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Book Review: Shanghai Nightscapes

Two historians explore nightlife's role in shaping the city

Night or day, Shanghai knows how to play. Historians James Farrer and Andrew David Field have written a fascinating study of Shanghai nightlife from its first golden age almost a century ago, through the period when the lights all went out, up to the current cosmopolitan mingling. This is approachable academic work at its best, a carefully researched look at a fascinating aspect of modernity and how nightlife has -- from the start -- been a meeting of China and the West.


Shanghai Nightlife Through the Ages


Booming Concession-era Shanghai saw the rise of ballrooms and live jazz, marking the decline of the traditional courtesan establishment reserved for the Chinese upper class, and began the era of racial and social mixing. African-American musicians found themselves treated with much greater respect than in their own country, there was a growing sense of nightlife as a sphere of participation rather than consumption and a changing status of women, and crime bosses ran most of the clubs.


The dance hostess took on some of the role of the celebrated courtesan. The most famous became fixtures in gossip magazines and were cast in films, becoming “leading icons of urban modernity... the new ‘public women’ of the city, who pioneered consumer fashions and freer sexual lifestyles for women in urban China.” Yet far more danced and attended to men for a pittance, only to be jettisoned when they aged out.


Amazingly, the jazz age lingered on in Shanghai even under the Japanese, with the occupiers aware that as bands played and women danced, rationing held sway back in Tokyo. The brief post-war Nationalist government tried to shut down the cabarets, but the industry was powerful enough to resist. However, when the Communist Party came to power, it was more shrewd in portraying dancing as a social vice and raising the cost of operation; by 1954 the last dance hall was gone. Yet some people still played music and danced in the privacy of their homes, risking decades in prison.


Revival began in the Reform era, but behavior was still monitored. One dance instructor recalls zealous policing of the rule that men and women must keep 30cm apart (20 if dancing with one’s daughter). As things loosened, older people who couldn’t afford other forms of recreation would meet to dance, sipping tea and sometimes pairing off, while younger people were drawn to music from the West, Hong Kong and Taiwan.


The return of foreigners to the city had a huge effect, with young students starting up club nights and modeling a more carefree, unrestrained clubbing approach. Over time they set up their own places. navigating the new obstacles -- red tape rather than criminal gangs. Locals have now taken over, bringing their own approach to a night out, with the era of laowai exceptionalism already in the rearview mirror; Shanghai’s big club scene is world-famous again. And of course jazz is back, with Cotton Club and then JZ leading the way in creating as inventive and fecund an environment as anywhere in the world.



Should You Read It?


From the ‘20s to today, Shanghai nightlife has been a signifier of modernity -- “a way of eagerly connecting to transnational flows of ideas, images, and people.” This is a fascinating and thrilling book for anyone interested in learning about what made Shanghai into the city we know today. 

Written by Peter Desmond 


Shanghai Nightscapes: A Nocturnal Biography of a Global City by James Farrer and Andrew David Field is available on Amazon for US$20.56




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