a familiar institution here that the word has crept from the noun class almost into that of the verbs. Verbs mean action and “I crave action” is the motto of the men who invented the participle “cab-a-ray-ing.” To go cabaraying is to visit many of the haunts of jazz as time will permit and the pocket book—maybe only the stub of a leadpencil—will afford.

In the old days these places of amusement were not so widely scattered as at present. Scarcely a street now escapes having one or more, but in the days when they were merely amusement places for sailors they were practically segregated. Some on the Yangking-pang, (that mephitic creek which, filled in, now makes the broad boulevard of Edouard VII), Yangtszepoo and Wayside districts had the bulk of them, but a few also had migrated into the bad lands of Hongkew.


The forerunner of the Shanghai cabaret was what Burns would call a “boozing ken”--a place where two barmaids or so dispensed liquor of the “forty-rod” brand - which sailors seem to enjoy when they come ashore. They know it breeds a headache and trouble with the skipper next day, that is what they want and what they get. To be sure there was a piano and sometimes a piano player, and be it said, these pianoplayers were not pariahs or outcasts but often the husbands of the house manager, which in most cases was a woman. One of them it is known rose to quite a dignified place in the commercial community, which totally overturns the old theory that a piano player is good for nothing else. Most of them are just the same.

There the cabarets started, visited only by sailors, or those of similar type of mind, seeking similar enjoyments. But it was not long after the Spanish-American war that Louis Ladow opened the Carlton, the first cabaret as Shanghai knows them nowadays. This was in Ningpo Road where Ladow's Tavern now stands—we forbear to quote regarding the homecoming of the native or words to that effect, but the Old Carlton once was quite a jazzy place despite that the women habitues seldom danced--merely sat about and consumed wine whenever someone bought it.

The Carlton then had everything its own way, it was not expensive, for the profiteer spirit was not yet abroad in the land. One could get a fried spring chicken with potatoes and some other vegetable, maybe sliced tomatoes with a delicious French dressing that a then Shanghai editor taught the chef to make—With mustard, sweet pepper paprica and salt, then add your vinegar, but on oil, call a halt.

All for a dollar: Really, the chow had more devotees than the women or wine.


Then came the Ritz. The drab coolies of the waterworks offices now ramble through the halls once resounding with merriment. This was on Kiangse Road near Soochow Road, quite a strategic position to get the night traffic. It was opened on All Hallow E'en 1913, to a roaring business. Maybe people wanted a change from the Carlton, or perhaps it was just continguity to the stamping ground of the Midnight Sons that made it a success from the start. But not for long. Note it was November 1918, when it opened. Less than a year later, Shanghai men had something higher and nobler with which to occupy their minds and the pile of unpaid chits at the Ritz assumed higher and more noble proportions. Nor did the Carlton fare so well at this time. But while the Ritz lapsed into bankruptcy, the Carlton had brains behind it and soon decided to mend its ways. The idea was to make it a resort, not for “sporty” class, but for the more or less staid Shanghai man and his family. The whole place was renovated to get rid of even the effluvium of its former patrons and then came the campaign for new business. This was put over unwittingly by the American Women's Club as it was known in hose days. The Club needed a meeting place and Mr. Ladow promptly offered the use of a commodious second floor ball room and living rooms, free of charge for a year, offering to furnish teas at the Club’s regular cost of 60 cents —and they were worth it. With the American Women’s Club trapesing through its doors once a month, the Carlton soon was on he social map.


Prosperity descended upon it treblefold! Where shall we go tonight after dinner? was a popular question and if the answer was not “Carlton,” then wifee grew peeved. It waxed rich und speedily justified its backers who had tided the place over difficulties. But success engenders rivals, also expansion, and about the time that the Carlton was made into a stock company and planned the new Carlton, others began to spring up, not exactly imitators, just similarists at least.

Let us take the humblest of hem first—the Trenches. They were called that through some patriotic motive, maybe because while the true patriots were knee deep in Flanders mud, the Shanghai stay-at-homes were suffering the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune by being flung out of these places at daybreak nd then—insult added to injury—being asked to pay their chits at the month's end. These trenches were small grogshops, about wenty by thirty feet in area. They contained a sideboard with a bit of a bar in front of it. Behind this stood the Missus who ran the place, for all the smaller ones were run by women, for the most part fat.

The whole layout of the trenches was comprised within the cross streets of Jukong and North Szechuen Roads, the places being more numerous on the right hand turn along Jukong Road and or the right side of Szechuen Road going North. Taking Jukong Road first, if one turned to the left off North Szechuen, one reached the El Dorado, one of the two most pretentious of the trenches dance halls. There one found several score of dancing partner: and a commodious floor later to be stained with the blood of a murdered man—but of that later. 


Across North Szechuen Road ,were the trenches proper, the little two by four bars with four tables, two barmaids who would dance on occasion in the three by nine space between the tables, and the music. Sometimes this would be a broken down violinist assisted by a more or less besotted pianist who played at a worse wreck than he, which some called a piano. Other places had a harpist or even three pieces of “music,” harp, violin and piano but these wore rare for each performer got two dollars a night beside two meals, and that is expensive—especially on dull nights.

There were no dance tickets in those days, but the dancer was expected to buy the girl a drink. This did not consist in a bottle of wine, but what were then euphoniously known as “port” or “starboard lights.” They were made of sweetened water with only the color to differentiate them, so one of the girls got quite a reputatlon as a wag one night when she cried to the missus: “Give me a red one this time, I want to give my green stomach a shock!”

These girls worked from eight or ten in the evening to four or five in the morning when they were mighty glad to tumble into a ricsha and get home to their room where perhaps an aged mother, a worthless husband or other dependant was housed. One of these dancing girls, prey to the clumsy feet of all comers, put her two children through a Shanghai school with the meagre earnings she received. Many of them were “good” girls in the sense that they were in no way to be classed as harlots. All they asked was plenty of work and plenty of ten cent checks for the port and starboard lights they consumed. It cost the buyer forty cents and the girl got only ten—but then the missus had to pay rent, light and what not, even to the sugar and dyestuff that went into the drinks.


These Jukong Road trenches had pretentious names, Criterion, Boxer’s Cafe—run by Boxer who once was No. 1 barboy at the Astor House—Cafe de Paris run by a Frenchwoman named Jeanne who had no dancing girls, preferring to let the French sailors, her chief patrons, dance with one another; Russian Mary’s place was also popular until later when she took a soldier into partnership; another quite quiet place was known as No. 5 and near it was the Venetia and the Palermo. This last was quite pretentious and shared the bulk of the better custom with the El Dorado at the other end of the street.

Now all these Jukong Road resorts were off on on side street as it were and did not flaunt themselves in the public gaze as did those on North Szechuen Road. There were three that did especially well, the Mascot, run by three sisters, all good dancers; the Golden Eagle and the International. Their blary music and frequent altercations before the doors became anathema to the good folks who dwelt out toward Darroch and Dixwell Roads and therefore had to pass these places on their way to and from Sunday evening service. They complained to the Settlement authorities who pointed out that while the Road was policed by the Municipality, yet its control stopped at the front door. “See the Chinese police, please.”

But nothing was done for a long time until Rev. Mr. Rawlinson organized the vice squad and tried to “clean up” the city. Beyond a few rather unsavory incidents that were aired in several hearings, such as sending men into places of ill-repute to gather evidence, the vice squad accomplished little. Certainly the Chinese authorities did not feel like cutting off a considerable revenue from the Jukong Road district licenses at the behest of the reformers.


Then came the Hazelton murder at the El Dorado in which a man who tried to save a former court official from a brawl was shot and killed by one Furbush under exceptionally brutal circumstances. This case served as ammunition for the reformers who finally succeeded in having the Chinese police close the trenches—all but one place calling itself a hotel, but which was known as the “Bucket of Blood,” merely because of an occasional settoo between some of its seafaring patrons. It also was closed later, long after it had done away with dance hall and cabaret and was operating along purely hotel lines.

Such were the trenches of yesterday. What has succeeded them since the Chinese soldiery took charge of policing that territory? The places that once were innocent enough save for the girls and music and starboard lights, now have become out and out dens of iniquity so that the last case is worse, far worse than the first, and all the reformer has accomplished has been to turn places—admittedly of doubtful virtue, into haunts of open vice. So much for the Trenches.

Meantime the Carlton and its followers were making money hand over fist, until about a dozen others began to join in the game of giving the tired businessman a place to spend both evenings and money. Most of the newcomers hired Russian girls to dance with their pntrons and finally it came to such a pass that a new cabaret opened or an old one closed about once a month. There was Maxims on Edouard VII near Kiangse Road which ran for a year or two and then closed to be reopened as the Palais Cafe. It had about twenty girls.

Mumm’s was the first on Chu-Pao- San-Lo to be quickly joined by the Alcazar which the sailors called "El Crazy," and the New Royal. Now there is another on that street, Cafe Parisien or something of that sort.

These Iast named three were put out of bounds for America sailors and soldiers after several fracases in which French sailors, working in gangs, came off victorious. Just as the "gobs" were ready for heavy and bloody reprisals, Admiral Williams closed Frenchtown to the tars and leathernecks. All three cafes suffered loss of business, as did Mumm’s which did not cater to men in uniform, for its civilian patrons as well as the sailors had been assaulted by the French bluejackets.


One of the best known of the suburban cafes, now in its seventh year, is the Del Monte. This is quite a famous place since it once was the old Alhambra gambling house.

Some three years ago the cafe and cabaret business became so popular that the city could not supply enough patrons to go round. One night during that dull season, a party of men went cabaraying and came back in an hour to report that they had seen more than a hundred girls sitting around waiting for dances and only twelve men in the six places visited to dance with them.

Now all these cabarets, and there must be a dozen more that could be mentioned, with the single exception of the Carlton, supplied dancing partners who were good dancers and still better sellers of wine. For each bottle of champagne, the girl received a dollar. Counting the cost of the small bottle at $48 a case—that for the better grades, of course, for some was bought at acution as alow as Tls. 7 a case to be served later in some cabaret for $10 a bottle—counting the cost of the wine as $4, the girl’s share a dollar, the selling price $10, it meant that the house made at least $5 a bottle on the recognised brands while its profits on the Tls. 7 vrleity, let the reader work it out for himself.


But the game of buying wine began to pall on men who did not care for it as a drink and then too, the cost was so far in excess of the pleasure gained from the dance or two for which it was the recompense, that this side of the cabaret trade began to slacken. Something must be done about it, the proprietors decided—but what, that was the question.

Finally the Del Monte solved it by announcing that thereafter dancing partners would be provided at fifty cents a dance, no obligation to buy wine entering into the transaction. The girl got a percentage on the dance ticket and as she did not care much for champagne either, she was satisfied. 0f course, if a man wanted to buy champagne, that was another matter, she did, however, expect him to buy a “cocktail” or two during the evening.

These cocktails, innocent of spirits were quite an improvement on the "starboard light” of the old trenches days. Aside from the slice of orange that graced their rim the cost was little more. The house charged a dollar and the girl got 20 cents of it.

The lead of the Del Monte was followed by other cabarets and now the dance ticket is a well established institution. Some of the better dancers make as much as $20 a night from them while expending no such energy as would have gone into the sale of even two bottles of wine. And that is about the wa the cabaret situation stands today. Probably more than 300 girls are making a fair living, staving the wolf from the door, at least, while some of them are able to send home money to their parents in Siberia or support those of the family who have come here with them.

As for the cabarets, they also are making money, at least, fewcare contemplating closing their doors, the Del Monte is reopening, Louis Ladow has reopened the old Carlton, calling it Ladow's Tavern and all seem to be getting by. Probably the best money-maker o the lot has been the Savoy Hotel which has a small but excellent dancing floor which it re-opened not so many moons ago. The Savoy has always catered to men in uniform and when Shanghai harbor became filled with warships, even in the days when liberty expired at 6 p.m., the Savoy was the favorite dancing place, not only of the American and British sailors but of the British soldiers and American marines. These men appreciate fair treatment and are quick to respond when made welcome.

Shanghai’s cabarets, whether they serve soldiers, sailors or civilians always have had the name of being orderly places. Seldom does a quarrel arise and even when one does, it usually simmers down quickly without recourse to blows. Trouble seekers are quickly accommodated outside where the atmosphere tends to clear the alcoholic head. So far as the sailors and soldiers are concerned they have to bo orderly since the “shore patrol” is there to see that they behave.

It would be difficult to learn just how much money is invested in these dancing places, but it must run close to a million dollars if one takes into account the lighting and other similar charges. At any rate there are plenty of them to suit every taste and purse, from the Majestic, Plaza, Astor House and Carlton down to the longshoremen’s resorts in Wayside. Verily, Shanghai, they name is variety.