This is one of the most evocative articles about the city's night scenes in the 1930s that I found during my mid-1990s research at Columbia University in old American newspapers and magazines. I found this and many other articles by going through indexes at the Columbia Library--in other words, the hard way before the dawn of the age of electronic media. Ironically the story takes place about the same time that the Japanese were gearing up to invade China, launching what became the eight-year war that ended in 1945. This is perhaps the last glimpse at a more innocent period of nighttime fun in the city before the Japanese started taking it over beginning with the Hongkew district where the story ends. The article takes the reader into several different nighttime venues, including the bars of Blood Alley, St. George's Cabaret on Route Doumer (Donghu Road), and Santa Ana's Cabaret on "Love Lane" now Wujiang Road--unfortunately the building holding that cabaret was torn down to make way for a restaurant and shopping complex, though I did get to visit it in the late 1990s with the legendary Tess Johnston. After dipping into a restaurant to see a sing-song girl in action, it ends the tour at the infamous Venus (Venice) cabaret in Hongkew--one of the sites that gets plenty of mention in Paul French's book City of Devils. In all my years of research on the nightlife of Old Shanghai, I have found few if any other descriptions of a night on the town to match this one.
Sad Sin in Shanghai
By Jim Marshall, Collier’s Staff Writer in the Orient
(Collier’s10 July 1937)
This, friends and countrymen, is Blood Alley, famous for its knife fights and gilded sin. It’s the center of Shanghai’s night life. Let’s look at China’s hot spots
FINALLY," said Seaman Murphy judicially, "you just go nuts!" We were rolling up the Shanghai Bund in rickshas, the runners sweating in the steamy heat. Murphy was off an American destroyer, anchored downstream in the muddy Whangpoo. He had come up in a Navy launch, armed, with four American dollars, a bit of a thirst and a determination to engage briefly in the highly advertised nightlife of the world's largest international city. ''We cut down a junk, coming out of the Yangtzekiang," said Murphy, as the runners got squeezed between a two-decker motorbus and the curb and stopped; wheezing heavily. "So we gotta have an inquiry, It's a laugh-because American ships are the only ones that ever cut down junks. They ain't never been a junk crew yet that couldn't dodge a destroyer going thirty knots, provided the navigator on the destroyer wanted to dodge 'em."
The motorbus roared away and the runners lunged into the shafts to get the rickshas going again. "The junks always have a whole flock of devils trailing aft," said Murphy, rolling a brown paper cigarette and trying to light a Chinese, match on his thumbnail. "So they cut across the bows of steamships and the closer they can come, the more devils get shaved off..... But when they need a new junk, they come a bit too close and get run down-but always by an American ship, The others don't pay off."
He shouted to the runners, who in a gesture of surrender to a motorized world, held out their right hands and waited for a break in the traffic to make the turn into the Avenue Edouard VII--the broad, winding boulevard that was once a creek and now is the boundary between the international settlement and the French concession. At the turn, the sailor pointed to a white post, standing in a grass plot on the river side of the Bund.
"They took down th’ sign," said Murphy.
"Some guy named Harold Lawson brought it out," said Murphy as the ricksha swerved across the car tracks. "Some southern California booster club sent him to Shanghai with it, with orders to put it up on the Bund. So he did. He was the guy who invented ricksha races up the Avenue, here, and ..."
"He put it up all right." persisted Murphy, "but th' cops musta taken it down. But he got a picture of it. first, for the boys back in the chamber of commerce. You'd oughta seen him, leaping from one ricksha …"
"What sign?" "
"Jus' a ordinary sign, like you see at home. It said: City Limits, Los Angeles," said Murphy. "But that was nothing. What this Lawson did was to hire ten rickshas, along around midnight, when the traffic thinned out. Then him and his pal, a Dr. Seaton Sailer, would have races up the Avenue here, and when they got tired o' that, this Lawson would line up ten rickshas and start them all off with himself in the outside one, and then change rickshas at full speed until he'd worked clear over to the other end of the line. This Dr. Sailer would sit on the curb and laugh and throw Chinese nickels at the runners to make them stop ... Whoa!"
Funny Money for Phony Fun
The runners pulled up in response to his shout and, dropping the shafts to the pavement, shot us both neatly out onto the sidewalk. Murphy walked over to a grilled shop, planked down his four American dollars and came away with a double fistful of paper and silver amounting, at face value, to $32.10, Shanghai money and otherwise.
Some of it was in large paper bills, double the size of an American bill. More of it was in ten- and twenty-cent bills, crumpled, dirty, stuck together with adhesive tape, the size of cigar coupons. There was some silver and a score of filthy coppers among which shone some bright orange pieces.
"The silver's worth less than the bills," said Murphy, going into the intricacies of Shanghai money. "Silver is 'small money' and paper is 'big money'-if it happens to be on the right bank. If it's on the wrong bank it's no good, unless you can meet a tourist who don't know the difference. The coppers are small money and it takes from thirty to thirty-six of them to make a dime, except when they're the new. Then it takes three of the old ones to make one of the new ones."
"It must be sort of confusing," we said.
"Ain't no word for it," said Murphy, setting a course up the Avenue. "Small money has different values on busses and in stores and on the street, and if you buy a buck's' worth of something in a store with big money and give 'em a $5 bill you get back $5.10 in change, only that's worth $3.90 when you got to buy something with it . . . and finally you just go nuts ... Here's Blood Alley. Let's go!"
Blood Alley has a Chinese name that no one remembers. It runs for a block out of Avenue Edouard VII, opposite the plant of The Shanghai Times, into the French concession, and is supposed to be a haunt of gilded sin. It is lined with cabarets, and occasionally about 3 A. M. a pair of weary, pasty-faced Russians stab each other. Usually this takes place inside some garish, smoke-filled and paper-festooned hall, where a tinny orchestra goes through the motions of playing outdated American jazz and the brown-haired White Russian girls slide monotonously around the dance floor. .
But once in a while the battlers come out on the sidewalk, to the great delight of Mr. Palamountain, city editor of The Times, who always strolls over to look at the corpse and file another notch on the spacebar of his typewriter. Mr. Palamountain is the builder-upper of Blood Alley's sinister reputation.
We did the alley thoroughly, in at one door, look around, out again, and so to the next place. Gloomy Russians sitting around. White-faced girls in fantastic frocks. Glasses on wet-ringed tables. Sad sin.
"Like a Sunday-school picnic," 'commented Seaman Murphy. "Let's gwan up th' St. George."
We got a couple of rickshas, shouted: "One piecee!" at the runners, and set off. The St. George cabaret was in an old house set in a garden, with a graveled driveway in front. A great barn of a place, several steps down, with a large dancing floor and a colored orchestra in the middle of the long side. Tables were jammed in together so that the waiters had to inch through sidewise.
"The Oriental melting pot," said Murphy, mopping his forehead and ordering beer.
The girls sat around at the tables with the customers--sailors from the ships of a dozen nations, sleek Chinese, chattering Japanese, a slumming party or two from a cruise ship. Some of them were the much-overrated White Russian beauties, languid and dull-eyed; drinking whiskey and water. There were Japanese girls, made up to resemble American movie queens, looking chunky and ungraceful in Western clothes. The Chinese girls, in their simple gowns, were the most attractive.
"’Banner gowns,''' said Murphy, drinking half his beer at a gulp, "They call ‘em mandarin gowns, but the right name is 'banner'---going back to the time when the old Chinese aristocracy were all banner men under the Manchu banner.”
Falling simply from a high, stiff collar, the banner gowns hung in long, flowing lines almost to the floor. On each side, they were slit almost to the knee. Of heavy silk, in rainbow colors, black and white checks, red and gold stripes, white circles on blue ground, they slid in and out through the low-cut evening frocks of the White Russian girls and the Japanese film-queen imitators.
"The little doll in the black and gold for me," said Murphy. He finished his beer and walked over to a slim Chinese girl, momentarily alone at a table. The orchestra started again and a Filipino singer in a fluffy yellow frock wailed into a microphone. The floor filled with dancing couples and the lights dimmed.
"This ain't the real stuff," said Murphy, coming back to the table. "Let's gwan up to th' Santa Ana."
We had another beer and struggled out into the foyer, with Murphy's Chinese girl hanging to his arm. He bought her a bottle of perfume at the glass counter, said goodby and asked the doorman to call a cab. We rolled away in the hot night, along brightly lit boulevards, down winding lanes, and so to the Santa Ana, with its howling beggars around the doorway and dimly lit dance hall above.
High Life in Shanghai
There was a railing inside and, inside that again, the dance floor. At the far end, a Negro orchestra played Chinese adaptations of American popular songs, while a huge colored man bawled out the words. The Chinese taxi-dancers sat in a row inside the railing, often with a glass of tea and cigarettes on a little stand beside them. Tickets were three for a Shanghai dollar.
Chinese youths in Western dress mingled at the tables and on the floor with older men in the sober blue and black gowns of ancient tradition. Little groups of Chinese politicians sat around tables, talking in singsong tones, sipping tea.
"Half the plots in North China get hatched around here," said Murphy, ordering more beer. "The politicians from all over come into Shanghai for safety when their customers in Chinese cities go on the warpath. . . . There's Ting-a-Ling. Hi! Ting-a-Ling!"
The Santa Ana's No.1 girl waved and smiled at the sailor from her chair. Her glossy black hair was Dutch-bobbed and as she rose her dead-white silken banner frock clung to her figure, slim and graceful. Murphy shoved aside his beer, walked over and led her onto the floor. When the dance was over, Murphy slipped the girl a dollar bill and came back to finish his beer.
"Good girl," he said. "She makes one hundred-two hundred dollars a week, dancing and what mugs like me give her. But it’s kinda expensive. Three new gowns a week, and she has to pay an amah to keep house for her, too…”
“What happens to her later?”
“Oh, she’ll get married. They all do—to high-up men, mostly… C’mon, let’s get outa here.”
We walked over, through the hot night, to the Avenue Joffre. Out of a side street came a gaudy ricksha. From a semicircular bow over the seat, two electric spotlights shone down on the occupant. She sat there, dressed in red and gold, on her rolling throne, the trotting coolie shouting to clear her way—and give her “face.” One silk-clad leg, hung negligently over the other, dangled a tiny silver slipper. The coolie wore red and gold shorts and the muscles rippled under the bare skin of his back. Back of this turnout came another ricksha, the coolie also in red and gold. His passenger was a soberly clad older woman, carrying a mandolin on her knees.
Songs on the Cuff
"Singsong girl," shouted Murphy, across the space from the ricksha into which he had climbed. We followed along to a Chinese restaurant, into which the singsong girl swept grandly, followed by her amah. Upstairs, at a dinner party, the guests were eating noisily to show their appreciation of the food. The singsong girl slipped around behind the honor guest and, taking her mandolin, sang a little song in a high, quavering voice, smiled a set little smile, chatted pleasantly for a few minutes and then rose and bowed herself out.
"That'll cost the host about $50 Mex," said Murphy. "He pays the girl nothing the first two times he calls her-but he makes up for it the third time. But singsong girls aren't for the likes of you 'n' me. Come on."
Early in the morning, we swung back to the Bund and headed over the Garden Bridge and down into Hongkew. Over there was the Venus cabaret known to the sailors of the Seven Seas as the Venice, that being the nautical pronunciation of the goddess' name. A vast, rowdy place, with hordes of Russian, French, Chinese, Eurasian and Japanese girls, dancing with sailors from the Japanese cruisers tied up at the entrance to Soochow Creek, American gobs from the destroyer squadron, French sailors, German sailors, British tars ...
It was all rather sad, in a beery, bluey sort of way. The orchestra played mechanically and the girls danced woodenly around and around and around. A White Russian girl in a red backless dress cried in a corner and was consoled with Scotch and soda. A husky contralto shouted a song that was popular in America ten years ago. The Japanese girls' kimonos made spots of crazy color under the dim lights. We had some more beer and Murphy danced with a Chinese girl in a yellow and black banner gown.
"I got to be getting back to th' ship," he said, returning to the table and finishing the beer. "They tell you, all over the world, that this is a hell of a place, the most goshawful, sidewinding sink of sin in the world. You hear about them lovely Russian girls-an' where are they? You hear about them extra-wild parties-and we ain't seen none, have we? We been all over this burg looking for excitement, all night, and, here we are, with a load of beer and a headache apiece."
"You be sure and get a one-man sampan out to the buoys,"' I said. "You get a two-man sampan this time o’ night and you'll land up in the creek, without your money."
"I know. I know," said Seaman Murphy. "You gotta watch yourself every minute in this burg. You go crazy trying to figure out the money, and run a couple coolies to death trying to find some excitement, and then you get all mixed up because the Chinese do everything backward and finally…”
“Finally,” I said, as we came out into the night and headed for the river front, “finally you just go nuts!”