This is one of my favorite pieces from my research into English-language sources on the transition into the "jazz age" in 1920s Shanghai. I first found this article in the Literary Digest, which reprinted it from the China Weekly Review in 1928. At the time, I was at Columbia University just embarking on my dissertation research on the nightlife of old Shanghai, and was combing through indices (this was before everything was put online). This was a real find. The article covers a lot of ground, describing the culture of 'courtesans' or female Chinese entertainers that predated the cabaret craze. The westerners called them 'sing-song girls' and as you can see in this article, many westerners viewed this culture with a jaundiced eye. This piece captures well the sudden transition to Chinese cabaret culture that indeed occurred in 1928, as I document in chapter 2 of my book Shanghai's Dancing World. It also describes how the Chinese cabaret hostesses and Chinese dancers were beginning to outcompete their Russian and European counterparts. It mentions the important role of Filipino musicians in launching the Chinese jazz age. It is a wonderful article, even if we have to take some of the language with a grain of salt. It is meant to be a sarcastic portrayal of Chinese entertainment culture, but also an accurate documentation of changing trends. Above all, the sentence "Well, these new cabarets are worth visiting for more can be learned there in a few hours about changing China than can be learned from a hundred of the leading books on the Chinese Problem" rings true, as my book reveals!
EXIT SING-SONG; ENTER CABARET JAZZ!
(The China Weekly ReviewMay 5,1928)
None of the writers on the Chinese revolution have as yet touched on the passing of that Chinese institution, the "Sing-song girl," but it is a fact that the attractive young lady who used to sit behind your chair at a Chinese banquet and screech in your ear to the tune of a scratchy Chinese fiddle, is rapidly passing along with the old-style Northern militarists, the ancient ceremonial style of official addresses, the use of long gowns as articles of attire for men and the use of trousers as attire for Chinese women. Up in Szechuen and down in Kwangsi the Sing-song girl is probably still holding her own against the inroads of progress and "modernization" but in Shanghai the Sing-song girl is in a bad way and seemingly is on the road to oblivion, her place being taken by the modern jazz cabaret entertainer or dancing-partner. The thing has come on us rather suddenly; in fact so suddenly that comparatively few foreigners in Shanghai yet realize that most of the leading Chinese hotels in Shanghai in recent months have installed modern ball-rooms where the latest jazz music is dispensed and where young China is dancing the Charleston, the Black-Bottom and the other near-barbarous versions of the dance which America is supposed to have plagiarized from the African negroes.
Before going into the subject further it should first be explained what a Sing-song girl is and what a Sing-song girl formerly did to earn a living. She occupied a definite place in the Chinese social scheme of things, whether in Mukden or Canton, and her chief purpose apparently was to help tired business men and officials to forget their worries. It was something like this: A number of Chinese would gather for a dinner. The proprietor of the restaurant would come in and say something which the foreign guest would not understand. There would be some conversation with the restaurant proprietor and some things would be written on pieces of paper. Then after a little while there would come trooping into the room a procession of attractive Chinese young ladies who would take their places on stools behind the banqueters. Then a bored-looking Chinese musician would come in and begin playing the latest air from the Han or Ming Dynasty, following which the young ladies would sing—at least they called it singing. During intermission there would be con-versation between the guests and the Sing-song girls, gossip about the latest political scandal, or perhaps some choice bits about a new concubine which the local tuchun [dujun or warlord] had annexed to his harem. Then the Sing-song girls would depart and others come in and so on through the meal which might well last from six o’clock until midnight. The Sing-song girls were supposed to provide the bright places in the lives of the said tired business men and officials, which was lacking at home. In many ways the Chinese Sing-song girl resembles her Geisha cousin in Japan, and often there were stories where popular young ladies of this class commanded large sums when they became the concubines of wealthy officials. When Gen. Chang Chung-chang, the coolie-bandit-tupan of Shantung, was in control of Shanghai for a brief period a few years ago, it was said that he had paid the sum of $60,000 for an attractive Sing-song girl whom he took with with him to Shantung when he was kicked out of Shanghai.
But what about the Sing-song girl today? Well she has suddenly—almost overnight so to speak— become a jazz cabaret dancer who wears an abbreviated foreignized style of skirt in piace of the silk pantaloons which she formerly used to cover her lower extremities. Marshal Chang Tso-ling, who is old-fashioned, recently issued an edict against the wearing of skirts, his mandate stating that he had been informed that Chinese girls were appearing in the Peking Central Park with nothing on their legs except stockings. He ordered off the skirts and demanded a return to feminine trousers!
But despite the reactionarism of the Mukden Warlord and others of his type, Young China insists upon modernizing and the jazz cabaret in Shanghai is the result. Well, these new cabarets are worth visiting for more can be learned there in a few hours about changing China than can be learned from a hundred of the leading books on the Chinese Problem. For those who have not yet enjoyed the sensation, we will explain that these cabarets are large rooms gaudily decorated with tables about the sides and at these sit a number of young ladies who are popularly advertised in the public prints as '‘dancing partners’. Male guests who wish to dance look over the exhibit and when the music starts, off they go into the latest Charleston or waltz or whatever it is you call the dance which is stepped to the music produced by a “Hawaiian” orchestra composed of hard-working Filipinos who have a monopoly of modern music in the Far Fast.
Well, it’s interesting to say the least; and significant too, especially when one sees foreigners, Americans and Englishmen and Germans and Frenchmen and Japanese and Russians, all dancing with these attractive little Chinese “dancing partners” who used to be Sing-song girls for the exclusive amusement of tired Chinese businessmen and officials. But most interesting of all is the sight of Chinese, men and women, dancing “modern-fashion” in a modern ball room to the tune of “modern” or rather American music. Once in a while one notes modern steps, but this is unusual since most of the clothes with Oxford-bags and everything.
Recently one of these cabaret places which have sprung up in Shanghai like mushrooms of late held a dancing 'competition which was participated in by dancing couples of about every known nationality, Russians, Japanese, Europeans, and combinations of several Eastern and Western nationalities, and the first prize was won by a Chinese couple. The girl wore a bright red foreign-style dress with short skirt, flesh- colored stockings, silver shoes, low neck, and she had bobbed hair, of course. The young man was dressed in “conventional black” tuxedo. After the prizes had been distributed and the applause had died down the proprietor of the jazz palace was asked who the Chinese young lady was. “Why she is Miss So-and-so, the popular movie actress. Yes, China is advancing:—or at least is changing. The revolution goes deep!
The modern dancing cabaret, where dancing partners are provided by the establishment, was introduced into Shanghai by the Russians. Thousands of While Russians, refugees from their homeland, flocked into the Chinese port cities. The cabarets followed shortly afterwards; at one time it being stated that there were more than 1,000 Russian dancing girls in Shanghai at one time. Incidentally they assisted materially in supporting the large Russian refugee community, for these girls were said to earn from $200 to $500 a month from the sale of dancing tickets and commissions on wine purchased by admiring customers. But the Russian monopoly of the jazz cabaret in Shanghai is passing, for her Chinese sister is “cutting in” rapidly. In several places one now finds both Russian and Chinese girls and in one place there are Russians, Chinese and Japanese girls. Incidentally there are at least two jazz cabarets in Shanghai where all the dancing girls are Japanese, who wear their native costumes and clogs (shoes) but dance to the strains of the latest American jazz music as interpreted by an orchestra composed entirely of Japanese musicians. But the most interesting naturally are the new places recently opened in some of the leading Chinese hotels where the dancing partners are all Chinese girls and where the patrons are practically all Chinese excepting a few foreigners who drop in to satisfy their curiosity and after satisfying their curiosity usually, end up by dancing with some of the Chinese girls. Thus are Easterners and Westerners learning to “understand” each other, despite the suggestion in Kipling’s well-known saying about East and West.
Sometime ago the Kiangsi Provincial Government issued an edict prohibiting the wearing of “long-gowns” by all government employes and specifying that the westernized style of uniform must be worn on all occasions. It was not stated that this was being done in deference to the modern jazz dancing craze which has struck China, but it may have had something to do with it!
Yes, conditions are changing and the East is stepping out !