The Del Monte is a nightclub from the 1930s that I’ve known about for many years, but never found the original building, until now. Last week, Katya Kneyazeva wrote me to announce that she had found the building that once housed the Del Monte on the grounds of the Shanghai Theater Academy. I immediately cycled over there and was able to verify that this was indeed the building that contained the infamous late night club where people went to dance the night away, ending with a breakfast of ham and eggs.
Many accounts of the nightlife of Shanghai in the 1930s mention the Del Monte. Located on Avenue Haig (now Huashan Road) at the western edge of the French Concession, this club featured Russian and Eurasian dance partners. It was founded by an American named Al Israel and his partner Thurmon “Demon” Hyde who managed the club. According to some accounts, this was one of the first clubs in the settlements to take advantage of the Russian exodus from the homeland following the revolution of 1917, and employ Russian men and women as dancers, bartenders, and musicians.
Here are some of those accounts, which I found when I first started to research the history of the city and its famed nightlife back at Columbia in the 1990s (I used the Columbia Library and the New York Public Library at the time):
A salesman by the name of Al Israel from San Francisco arrived in Shanghai in 1919 with a shipload of French champagne. For some reason Al couldn’t unload this wine, so he opened the Del Monte Cafe outside the city, on the road that enters the British settlement. The cafe was on the Chinese side. He met the trains coming from Harbin where the White Russians came from, and picked young, beautiful girls who needed work and hired them as hostesses. With beautiful girls and a shipload of champagne, how could he miss?
Al took the girls to the best dress shops and shoe shops and gave them a little advance money. They were stunning. Business got so good that Al Israel went up to Harbin himself and brought back a complete Moscow ballet. The girls would do their show and then act as hostesses.
It wasn’t long before Al had to send for another shipload of champagne, and now girls were arriving at frequent intervals. For the last drink of the evening, usually past daylight, the Del Monte Cafe was a “must” in Shanghai.
In order to give himself more time to find more girls, Mr. Israel brought his borther-in-law, Demon Hyde, out from the States to act as manager and bouncer (he weighed over 200 pounds and had worked as a “fried spud” or singing waiter in clubs on the Barbary Coast.)
But Al Israel had created a monster. He brought so many beautiful Russian girls in, that he couldn’t take care of them all and the other nightclubs began to give them work. These lovelies broke many a marriage. Many of the typans (business executives) married Al Israel’s Del Monte girls, but the tie didn’t usually last long. As for Al, the guy who started this racket in Shanghai, he finally killed himself.
— Whitey Smith, I Didn't Make a Million (1958) pp. 63-64
As they passed us they smiled at the tall police officer. But he did not invite any of them, and, out of tact, I did not dance either. I remarked that several of the gentlemen dancing were Chinese.
"They're admitted. But only in European dress."
"You mean to say they're not admitted in those ancestral silk cassoks of theirs?"
"No, not here. In that case they go to places a little less strict, especially on the fringes of the Concessions. The 'Del Monte' in Douglas Haig Avenue, for example."
"Could I have a look in there?"
"Yes, why not?"
We transferred ourselves to the "Del Monte." The girls there were no less White, no less ravishing. To the strains of the universal jazz they revolved in the arms of Yellows in long robes or in national uniform.
"These Chinese seem to dance a lot," I remarked.
"Oh, yes, the Asiatic clientele is the main on in the night-haunts....At the 'Majestic' at the 'Blue Bird,' and in many other places, you'll also see Chinese taxi-girls. They and the Siberian girls compete with one another...."
—Henry Champly, The Road to Shanghai (1934) pp. 185-186
(later, at 2:00 am they travel by car to the French concession, where they attend Del Monte's, an American run establishment that serves ham and eggs for breakfast.)We turned into a dark driveway, thickly wooded at either side, and came to a dimly lit doorway, which was opened for us.We stepped into a small dingy hallway, and I made up my mind not to check my coat.In the next room there was a long bar crowded with people, and the room beyond was gaudily decorated in gold and white.An orchestra was playing on a small stage and people were dancing in the centre of the room.On one side there were small tables for two where the pay dance girls sat, all of them Russians or Eurasians, the majority again blonde, and dressed in European style clothes.Behind them was a long bench against the wall where several men were sitting.When the music started to play, these men picked out a girl and several other men at the tables around the other sides of the room, did likewise.But the moment the music stopped playing, they left the girls in the middle of the floor to find their own way back to the tables, which seemed very strange to me.It was explained that they have to pay for each piece of music played, if accompanied by one of the girls, whether they dance or not!...Several well-dressed Chinese women were dancing with paid dance girl partners, learning to do modern dancing that way.
—Ruth Day, Shanghai 1935 (1936) pp.49-50
It is a Shanghai custom to dine about nine, and then, if you are going to “do the town,” proceed to the Little Club or the Paramount around midnight, and eat scrambled eggs at Del Monte’s just before dawn.” —Amanda Boyden, “Changing Shanghai”, National Geographic Magazine (1937) p. 491